International Forecaster Weekly

Will it be Hydrogen?

Two issues back, I wrote an article called the “Charging World” as we continue to see the push away from hydrocarbons and into an all electric world. I said that I personally would love to see it, because it makes so much sense. But I ALSO said that it is unrealistic to believe we’re going to pull this off.


Bob Rinear | March 17, 2021

Two issues back, I wrote an article called the “Charging World” as we continue to see the push away from hydrocarbons and into an all electric world. I said that I personally would love to see it, because it makes so much sense. But I ALSO said that it is unrealistic to believe we’re going to pull this off.

Way back in 2019, the Wall Street Journal wrote the following:

Democrats dream of powering society entirely with wind and solar farms combined with massive batteries. Realizing this dream would require the biggest expansion in mining the world has seen and would produce huge quantities of waste.

“Renewable energy” is a misnomer. Wind and solar machines and batteries are built from nonrenewable materials. And they wear out. Old equipment must be decommissioned, generating millions of tons of waste. The International Renewable Energy Agency calculates that solar goals for 2050 consistent with the Paris Accords will result in old-panel disposal constituting more than double the tonnage of all today’s global plastic waste. Consider some other sobering numbers:

A single electric-car battery weighs about 1,000 pounds. Fabricating one requires digging up, moving and processing more than 500,000 pounds of raw materials somewhere on the planet. The alternative? Use gasoline and extract one-tenth as much total tonnage to deliver the same number of vehicle-miles over the battery’s seven-year life.

When electricity comes from wind or solar machines, every unit of energy produced, or mile traveled, requires far more materials and land than fossil fuels. That physical reality is literally visible: A wind or solar farm stretching to the horizon can be replaced by a handful of gas-fired turbines, each no bigger than a tractor-trailer.

Building one wind turbine requires 900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concrete and 45 tons of nonrecyclable plastic. Solar power requires even more cement, steel and glass—not to mention other metals. Global silver and indium mining will jump 250% and 1,200% respectively over the next couple of decades to provide the materials necessary to build the number of solar panels, the International Energy Agency forecasts. World demand for rare-earth elements—which aren’t rare but are rarely mined in America—will rise 300% to 1,000% by 2050 to meet the Paris green goals. If electric vehicles replace conventional cars, demand for cobalt and lithium, will rise more than 20-fold. That doesn’t count batteries to back up wind and solar grids.

What’s more, mining and fabrication require the consumption of hydrocarbons. Building enough wind turbines to supply half the world’s electricity would require nearly two billion tons of coal to produce the concrete and steel, along with two billion barrels of oil to make the composite blades. More than 90% of the world’s solar panels are built in Asia on coal-heavy electric grids.

Engineers joke about discovering “unobtanium,” a magical energy-producing element that appears out of nowhere, requires no land, weighs nothing, and emits nothing. Absent the realization of that impossible dream, hydrocarbons remain a far better alternative than today’s green dreams.

The writer is correct. There’s no battery fairy that’s going to produce all these batteries without destroying the ecosystem. The turbine blades are filling up landfills. And as I’ve mentioned before, almost nothing “green” gets to be green without coal or natural gas, that drives the trucks, trains, mining equipment, etc.

For Decades we’ve been told that Hydrogen is the new wave, it’s “Just around the corner.”  Well it’s a damn big corner because the new wave has never appeared. But, is that about to change? Maybe.

There’s a LOT to like about hydrogen. It’s the most abundant element on our planet. When used as a motor fuel, it can go much further on a tank than electric’s can on a charge. It can refill in the same time it takes to fill up your Volkswagen. You can transport it via pipelines like Natgas, or in ships by liquifying it. When burned in a combustion engine, the only two things that come out of the tailpipe is water and/or oxygen.

