Minister of Ecological Transition Barbara Pompili warned us: France could experience power cuts this winter. It’s a cold snap! If it is because of the health crisis that maintenance work on French nuclear power plants could be delayed, on the other hand, it is purely ideological that the two reactors in Fessenheim have been shut down and that we will emit more carbon with the reopening of our coal-fired power plants. Bravo ! In 2011, German environmentalists were already warning that the closure of nuclear power plants would lead to the reopening of coal-fired power plants.
At the same time, the vagaries of the weather make wind and solar electricity inefficient because its intermittency is not compensated by storage in the form of hydrogen. Moreover, what solution would this gas provide?
10% of the world natural gas market
The volume of the global hydrogen market represents approximately 550 billion cubic meters (m3) per year, or less than 10% of the global natural gas market. It is used in oil desulfurization, fertilizers, chemical and food industries. Tomorrow, it will be consumed in two new sectors: globally, in the decarbonisation of steel, in cement and in the energy of other heavy industries; more locally, in electrical storage to eliminate polluting emissions from heating and in heavy, long-distance or highly carbonated transport: trucks, ships or trains not yet electrified. We have some examples today: Chinese hydrogen buses, hydrogen trucks transporting ore from the Mogalakwena PGM’s mine in South Africa, German trains…
However, it makes little sense for private cars to make rapid use of this energy. Out of 1 kWh of renewable electricity stored in the form of gas, only 0.25 kWh to 0.35 kWh is actually returned to propel the hydrogen-powered vehicle, the rest disappears in electrolysis, compression of the gas and its storage, distribution and destruction in the fuel cell. Electricity loss is on average 70%, while the electric vehicle with battery only generates a loss of about 10%. This is undoubtedly why Elon Musk prefers it and why renewable electricity, which is still rare, must be consumed as it is without going through the hydrogen box.
By passing, it should be noted that a fuel cell in a 110KW car contains between 3.5 and 6 times more PGM’s than the catalytic converter in a diesel or petrol vehicle. The proportion is even higher for buses and trucks. Alkaline electrolyzers, with ion exchange membranes or later with solid oxides, each have their advantages (size, efficiency…) but they use nickel, iridium, platinum, or lanthanide. Consequently, as at every stage of the energy transition, hydrogen mobility will remain dependent, on the one hand, on renewable electricity and, on the other hand, on metal mines located in Russia, South Africa, Canada or China.
Hydrogen production technologies are known
It should also be remembered that there is nothing new in hydrogen production technologies. Vaporeforming, electrolyzers, compressors, distribution, fuel cells are known. The only thing missing are the bridges between them that would make it possible to lower the economic and environmental costs of manufacturing and consumption.
Thus, producing blue hydrogen – methane vaporeforming with carbon capture – is certainly inexpensive and industrially logical, but its environmental vision is short-sighted. Conversely, the electrolysis of water with truly decarbonized and free electricity makes sense, because its hydrogen is 100% green. Why free? Because we have the example of fatal renewable electricity produced when no one wants it: that of German solar farms, which is produced in excess at noon in the summer and then dumped on the European electricity market at negative prices because there are not enough consumers. This free electricity produces green hydrogen that is still two to three times too expensive.
All this being said, let’s imagine that we have achieved the goal of a zero-carbon society by 2050. All obstacles have been overcome. People have agreed to host, in the countryside as well as in the cities, wind farms and solar farms that provide local electricity. They have also accepted them on the seaside to supply almost free of charge the electrolysers that produce green hydrogen. Oil, gas, coal and nuclear have disappeared, world electricity consumption has doubled, electricity production from wind has increased 35-fold and nearly 50-fold for solar thanks to renewable electricity capacities (wind, solar) which have increased from about 1.5 TW today to 45 TW. Instead of a decarbonized energy mix, the global electricity production of 2050 is monochrome, 100% climate friendly.
40,000 billion euros investment
To reach this goal, the global investment has obviously been colossal: around 40,000 billion euros. This figure should be put into perspective with the global GDP of 2019, which amounted to approximately 70,000 billion euros. In addition, this investment has been spread over 30 years: solar farms, wind turbines, international distribution via ultra-high voltage interconnections and the new hydrogen sector with its dedicated renewable capacities, electrolyzers, compressors, transport, tanks and storage, fuel cells…
Such a scenario poses many difficult problems. Barbara Pompili is therefore quite right to get us used to electricity rationing by 2020. Indeed, in 2050, the certainties of a change in climate have been verified: the weather has already changed, but it is more hostile to electricity production. Despite the omnipresence of wind turbines and solar panels, climate electricity is insufficient to simultaneously meet electricity needs and produce green hydrogen, because the sun and winds are more complex to exploit by renewable due to many adverse weather phenomena.
The mistake of 2020 was to persevere in a shaky energy transition, to give away the shop to make a sixpence: abandoning controlled electricity to depend on uncontrolled meteorology. As a result, the Energy Ministry of 2050 will have to control the level of green hydrogen stocks and, during windless winters and sunless summers, ration the gas and cut off electricity during consumption peaks.
In such a scenario, energy independence will become a commemoration.