Hydrogen, mobility, nuclear power and extremism

Hydrogen, mobility, nuclear power and extremism

I have lost the desire to discuss a few of the topics that come up in the general debates around the global energy transition.

Hydrogen and mobility.

This may sound absurd as they are the very core subjects we’ve been covering on the Fully Charged Show for over a decade.

I’ve always tried to remain open minded about hydrogen just because it’s a topic that has had a never ending launch.

Since I was 7 years old I’ve been told again and again that hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and I was 7 years old 59 years ago.

I’ve always been very open minded about mobility, I’m a great walker, I have cycled thousands of miles, I use public transport whenever possible etc. But I don’t want to talk about the technology of mobility and its impacts, but the politics of mobility.

I also don’t want to talk about hydrogen gas and its possible uses, I want to talk about the politics of hydrogen.

I find it mildly baffling that enthusiasm for hydrogen is firmly lodged on one extreme end of political opinion, and a blanket hatred of cars, regardless of what moves them, is on the other extreme end.

At first glance, it’s a mystery as to why that has happened but I’ll start with the easier one, mobility and the hard left.

I have repeatedly said if you need to get from A to B the choice list we should all use is as follows.

Walk, cycle, public transport, taxi, car share, private car, fly.

In that order.

The hard left folks at Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, I don’t mean the people who occasionally take part in rallies and demonstrations, I’m talking about the full time hard line activists, from what I understand they think we should get rid of passenger cars altogether.

Absolutely no cars, no car sharing, no private cars and definitely no flying.

To which I say, fair enough. Let’s go full cultural revolution ultra extreme and demand that these specific technologies are cancelled.

Crush all the cars, tear up all the freeways and motorways and turn the land into long strips of garden and orchard.

Only use trains, trams, buses, bikes and our legs to get around. I cannot disagree with any of that, if you look at the big picture of energy use, it makes much more sense.

It’s never going to happen, it’ll make even more people shout at each other, hate each other and literally nothing will change.

Hard line environmental activists that I’ve communicated with hate electric cars just as much as traditional combustion vehicles.

I’m not sure what they think about electric delivery vans or electric buses and trucks?

Maybe someone will leave a comment.

But they are right in so many ways, cars of any sort do not make any sense.

But then neither do human beings.

We have these annoying things called emotions and we should be more sensible and get over ourselves, but the car is here and it’s going to take a hundred plus years and three generations to get rid of the damn things.

This side of the political spectrum I can understand, there is a logic behind the arguments, I might not agree with everything they say but the fundamentals are sound.

Sadly hydrogen does not have very sound fundamentals. When I say hydrogen I’m referring to its use in ground transport or home heating which is what the extremist pro hydrogen lobby are referring to.

This specific passion about hydrogen is not, it increasingly appears, based on logic. It’s based on three things.

Anger, Ignorance and Fantasy.

It’s obvious hydrogen has a vitally important niche role in any future energy scenario.

As a fuel for flight, maybe, as a fuel to make steel, glass and concrete manufacturing. Yes, I really hope so.

It is now blindingly obvious it will never be used to power cars, vans, taxis, buses and trucks.

It will never be ‘fed into the gas grid’ as some enthusiasts insist is the solution to all our problems.

The drawbacks and costs to achieve that are jaw dropping.

But all that aside, and where the hydrogen comes from aside, and every other energy efficiency argument aside.

I want to know two specific things.

Why on earth is hydrogen political?

I have never once heard anyone from the extremist anti car, radical cyclist, extinction rebellion activist left argue that hydrogen is the answer. It just doesn’t happen.

They never mention it.

Why not? Why don’t extinction rebellion activists ever say ‘hydrogen is the future.’

But if we turn our gaze to the extreme right, and this is a bit baffling, and it does seem to be very specifically men, they almost worship the idea of hydrogen.

Why do very right wing men hate wind turbines, hate solar farms, hate electric cars and why do they always, always say, ‘hydrogen is the future.’

I have had literally thousands of these chaps comment and argue on Twitter and YouTube.

Judging by their Twitter profile, they always self identify as extremist conservatives, extreme libertarians, traditionalists and on occasion, fringe white supremacists.

