Ron Barmby is a Professional Engineer with both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. His 40+ year career has taken him to over 40 countries on five continents in the energy sector, investigating geosciences and working with local cultures. He has authored many technical papers and made presentations around the globe, and recently published ‘Sunlight on Climate Change: A Heretic’s Guide to Global Climate Hysteria’.

While Ron acknowledges that our current exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources and generation of pollution must change, he believes that many of the related government policies are flawed. In this book he explains why. The views expressed in these articles are solely those of the author. As we do not have the technical background to cover these important issues at SER,  we appreciate Ron spending the time and effort to educate us on the important implications. For those wanting to dive deeper into the depth of work he did, you can purchase his book online at either Amazon or Chapters/Indigo.

SCHACHTER ENERGY REPORT: June 24, 2021 - 4. Guest Columnist

GUEST COLUMNIST

The Climate Change Heretic: Elon Musk Called Hydrogen Fuel Cells “Mind-Boggling Stupid”– I Bet He Hasn’t Read the Hydrogen Strategy for Canada.

Elon Musk has repeatedly—he claims about 8,000 times–dismissed the potential of hydrogen as a fuel, but his most famous quote is directed specifically at hydrogen fuel cells where he describes them as “mind-boggling stupid.” My apologies to the marvelously accomplished Mr. Musk, but he ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The Federal Government has recently released a strategy with a year 2050 objective for Canada to meet 30% of our end-use energy needs with hydrogen. This Hydrogen Strategy for Canada (the Strategy) is part of our government’s objective of transforming the Canadian economy to a net zero emitter of carbon dioxide by the year 2050. The attractiveness of hydrogen as a fuel in this context is that it emits no carbon dioxide when burned directly or used to generate electricity in a fuel cell. The Strategy has three key components for reducing carbon dioxide emissions: using hydrogen fuel cells for transportation; burning hydrogen gas for heating; and using hydrogen from non-emitting sources in existing industrial applications.

The pro-hydrogen fuel camp likes to lead in with the fact that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. The problem is that hydrogen exists in this abundance as atoms tied up in other molecules (as in hydrocarbons or water). It is the hydrogen molecule (two hydrogen atoms bonded together) that is used as fuel and exists on Earth in only very small amounts. That means we have to manufacture it. About 95% of hydrogen manufactured in the world is made by mixing natural gas (or any other source of methane) with high-temperature high-pressure steam in a process called Steam Methane Reforming. This reaction gives off carbon dioxide, and the heating of water with natural gas to make steam also gives off carbon dioxide. The total carbon dioxide generated and emitted to the atmosphere in this hydrogen manufacturing process is about the same as from the combustion of an amount of gasoline containing an equivalent amount of energy. The hydrogen produced by the Steam Methane Reforming method is called grey hydrogen because the co-produced carbon dioxide is vented to the atmosphere. When the carbon dioxide is captured and stored (no venting to the atmosphere) the product is called blue hydrogen.

There is also green hydrogen, which is made by another manufacturing process altogether called hydrolysis. Electricity is used to split a water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen, but if the electricity is sourced from a fossil-fueled power generation plant, the goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions is largely lost. For green hydrogen to be a viable means of eliminating carbon dioxide emissions, it must use electricity from a non-carbon dioxide emitting source such as nuclear power.

Both grey and blue hydrogen prices are dependent on the price of natural gas, while green hydrogen is dependent on the price of electricity. An excellent depiction of pricing was posted by David Layzell and Jessica Lof on the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research website. They estimated that at today’s price of natural gas in Alberta, about $3/Gigajoule (GJ), the production cost of an energy equivalent amount of grey hydrogen would be about $6 and blue hydrogen would be about $10. These costs do not include transportation to the retail site, which is expensive. Electricity currently sells in Alberta for about $0.80/Megawatt-hour, equivalent to $20/GJ, and it is estimated that the 1GJ energy equivalent in green hydrogen would cost about $33 to produce, again with transportation extra. As a rule-of-thumb, the production-only costs of hydrogen compared to an energy equivalent of natural gas is grey hydrogen (resulting in about the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions) is twice as expensive, blue hydrogen (carbon dioxide emissions are captured and stored) is about three times as expensive, and green hydrogen (no carbon dioxide is produced) is about 10 times as expensive.

