The hydrogen bombshell
Hello, fellow climate nerds. (We mean it in the nicest way.) It’s your trusty Protocol Climate team here to regale with you tales from the periodic table. Today’s newsletter is all about hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, and the minerals we need to clean up everything. You might say this newsletter is … elemental. (“Sorry. I'm sorry. I'm trying to remove it.”) Please forgive us and read on.
Welp, I am now terrified of hydrogen
The smallest molecule in the universe has displaced snakes as my top phobia. A new report from Energy Innovation, an energy and environmental policy research firm, goes deep on hydrogen and its use in cleaning up utilities. The reason the analysis struck fear into my heart? It shows that hydrogen is unlikely to help decarbonize buildings at any meaningful scale — but it could make our homes and infrastructure less safe.
Hydrogen is having a moment. Utilities and startups alike are racing to bring the molecule mainstream. It admittedly has its appeal.
- Hydrogen can be burned with zero greenhouse gas emissions and it can be blended with methane gas to reduce its emissions. Mixing it in with gas used to heat homes or cooking could, in theory, help clean up the building sector that 38% of all emissions globally are tied to.
- But producing hydrogen requires a lot of energy, often fossil-fueled energy. While there are some promising methods to make it using renewables, they’re still not quite ready for prime time because they’re more expensive than their fossil-fueled counterparts.
- You can even create hydrogen using nuclear power. It’s called — I kid you not — pink hydrogen. It’s also expensive, though.
- Nevertheless, utilities are hot for hydrogen; as of late last year, utilities across the U.S. had announced 26 hydrogen pilot projects.
- VCs are also plowing money into hydrogen. That includes big names like Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Lowercarbon Capital. There’s even a fund devoted solely to clean hydrogen.
But the hydrogen dream may be a nightmare. At least as it pertains to decarbonizing buildings. (There are industrial uses where it would be very handy!) The Energy Innovation report shows that there are a series of concerns about the element that make its moment rather less … momentous.
Perhaps the scariest concern? Safety. The report explains that most pipelines are not equipped to handle tiny-ass little hydrogen molecules, leading to leaks that could prove problematic from a *checks notes* catching on fire and exploding standpoint.
- Of the 3 million miles of pipelines in the U.S.(!!!), just 1,600 miles are dedicated hydrogen-ready ones. To safely transport hydrogen around would require a huge overhaul of the system.
- The report notes that hydrogen “carries a higher risk of flame flashback — i.e., when a flame travels from a burner back into the gas line — in appliances designed to run on natural gas, increasing explosion risk.” Which, uh, sounds bad?
Then there’s cost and scale. The report notes that regulators should “exercise skepticism” of any utility proposals that foist the cost of blending hydrogen with methane gas onto ratepayers.
- Aside from the whole potentially blowing up ratepayers’ houses thing, the economics don’t look great for hydrogen either.
- The report found that the cleanest hydrogen — that is, hydrogen made using renewables, known as green hydrogen — is currently the most expensive. And using it would double or even quadruple the price of methane gas.
- Not all utilities are planning to use green hydrogen, of course. But for those that do, it could leave ratepayers coughing up two to four times more on their energy bills, according to the report.
- We’ve experienced how nasty the unexpected increase in gas prices is right now. The prospect of going through that for projects that don’t even have the expected greenhouse gas reduction return on investment and could be explosive? No thanks.
So what’s the alternative? Surprise! It’s a lot cheaper to electrify homes, and doing so would help strengthen the grid.
- The report shows that getting a heat pump in every basement and an induction stove in every kitchen offers a much more economical pathway to decarbonization.
- An analysis from energy research group Carbon Switch released last year found installing heat pumps to heat and cool homes would save ratepayers, on average, $557 per year. Not too shabby.
- While induction stoves cost slightly more to operate than gas stoves, throwing hydrogen into the mix would almost certainly flip that equation. Induction stoves are also wildly more efficient than gas ranges. And they don’t leak methane or turn your kitchen into a toxic wasteland full of volatile organic compounds and other air pollutants. (Unless you have a cooking disaster, but that’s on you, not the stove.)
- Also, switching to these electric solutions mean homes would not likely blow up. We’re calling that a win-win-win.