What is it about a very commonly occurring gas that really appeals to this particular minority?

Again I want to state this observation has nothing to do with the actual gas or the technology surrounding it or the people developing that technology.

I’m not suggesting that anyone who is working on developing hydrogen technology is a right wing extremist, but the people who repeatedly state that the only solution is hydrogen are quite a baffling political phenomenon.

Let’s imagine you hate ‘woke’ liberals who tell you not to say certain things, you hate hypocritical celebrities who drone on about climate change and then fly around the world in the most carbon intensive method of travel ever invented, a private jet.

All those things I totally understand, I might not agree with you but I can fully empathise with the position some white men find themselves in. Clever powerful people know all too well how to stoke anger, hatred and fear on any topic, and have been doing so very successfully in the increasingly heated energy debate.

But why hate renewable technology that has been proven beyond argument to be reliable, cheaper than any alternative by a country mile, more sustainable and employs more people in this country and helps cushion us against insane price rises from oil and gas.

Obviously the oil and gas industry is lobbying like crazy to get us to accept and use hydrogen because they produce it, but much as I am critical of the oil and gas industry, I truly don’t think all those massive corporations are run by white supremacist anti semitic nut jobs.

Who has planted the seed with ultra conservative men that hydrogen is the answer?

I have been impressed with the prospect of hydrogen as a fuel numerous times in the last 15 years. There are plenty of episodes of the Fully Charged Show where we investigate various different technologies that use hydrogen. However I have eventually, and reluctantly, reached the conclusion that it is a dead end technologically. Too wasteful to produce, too hard to store, too difficult to transport, too difficult to use in a vehicle.

And if we burn it in a combustion engine or domestic heating boiler, there’s now plenty of evidence to suggest it’s actually better just to burn the natural gas it’s derived from.

Burning hydrogen still releases SOX and NOX and because it is far less energy dense you need more of it to achieve the same level of heat, and it’s very very expensive.

And all the talk of using excess renewables to produce ‘green’ hydrogen is insane in terms of energy efficiency. 4 kilowatt hours in. 1 kilowatt hour out, and that’s being generous and ignoring pressurising in tanks and the worrying amount of leakage.

So that’s hydrogen, the ultra conservative fuel.

And car hatred, the passing passion of young, progressive environmental activists.

So what about nuclear?

Well, there’s a tendency among the more moderate science literate conservatives to repeatedly suggest nuclear fusion is the only answer. I really want them to be right, I have been waiting a mere 40 years for this and it has remained resolutely 15 years in the future.

But the nuclear debate is different, a passion for nuclear does seem to cross the political spectrum. A lot of scientists who are deeply concerned about the continued burning of fossil fuel are also very pro nuclear, and this is a lot easier to understand.

Some angry conservatives will try to goad me every now and then when I have reported on some big renewable project, always with the same argument.

It goes something like this. “We need nuclear base-load for when your silly little wind turbines don’t turn when the wind doesn’t blow.”

It sounds very logical, we need a base load just in case. I have heard this repeatedly, not from scientists who work in nuclear generation, but from many moderate conservatives.

I have no idea if this is genuinely the case but there are certainly some very well respected scientists and engineers working in the energy sector who state that this is nonsense.

It’s obvious in the UK at least, that we will have some new nuclear generating capacity, but it will be so expensive and take so long to come on line I do fear for its future viability.

In the next 10-15 years, which is less time than it will take for any new nuclear plant to start generating, the cost and ubiquity of wind, solar and widely distributed short term storage is going to radically change the energy sector.

It doesn’t really matter what your political opinion is about this, it’s pure economics. It’s got little to do with environmental anxieties, that may have been the original driving force but it’s now plain and simple free market capitalism. How can a big hedge fund investor make the most money faster? Plain and simple, invest in renewables. Shorter construction time, very low per kilowatt hour cost, massive demand, huge profits.

No amount of ranting about hydrogen, nuclear, or the hopeless absurdities of fracking, clean coal, drilling for oil will amount to anything but decrepit party slogans thrown in the bin of history.

Nuclear fusion though. I really want that to work.

An old fool can dream.

Robert Llewellyn