There is a risk when discussing ideas of simply preaching to the converted. It’s easy because it feels good; it’s like drunks agreeing on something in a pub. At the end of the day though this group-nodding doesn’t necessarily cause the mental spiraling out that should occur (at least) now and then.
Some topics can only be that way – politics are politics, for example; crossing the line to talk to the other hardcore side is a colossal waste of time – but for things like energy there is room to do better. We all agree how important fossil fuels are; everyone nods when we point out the hypocrisy of protestors, etc. That’s all good fun and cathartic, but at the end of the day the world beyond our energy-intensive frame of reference is a very big and complex one. We may lose site of that from time to time by being so entrenched in the details. This isn’t uncommon, it happens in every field.
For example, we waste much time defending fossil fuels. Not wasteful in that it’s an unworthy cause, wasteful in that it seems absurd to have to defend the fuel that heats and feeds most of the world’s population, and wasteful in that it should not be necessary to point out incessantly that wind and solar energy cannot hope to replace 95 million b/d of oil and hundreds of bcf/d of natural gas. Yet we get drawn into that fight because we must, because we can’t abandon the debate to opponents who have no skin in the game and are willing to destroy our industry for their reputations.
These skirmishes however do divert our thoughts from a coming inevitability – that one day oil will no longer cut it as the primary energy source for the world. That may happen through the green revolution, but it’s just as likely that we’ll run out of it. The cheap stuff anyway. We are well supplied today, but the resource is definitely not infinite, no matter what the news media makes of shale resources. From a global perspective, those shale deposits are relatively small sweet spots that upended the market through rapid development, but long term doesn’t move the global needle much. The world consumes 35 billion barrels per year, only a fraction of which is replaced through exploration. And even for new additions, it’s important to remember that we consume proved reserves, but what we add is not necessarily as certain. So the end of cheap oil may not be in sight but it is coming.
So then what? This is a conversation that has been the petroleum industry seldom participates in, because we’re too busy, and environmentalists have opportunistically filled in the blanks for us: battery power it is.
That is unfortunate. Rechargeable battery power is superficially impressive because recharging is available everywhere. And it’s free! Or so it appears. And the wind and sun can solve all our problems; all we have to do is catch their energy, which will fill our batteries abundantly, for eternity. If it were only that simple.
The energy industry of course does realize the mountain that would need to be climbed to make that happen. It’s simply not going to, in the foreseeable future. Battery technology is improving, but nowhere near what would be required for total domination, and even if it were the raw materials required (and disposal facilities to properly handle the vast quantities of spent batteries) would create environmental havoc.
There is a better way that some energy giants are promoting – hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen can be used to power fuel cells, which create an electrical current to drive electric motors. Famously, the only emissions from hydrogen-powered vehicles are clean water. As an alternative to battery power, it has some significant benefits, along with a few drawbacks.
On the plus side, and this is actually a huge advantage from a green perspective, hydrogen will allow the full and proper utilization of renewable energy where batteries cannot. Using hydrogen as fuel is in reality just using it as an energy storage device, but hydrogen can be created and stored by wind and solar sources when those are operating at peak efficiency. This creates an excellent match between production and storage; at this time wind and solar power simply gets fed into the grid at times when it’s not really needed. So hydrogen power has the capability to truly make wind and solar useful.
The drawback to hydrogen at present is simply the lack of infrastructure. That actually isn’t a drawback at all; it’s simply a function of a stage of development. It’s an impediment that can be rectified with money, just like any other infrastructure we will need. We don’t have the infrastructure to switch all vehicles to electric either, but few see that as insurmountable. We actually do have infrastructure in the form of gas stations which could be converted to hydrogen; it would be far more difficult to create mass battery charging stations – think of the space and logistical headaches if all cars in a city needed plugging in. Tesla offers such possible solutions as cars that move themselves after they are charged, which sounds a bit like saying we can fix anything by building a ray gun and a time machine. Hydrogen is viewed more as an impediment because it is new and different, characteristics which always frighten the masses.
Oddly enough, the most serious proponents of battery power sneer at hydrogen power as nothing more than another stage of fossil fuel addiction. They arrive at this conclusion because natural gas is an excellent vehicle by which to extract commercial quantities of hydrogen, and hydrogen power therefore is seen as an attempt by the fossil fuel industry to justify its existence. One of the loudest is a guy named Tony Seba, an “environmental entrepreneur” who published a list of “6 reasons why fuel cell vehicles will be unable to compete with battery powered vehicles”; the sixth of these reasons being “Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles can’t compete with Electric Vehicles.” The quality of those arguments is therefore easily deduced.
Such viewpoints are clearly the result of vested interests that make a living fighting fossil fuels; no sensible person would vote against a useful technological solution that helps to efficiently bridge the gap between existing and future infrastructure requirements.
While it is obviously difficult to predict these future developments, hydrogen power and fuel cell technology is an exciting and truly possible means to bridge the gap between the demise of fossil fuels and the rise of renewable energy. It is realistic and possible, and a potentially exciting future for the current fossil fuel industry to embrace.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here