Financial Times: The world must look beyond sun and wind for hydrogen
We need lots of the gas, and cheaply, if it is to help replace liquid carbon fuels
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March 1, 2020
by Jonathan Ford
Interest in hydrogen as a clean substitute for carbon fuels is surging. Shares in the producers of fuel cells, which convert the gas into electric power, have appreciated mightily over the past year...
Hydrogen isn’t widely used at present... High production costs are one reason... Hydrogen is certainly an option to power such areas as heating and transportation... Where is that hydrogen to come from? ... Many are therefore pinning hopes on renewable energy making so-called “green hydrogen” using electrolysis. But how realistic is that?...
Low capacity factors are one reason most current renewables have theoretical production costs for hydrogen in the $4-$6 per kilogramme range, according to research from Eric Ingersoll of the consultancy, LucidCatalyst. That’s well above the $1-$2/kg cost from existing hydrocarbon sources. Unlike capital costs, which can be chiselled down, nature limits the amount that capacity factors can be increased.
Then there is another problem with low capacity factors: the sheer amount of space that plant would take up...
But alternative sources shouldn’t be ignored. The main one is nuclear. It typically operates at a 90 per cent capacity factor, and is scalable without massive land use. The key is capital costs, which have historically been too high.
How far these can be shaved by advanced reactors and manufacturing processes is open to question. But China has driven capex down to about $3,000/kW at which level it could be feasible to produce hydrogen at about $2/kg. So far, however, nuclear has been largely overlooked.
Decarbonising liquid fuels is an enormous challenge; too big to place all our chips on one technology. We must explore all the available options, or learn to live with fewer substitutes for ubiquitous liquid fuels.