The penny is finally starting to drop. Current batteries cannot possibly store more than a fraction of the energy needed to keep the lights on when the wind stops blowing and the sun doesn’t shine. The learned U.K. Royal Society has recently analysed 37 years of wind patterns across Britain and concluded there is a serious underestimate of the amount of storage required. Around 50 academics and specialists led by Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith of Oxford University state clearly that batteries are not the answer to the vast storage required. But like many learned people, wedded to the idea that it is possible to remove the fossil fuel source supplying 80% of the world needs in less than 30 years, they fall down at the practical level. Having lost batteries, the study goes for hydrogen, an idea only slightly less dumb than digging up the planet to produce vast quantities of limited-life batteries.
The Royal Society report envisages dissolving huge salt caverns capable of storing ‘green’ hydrogen. To keep the electricity grid functioning when renewables go off line, around two to three million tons of hydrogen would need to be stored for decades at a time. Wind not only stops for days during periods of intense cold in winter, but the Royal Society found recent periods when speeds were low for a number of years. Salt caverns are only available in a limited number of places in Britain, so a huge network of specialist pipelines would be needed to move the gas to turbines on constant standby. Over a period of time, hydrogen would leak from porous salt caverns.
The report, lacking a practical answer to wind and solar intermittency, seems to have been ignored by mainstream media. The news that batteries cannot play any significant part in the collectivist Net Zero project is unwelcome to those who have been betting the ranch on this solution for many years. Francis Menton of the Manhattan Contrarian sees the report as an “enormous improvement” on every other effort on the subject of large scale energy storage systems. But in the end, the authors’ “quasi-religious commitment” to a fossil-free future leads them to minimise and divert attention away from critical cost and feasibility issues. “As a result, the report, despite containing much valuable information, is actually useless for any public policy purpose,” he concludes.
What are the problems with hydrogen? Where to start. It is a highly explosive and flammable gas that needs careful handing. Its molecules are small and it has a low density. This means it escapes easily, while three times the volume of hydrogen is required to produce the same energy as natural gas. Kathryn Porter is an energy consultant and an associate member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group. She recently wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph about the gas and its possible role in Net Zero.
Hydrogen is also hard to move around. To get the gas to move through pipes, it has to be compressed and pushed along using compressors. This process requires energy: the losses in moving hydrogen through pipes are ten times greater for hydrogen than for methane; up to 30%. In other words you need to use up almost a third of your gas just moving it from A to B. …
The infrastructure for hydrogen does not exist, neither for the most part do the production facilities and they will cost billions to build. Then the underlying cost of storing hydrogen is probably at least four times that of storing methane. Huge amounts of energy are lost in each stage of the process due to the fundamental properties of hydrogen.
As a solution to storing renewable power, Porter is of the view that “hydrogen is one of the worst substances you could choose for this purpose”. But, she adds, because you can burn it in air without creating carbon dioxide, “it has been hailed as the answer to Net Zero dreams”. Both carbon capture and hydrogen are “square pegs” which people are desperately trying to force into round holes. It might be noted, in the light of this last comment from Porter, that the Royal Society traces its roots back to 1660, and published Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Its politicised track record on Net Zero has yet to live up to the highlights of its glorious past.
Lead author Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith notes that the need for long-term energy storage in a renewable electricity system has been seriously underestimated, and work on constructing storage caverns needs to be started immediately if the Government is to have any chance of meeting its Net Zero targets. Construction of a large green hydrogen production and storage facility would appear to be a “no-regrets” option, he claims.
Someone regretting the option might be the consumer. Francis Menton observes that the Royal Society’s hydrogen plans suggest a cost “to the grid” of around £120 per MWh, a figure described as high but not stratospheric. But this is the wholesale cost, not the one charged to the consumer. In addition, Menton wants to know how much a nationwide set of new pipes will cost, plus the entire new fleet of standby turbines capable of burning 100% hydrogen and providing all the power to the grid when renewables stop working. In addition, Menton notes a “low” rate of interest for capital costs of 5%.
“The whole thing just cries out for a demonstration project to prove feasibility and cost. I’m betting that will never occur before the whole Net Zero thing falls apart from the disastrous skyrocketing electricity prices,” concludes Menton.
Menton sees some honesty in the Royal Society report. But as regular readers will probably agree, the top award for an honest Net Zero commentary goes to the U.K. Government-funded U.K. FIRES project. In looking at a 2050 Net Zero world, this group of academics ignore as speculative all non-scalable suggestions around carbon capture and hydrogen, along with all the green inventions yet to be made. They point to a future with barely a quarter of our current energy supply. There is nothing more honest than telling people that this will entail no flying or shipping, drastic cuts in home heating, limited transport, no meat, few modern building materials and houses made of “impacted” earth. Worryingly, though, there’s no indication the authors see this as a reason not to go full steam ahead.