The minerals that can save the planet
So you want an all-renewable future? Then you’re going to need a lot of batteries, and the minerals and metals that make them work. If you’re anything like me, you may not have thought much about them since fifth grade’s lesson on the periodic table. While there is a wide swath of elements that will play a role in the renewables transition, we’re going to zero in on three crucial to making batteries work, all of which will see demand skyrocket in the coming decades.
Lithium is the word on everyone’s lips. According to a 2021 report from the International Energy Agency, demand for lithium is projected to grow up to 51 times in the coming decades.
- Lithium-ion batteries are the golden goose of the energy transition because they can be charged time and time again and are generally much lighter than other batteries of the same size. Lithium is the key ingredient because it is highly reactive, which gives it a high energy density.
- The element is used widely in batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage, which account for 30% of total current lithium demand, outstripping that of consumer electronics globally.
- However, we may have a potential supply-demand mismatch on our hands. We have enough lithium in reserves to carry us at least through 2050, per BloombergNEF. In theory. But the challenge will be in scaling up production swiftly enough to meet demand; this could result in shortages and prices that keep bouncing all over the place. Supplies have already failed to keep up with demand in recent months, causing prices to soar.
Cobalt and lithium go hand in hand. The expensive metal boosts batteries’ energy density even further, and increases their stability and lifespan, handy things if you want to keep energy storage capacity on the up and up.
- Cobalt demand is expected to rise even more than lithium. The IEA forecasts the world could require 70 times more cobalt by 2040 than we do today to keep pace with the clean-energy transition.
- Not surprisingly, the Department of Energy is looking into cobalt alternatives for batteries because the element is considered to have “the highest material supply chain risk for electric vehicles in the short and medium term.”
- At present, most of the world’s cobalt is produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where its miners are often subject to unethical conditions.
Manganese could help ease the cobalt crunch. While its demand is expected to grow alongside the rest, manganese already has a robust supply chain thanks to being a key ingredient in steel.
- Remember those potential alternatives to cobalt I mentioned earlier? Manganese is one of the options that the smart people at Argonne National Laboratory are considering, given that it is much cheaper.
- Manganese acts as a stabilizer for lithium-ion batteries, which essentially determines how far you can drive an EV or how much energy you can store from the wind and sun.
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A tweet to make you think
Climate change is done playing. Temperatures in Antarctica spiked nearly 70 degrees Fahrenheit above normal last week. Among other things, the relative heat wave likely contributed to the collapse of an ice shelf the size of Los Angeles. But the spike may well be the biggest temperature departure from normal ever recorded.
You may be saying, “Brian, this isn’t a climate tech story.” To which I would say, “I run this newsletter, but also it is a climate tech story.” The bizarro heat was recorded thanks to a permanent research station at Dome C, which sits on top of the Antarctic ice sheet and is basically the most remote inhabited observation station on the planet. Or off it, even. “The nearest human beings are stationed some 600 km away at the Russian Vostok base, making Concordia more remote than the International Space Station,” the European Space Agency helpfully noted in a 2013 piece on the base.
This tweet certainly got me thinking about how you measure temperature continuously in that type of environment. The answer is a weather station at the end of the world and a satellite hookup to beam back data in real time. It’s actually incredible that we have access to data from one of the most inhospitable places on the planet in real time, and it serves a really important purpose, along with weather stations and satellites taking the temperature remotely in Antarctica, to keep tabs on the continent farthest from us but most important to the shape of the world. Antarctica’s ice is majorly imperiled. If the glaciers on the edge of the ice sheet there melt, more land ice will plunge into the sea and push the oceans inland.
The weather observations at Concordia and elsewhere are what give scientists the data they need to refine their climate models. The more data they have, the better the projections for the future get. The weather station at the end of the world may be a pretty basic piece of technology, but it’s one that will literally help us see the future more clearly.
— Brian Kahn
Wishing you could monitor the movements of Russian oil tankers in real time? Now’s your chance.
The Biden administration is going to get to the bottom of whether crypto is good or bad for the climate. Finally.
The Postal Service continues to be a hot mess when it comes to its next-generation delivery vehicles. The agency is doubling its order of electric vehicles to more than 10,000 (good), but most of its new fleet will still be gas-powered (bad).
The Commerce Department is investigating if Asian solar manufacturers are evading tariffs. It could take the agency a year to get to the bottom of things, though, so don’t hold your breath.
— Brian Kahn
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