What\’s Wrong with the Hydrogen Economy?

January 27, 2004 at 1:00 pm
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President Bush’s administration has made much of its long-term plan to convert us to a hydrogen economy. They assert that this will be our salvation from global warming and foreign oil and gas dependency. Unfortunately, none of those things are true, and a hydrogen economy will do nothing for us when oil and gas become too expensive to serve our current purposes.

As Michael Ruppert and others have long pointed out, the hydrogen economy is a myth. A lie, a pipe dream, a pacifier. It will never work. In fact, as the second of the below articles puts it, “The hydrogen economy as postulated by North American governments, the mainstream media and the existing energy industry is at best hyperbole and wishful thinking, and more likely, a cynical hoax being perpetrated on the residents of planet Earth.”

At best, hydrogen is only a storage mechansim (akin to a battery). It is not a fuel. You always have to put energy in to get hydrogen out.

The simple, physical facts, are that it will be impractical, for many different reasons, and that the net energy input would be greater than the net energy output. Not to mention that it will be even more environmentally damaging.

Here’s a nugget excerpted from Ruppert’s article below:

“Much thought has been given to harnessing sunlight through photovoltaic cells and using the resulting energy to split water in order to derive hydrogen. The energy required to produce 1 billion kWh (kilowatt hours) of hydrogen is 1.3 billion kWh of electricity.38 Even with recent advances in photovoltaic technology, the solar cell arrays would be enormous, and would have to be placed in areas with adequate sunlight.


The basic problem of hydrogen fuel cells is that the second law of thermodynamics dictates that we will always have to expend more energy deriving the hydrogen than we will receive from the usage of that hydrogen. The common misconception is that hydrogen fuel cells are an alternative energy source when they are not.”

And yet, as I pointed out in a previous comment, it’s clear to see why the energy industry likes the hydrogen solution. It’s still a consumptive economy that revolves around vast flows of fuelstock where they can retain control of the energy supply stream, use much of their existing infrastructure, and require a big, globally deployed military with a budget that pays them. If we were a country of highly distributed, locally generated power, most of that would be unnecessary.

Consider this excerpt from the House hearings on the President’s National Energy Policy: Hydrogen and Nuclear Energy R&D Legislation:

“The energy for extracting hydrogen could come from existing, traditional fuels, or it could be derived from renewable energy sources, such as solar, nuclear, and fossil, to achieve the cleanest possible energy cycle. Hydrogen can be converted into useful energy forms efficiently and without detrimental environmental effects.”

I don’t think I would describe nuclear and fossil fuel as “renewable energy sources,” but onward.
Clearly, the administration’s policy will depend heavily on existing energy supplies. And while converting hydrogen is a fairly clean process, getting hydrogen in the first place, under this strategy, will be about as dirty as it ever was.

This is not to say that all fuel cell solutions are bad, because in the right applications, they can certainly be part of a future with cleaner air and less of a global warming problem. Fuel cells do have a number of real advantages to current technology. Given ideal circumstances–and abundant supplies of natural gas and widely deployed renewable energy generation–rosy visions of a hydrogen based future, like that of the Rocky Mountain Institute (an organization whose work I generally respect), are attractive. But if those supplies aren’t abundant, it’s just not a solution. And it would seem that, in fact, supplies are going to be progressively pinched.

Here are some articles that discuss the myth of the hydrogen economy, and explore the realities of our energy infrastructure, along with possible solutions.

If I achieve nothing more with this blog than helping US energy policy get real, I will be happy.

Read on.

–CWhy Hydrogen is No Solution – Scientific Answers to Marketing Hype, Deception and Wishful Thinking – by Michael C. Ruppert

The Hydrogen Economy – An Idea Whose Time Hasn’t Come … Again – from Econogics

The PARTY’S OVER – Oil, War and the fate of Industrial Societies
By Richard Heinberg

Is Hydrogen Sustainable?

By Oliver Sylvester-Bradley

A critical review of the sustainability of a hydrogen economy


  1. First off, I’ll preface this comment by saying that I once failed college Physics and that I haven’t taken Chemistry since my junior year in High School; however, I see a basic flaw in the logic that is being proposed in this piece. Simply put, any conversation about power generation is basically about the process of taking some initial element of energy (heat, steam, etc) and then transferring it out across a larger area or distribution / consumption chain. As I understand the use of the second law in this case, the argument goes that it is impossible to have an initial energy that is smaller then the resulting output. My question is this, if this is the case for hydrogen, and if this is indeed a universally applicable law of chemistry, then why does it not apply to other forms of energy? Why is it that we can take a smaller initial energy source and turn a turbine to create power, but we can’t do this? It seems to me the issue is that we haven’t found a viable solution yet, not that the laws of physics and chemistry inhibit us from doing so.

    Comment by Anonymous — January 29, 2004 @ 8:22 pm

  2. The problem is, hydrogen is not a fuel. It’s only a storage mechanism. So comparing it to another use of fuel is not valid. But even so, no matter what fuel you’re using, you always get less energy out than you put in. I’m not sure what kind of turbine application you had in mind, but let’s take, for example, a natural gas fired turbine. The embedded energy in the natural gas is greater than the energy you harvest from the turbine, with efficiency losses along the way.

    Comment by Anonymous — January 29, 2004 @ 9:09 pm

  3. When thinking about H2, it’s worth pointing out that there are only a few true sources of energy:
    1) Solar: heat and light from the sun
    2) Geothermal: heat energy left over from the collapse of the planet from the primordial dustcloud
    3) Nuclear: fission and fusion

    Most “renewable” energy sources are solar, or direct derivatives of solar energy (wind, hydro, biomass). Most non-renewable fuel sources (except for fissible radioactives) are also derived from solar energy, just over a much longer timescale: the energy embodied in e.g. oil is ancient solar power.

    Most of what we think of as energy resources is either a matter of harvesting current (or near-current) solar income: solar panels, windmills, tidal generators. Or its a matter of releasing sequestered solar energy, in the form of fossil fuels.

    Hydrogen is neither of these. Ecological process do release hydrogen, but doesn’t stick around very long in the atmosphere so it can’t really be harvested. Nor can it be mined, like a fossil fuel. So really, it’s just a semi-convenient way to store energy, but in that respect it is far better than most available battery technology.

    Caveat: there are some biological process that produce hydrogen from solar power, specifically in algae. It’s possible that we might be able to use algae tanks as solar-powered hydrogen generators, but the efficiency of the natural process is very low. So to be practical, it would probably require genetically engineering the algae, and that opens an entirely different can of worms.

    Generally, the closer (in space and time) an energy source is to the original source (i.e. the sun) the greener it is.

    Comment by Anonymous — January 30, 2004 @ 1:13 am

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