Let’s start our examination of the Strategy with the hydrogen fuel cell for automobile transportation, which represents about one third of the carbon dioxide reductions expected. The hydrogen fuel cell accomplishes the reverse of green hydrogen hydrolysis; it combines hydrogen and oxygen (from the air) to produce electricity and water. The electricity is used to constantly charge a small battery which drives the vehicle’s electric motors. The fuel cell electric vehicle is only truly free of carbon dioxide emissions when either blue or green hydrogen is used, as the production of grey hydrogen emits about the same carbon dioxide as the fuel cell avoids. The Strategy wants to have five million fuel cell electric vehicles on the road using blue or green hydrogen by 2050. The Strategy also claims fuel cell vehicles are twice as energy efficient as gasoline vehicles, which is also supported by the California Hydrogen Business Council. California has the world’s first (possibly only) retail network of 44 automotive hydrogen fueling stations. In 2019, the retail hydrogen fuel cost was four times that of gasoline on an energy equivalent basis. Since hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are twice as efficient, they were only twice as expensive to operate as gasoline vehicles on a mileage driven basis.

SCHACHTER ENERGY REPORT: June 24, 2021 - 4. Guest Columnist

Ron Barmby

SCHACHTER ENERGY REPORT: June 24, 2021 - 4. Guest Columnist

Time Magazine of Hydrogen Bomb over the Pacific – April 12, 1954. 

Video Presentations

If you would like a better understanding of the classical science of both natural and human-caused climate change, and how history proves the current climate change event is not catastrophic, please have a look at the two videos below. They each take about 14 minutes. A physical sciences degree is not a prerequisite; just curiosity!

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Is Climate Change Caused by Humans… or Not?

Is Climate Change Catastrophic… or Not?

Up to this point, I don’t think Elon Musk really cares much. The Tesla, his battery electric vehicle, differs primarily in that the electricity is not generated on the vehicle but it is stored in a very large battery. Neither the fuel cell electric vehicle nor the battery electric vehicle emits any pollutant exhaust, which results in cleaner air above our cities. The battery electric vehicle only contributes to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions when the electricity used is from a non-carbon dioxide emitting power generation source.

It is after this point Mr. Musk is willing to say “8,000 times” that hydrogen fuel cells are mind-boggling stupid. According to the US Department of Energy, when gasoline is burned in an internal combustion engine vehicle only 16% to 25% of the energy in the gasoline is used to rotate the vehicle wheels. Most of the energy loss is within in the internal combustion engine itself. In a hybrid gasoline-battery vehicle, that number range jumps to 24% to 38% of the energy being used at the wheels, primarily because of the vehicle’s electricity generating braking technology. In a Tesla an amazing 86% to 90% of the energy stored in the battery goes to rotating the wheels, again taking into account the regenerative braking.

In a hydrogen fuel cell only about one half of the energy contained in the hydrogen is converted into electricity to be used at the wheels. That makes the battery electric vehicle (Tesla) almost twice as energy efficient as a fuel cell electric vehicle. And it gets better for Elon. Electricity transmission losses from the power plant via wire to the charging station are about 5%. Hydrogen is most efficiently transported by pipeline and is delivered into the vehicle’s storage tank at approximately 10,000 pounds per square inch. The pipeline and compression energy consumption required to do this is equivalent to about a 25% energy loss. This makes the Tesla about three times more energy efficient. When green hydrogen is used in a fuel cell the electricity consumed in the hydrolysis reaction to make the green hydrogen contributes to another 30% energy loss and the amount of electricity used to turn the wheels drops to about 25% of the total input electricity. That makes the Tesla four times as energy efficient as a fuel cell vehicle using green hydrogen, and the green hydrogen fuel cell vehicle about the same overall energy efficiency as a gasoline engine driven the same distance.

That is the part that boggles Mr. Musk’s mind. Who would convert to a new system that wastes between two thirds and three quarters of the input energy, similar to the existing system? If you turn that equation around it means that to drive the same distance the fuel cell electric vehicle requires between three and four times the input energy of a battery electric vehicle. Then multiply that energy wastage by five million Canadian vehicles and the target of the Strategy is met. It only makes sense if the real strategy was to find a new market for existing or planned hydroelectric excess capacity to make green hydrogen. One should also factor in that while hydroelectricity may not emit carbon dioxide, the hydroelectric reservoirs emit a much more potent greenhouse gas in unmeasured but significant quantities: biogenic methane (which I examined in last month’s article).

