Hydrogen is less efficient? Part 5: Monty Python's Policy Circus

At a system level, the efficiency of hydrogen systems has implications for energy policy. But other technologies also have compromises. How do we take account of them?


In her book Smoke and Mirrors,  Gemma Milne uses the lithium ion battery industry as a case study of how hype obscures the real issues, positive and negative, that should be considered as we adopt technologies. Gemma's battery chapter picks picks up on the often-repeated trope of tech PR; the discovery of the latest "Holy Grail" of technology. For batteries there are endless stories of the latest advances, either from start-ups or established players. And guess what, some of these advances are "over-sold". As Gemma goes on to discuss, not only do specific technologies rarely live up to the hype, this over-selling tends to obscure the compromises inherent to a technology - it's rare that a press release highlights the negatives after all.

For batteries the compromises are in the supply chain. The industry is fundamentally an extractive one. The miracle lithium needs to be dug up, as do the magic anode and cathode dopants - cobalt, manganese and others. There are environmental consequences of this with impact on local communities. There are geopolitical implications, such as the relative dominance of China. There are human rights implications too, as we have seen from stories from DRC, that may or may not relate to the geopolitics. There are energy and hazardous chemical issues in production and at end of life.

Many of these aspects can be mitigated - the EU appear to be regulating the battery supply chain more than any previous automotive technology - but only if we are honest about them. But honesty is in short supply in tech hype.

"Silly Energy Kerrrrniggits"

As a movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail not only stands up as an enduring comedy, but can be read as a parody of technology optimism as much as it was a parody of Holywood. "Silly Energy Kerrrrniggits" roaming the earth in their quest for the mythical wonder technology to solve climate change. There is no Holy Grail. Everything has its compromises. Even a fluffy white rabbit has "nasssty pointy teeth".

Monty Python Lol GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Despite the apparent miracle of the industrial revolution and abundant cheap fossil energy to build our societies and economic system we have discovered the compromise is a global climate crisis. Nuclear is power dense and low carbon and compared to other technologies, historically very safe. But the implications when things do go wrong, the societal fear of radiation, the waste management challenge and the cost of making reactors almost infinitely safe are compromises too far for many countries.

Looking at renewables, apart from some unpleasantness in the silicon cell manufacturing process, things look pretty good. One compromise is the low power density and the impact on land use, at least for NIMBYs, and this has partly driven the shift to offshore wind in the UK. The other, as I discussed in my last post, is intermittency exacerbating the challenges of managing electricity in the time domain. Even for clean and green there are trade-offs.

Honest hydrogen

For the avoidance of doubt hydrogen is not the Holy Grail either, and anyone telling you otherwise is hiding something. Hydrogen can be useful, but it has its compromises. It's hard to move around (at least until it is worth putting it into pipes) and has some challenging safety hazards. You have to make it from something else and these origins have implications for both carbon emissions and industrial politics (more on this another time).

The big one though is the efficiency compromise, and if we are looking through an energy policy lens this has implications for total energy demand in a net zero world. From the perspective of energy alone, the emphasis falls strongly towards the use of batteries for electrification of transport to minimise final energy demand. 

But hydrogen comes with a number of other policy benefits that change the emphasis. The challenge of moving it around means that there is a strong tendency for local production and "clusters" of production and use. For renewable hydrogen, this means local generation into hydrogen so communities and nations benefit from their own energy; islands and remote regions can be energy self sufficient and countries reduce energy imports and dependency on international supply chains. Jobs in the hydrogen industry are local too with a whole value chain from renewables into hydrogen production, transport, and the development and deployment of end use - manufacturing, service and support, project development and much more. And hydrogen for transport has strong synergies with other uses and clusters that helps support the decarbonisation of other challenging sectors - it's part of the roadmap, not just the end state. 

Despite the inefficiencies, there is a wider policy case that we should maximise the use of hydrogen in the energy and transport systems to realise these other benefits. 

Contrast this with the compromises for batteries. For the UK almost all the materials which represent 60% of the value are imported, even if we make the cells and batteries here. And this is far from the case now and uncertain for the future despite significant public and private investment. Manufacturing is highly automated, of necessity, and maintenance is not so much not necessary as not possible. There are jobs in the integration and support of large storage systems and in those projects, but that's a thin slice of value. So the use of batteries is efficient in an energy policy sense, but less good if our policy perspective is employment, balance of payments and GVA or if we are concerned about the supply chain issues such as dependence on China, environmental impact and human rights.

Despite the efficiency argument, there is a policy case that we should minimise the use of batteries in the energy and transport systems to mitigate the risks and externalities.

A hybrid analogy

At Arcola Energy we design our zero-emission powertrain systems to use the best of both batteries and hydrogen in hybrid systems. Our electrical energy store comes from the hydrogen and fuel cell combination which increases the overall energy density of the system by a factor of 3 (and improving) over the best batteries and keeps the battery in a "happy" state of charge. Meanwhile, our power delivery comes from a small battery which manages the peak power demands and captures regenerative energy making the whole system efficient and keeping the fuel cell in a "happy" operating zone.

In other words, we use the battery to maximise the efficiency of a hydrogen system and we use hydrogen to reduce the size of the battery.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this is a useful way to think about the macro too. Taking a broader, hybrid policy perspective that is honest about the compromises inherent in different technologies will result in a better overall outcome against the wider set of objectives. Using more hydrogen and fewer batteries is a probably a Good Thing at both a vehicle level and at a country level.

On the other hand emphasising just one single parameter, efficiency, has the risk of taking you down a chasm of unintended consequences. Being honest about the trade-offs and working across sectors to balance policy perspectives is essential. Recreating another famous scene from Monty Python:

Who would cross the Bridge to Net Zero must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.
WHAT….is your name?
WHAT…is your quest?
WHAT…are the compromises for your technology?

Be honest now…More Blogs


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