So what’s not to like? The same EXACT problem as sunlight. It’s everywhere, right? Umpteen trillions of photons bombard us every day, but to capture it as electricity takes all those panels, metals, batteries, etc. Well with Hydrogen, it’s the same problem. The stuff is everywhere, BUT it’s locked up with something else. In water for instance it’s locked up with oxygen. It’s locked up with various carbons as in oil, and natural gas. Hence the name “hydrocarbons”

The problem is, how to separate the Hydrogen from its life partner. To do that takes energy, lots of it. So, we’ve got an almost perfect fuel, but no way to cheaply “split” it into its component parts. Most of the hydrogen that’s produced is via a method called steaming, where superheated steam is used to break the chemical bonds, to separate the hydrogen from say oil. Well, guess how much power it takes to superheat steam on an industrial level? Exactly, and what’s the fuel we’re using to make it? Coal. Natgas. Oil. The very things that make the no carbon emissions of Hydrogen attractive, we have to burn to get the stuff. Vicious cycle.

The other way they can work it, is by taking water, and hitting it with electricity. When they run a current through an electrolyte, the hydrogen and oxygen molecules will separate and they can capture both in holding tanks. But here’s the rub. 1) the water has to be as pure as drinking water. Well that’s an issue, because that stuff is in short supply around the globe. Water crisis is real. The Second problem is that with all the work they’ve done, it still takes about the same amount of energy to produce the hydrogen, as the hydrogen will supply when bottled.

Every day, scientists around the world are working on the problems hydrogen faces as the perfect fuel. Every day they try their best to come up with solutions to the splitting problems. Recently there’s been some interesting advancements, which “could” finally bring the idea of hydrogen closer to being a thing.

Scientists at Penn State have been working on solving the water issue, buy attempting to use sea water, which we could never run out of. They’re testing various membranes to get the salt out of the solution, so it doesn’t turn the whole thing into chlorine gas. They’ve had some success and will continue working on it.

Next, they know that to have “green hydrogen” it has to be produced with green power, either by solar, wind or tides/waves. So, if they can pull off the solution to the sea water issue, they could theoretically build massive hydrogen “ports” using sea water as the base, and wave/tide/solar and wind to generate the power to split the water, and then pipe and/or ship the stuff around the world.

Yes there’s still the issue of all the mining and natural resources to build the panels and the disposal problems and all that. But at “least” you’d be taking out the battery problem How?  In some areas, and interestingly many are on the coasts like in Africa, you have places that have sunshine 320 days of the year, and almost NO rain, it’s arid dry. With solar as power, they can produce more of it than they actually need, hence they shovel it into batteries.

But if the power produced by the sunlight/waves/turbines goes straight into splitting seawater, all that can be stored as hydrogen in a simple “scuba tank” so to speak. No moving parts, no rare earth minerals, nothing. Just compressed gas in a big steel tank.  That can be shipped anywhere, or piped anywhere. In other words, the Hydrogen is now the battery. No more lead plates, cobalt, etc. Just a pressure tank.

It might not be perfect, but it would be quite a step in the right direction. As we’ve stated before, Until God shows us how to get perfectly free energy, there’s simply no free lunch right now. There’s problems with every fuel type there is. Oil has fracking, drilling, oil spills, etc. nothing comes without an “issue” attached.

Which brings me to this…there’s now an ETF for hydrogen and fuel cells. It just came out last week, and trades under the symbol HDRO. Now I wouldn’t suggest anyone rush out and buy this thing right now, it’s new, it’s going to be volatile. But in the not too distant future, after it settles in, this might be a worthwhile investment.

Why? China. They have decided over the past two years that electrons aren’t enough to tackle their issues and they’re pushing Hydrogen. Shell oil just signed off on a deal to build a commercial hydrogen project  there and “The government has announced growth targets of 100,000 fuel-cell vehicles by 2025 and 1 million vehicles by 2030,”

China’s the big dog now. They have 1.4 billion people and when they set their sights on something, it’s large. China is aggressively driving hydrogen and fuel cell development, and is on track to outpace development in the EU and U.S. with a focus on hydrogen busses and trucks. In the first seven months of 2019 alone, installed capacity of hydrogen fuel cells had increased six-fold.

This is because China’s former Science and Technology Minister, Wan Gang, called for China to “look into establishing a hydrogen society. Well, he’s the guy that 20 years ago said china should look into establishing an electricity based society, and sure enough, China leads the world in EV adoption. When he speaks, Beijing listens.

Is this Hydrogen’s time to shine? I think it could be. Keep an eye on HDRO over the next few months and see what shakes.