But are hydrogen fuel cells stupid, Mr. Musk? No, because the fuel cell has three major advantages that may come into play for heavier vehicles used for hauling. Fuel cell vehicles can be refuelled with hydrogen much faster than recharging a battery. They can travel a further distance on a single tank of hydrogen than a battery vehicle can on a single charge. And most importantly, they can be scaled up in size with less overall vehicle weight gain than a battery can. These three factors make the hydrogen fuel cell much more favorable in heavy long-haul transport applications. In a Canadian context the fuel cell may prove to be more operable in severe cold weather.

To get to the stupid level assigned by Musk we have turn our attention to the use of hydrogen as a replacement or supplement to natural gas, which is the second part of the Strategy. It envisions that slightly under one third of the total carbon dioxide emission reductions from using hydrogen as a fuel will come from blending hydrogen into natural gas and displacing 50% of the natural gas we now use for heating in industry and buildings. The Strategy does recognize that required modest adjustments to existing natural gas pipelines and end-use burners restrict the blend to 20% hydrogen by volume. The Strategy fails to mention that above 20% hydrogen by volume creates significant leakage concerns in plastic pipes in confined spaces (as in your basement) and a wider range of ignition conditions (more likely to explode if it leaks into your basement). The Strategy also fails to mention that under the right conditions, hydrogen combustion can produce nitrogen oxides which are hazardous to human health and react with sunlight to cause smog.

What also has not been recognized is that at the same temperature and pressure, the energy equivalent of hydrogen gas takes up three times the space of natural gas. In order to replace 50% by volume of the natural gas in a pipeline with the energy equivalent in hydrogen, the volume of hydrogen added would be three times the volume of the natural gas removed. The result is an original one cubic foot of natural gas has been replaced with its energy equivalent of a blend that takes up two cubic feet. Not only are the existing pipelines too small to carry twice the volume, but if you exceed a 20% hydrogen content in that volume things might start blowing up, literally.

Blending 50/50 is a serious safety risk. The only way to displace 50% of the natural gas used in Canada today for industrial and building heat with hydrogen is to build a second transcontinental pipeline system dedicated to hydrogen and convert the end-use burners to hydrogen specific appliances. The hydrogen blending strategy amounts to this:

  • Convert cheap natural gas to expensive blue hydrogen with carbon capture and storage; this conversion triples the cost of the energy. (I elected to rule out very expensive green hydrogen as direct electric heating would then make more sense.)
  • Then duplicate the existing transcontinental natural gas pipeline system with one for hydrogen-only. (This would be no small matter in a country where the Federal Government’s signature legislation, Bill C-69, is dubbed the No More Pipelines Bill. Could we even find enough pipeline protestors?)
  • Switch 50% of the end users to pure hydrogen (and be prepared to discuss increased health and safety risks without mentioning the name Hindenburg).

Even the Federal Government must realize this is quite impossible. It may be a proposal ostensibly to promote hydrogen, but it could result in a conversion from cheap, abundant, carbon dioxide-emitting natural gas directly to expensive, overbuilt, methane-emitting hydroelectricity.

That leaves us with the final component of the Strategy, which would contribute slightly more than one third of all carbon dioxide emission reductions by 2050. Large industries such as oil refining, fertilizer production and steel making already use significant quantities of pure hydrogen in their industrial processes. Currently most of this is grey hydrogen supplied by the steam methane reforming process without carbon capture and storage. The Strategy states that grey hydrogen should be upgraded to blue hydrogen. This is a case of the Federal Government double-dipping on carbon capture and storage initiatives already under review in most provinces and under provincial jurisdiction.

The Hydrogen Strategy for Canada is flawed because it selects the least efficient transportation option, proposes an unviable heating option, and claims credit for an industrial option that has already been initiated. Bad economics are not a barrier, or even a speed bump, and safety considerations are unmentioned. I think Elon Musk’s “mind-boggling stupid” comment sums it up well.

SCHACHTER ENERGY REPORT: June 24, 2021 - 4. Guest Columnist

Thank you for your support and feedback via the 30-second survey, in particular the comments on the video presentations that were created for online presentation to a well-known Calgary organization. If you belong to a group which would be interested in an online presentation with a Q & A session; or you would like to purchase an autographed copy of Sunlight on Climate Change: A Heretic’s Guide to Global Climate Hysteria, please contact me at ronbarmby.author@gmail.com.

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