As XR begins two weeks of protest I report on their progress. I bring you more news and ideas about hydrogen, a new technique for energy storage and details of two panel sessions I’ll be hosting next month.
This is the very last episode for August and indeed the last episode before Friday 1st October.
I’ve decided to take my annual summer break a little later this year - but I’ll still be busy. Towards the end of September I will be hosting two online panel discussions for York Environment Week. One is called Sustainable Business from the Ground Up and it involves three local entrepreneurs talking about their sustainability journey. The other is Decarbonising York, where we look at the carbon footprint of home heating and the possibility of reducing it by installing district heating. Links on the new events page of the Sustainable Futures Report website: http://www.sustainablefutures.report/events or search for YEW or the Great Big Green Week.
Last week I reported that the UK government had published its plans for a world-leading hydrogen economy. As last week’s episode came out, H2View - hydrogen trade press - reported that Chris Jackson had stood down as chair of the UK Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Association (UK HFCA). This was triggered by the government’s strategy, which had treated blue and green hydrogen equally in its plans.
“I believe passionately that I would be betraying future generations by remaining silent on that fact that blue hydrogen is at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use that guarantees we will fail to meet our decarbonisation goals,” Jackson said.
His comments come after research released this month by academics at Cornell and Stanford universities warned that the blue hydrogen process could generate 20 per cent more emissions over its life cycle than burning the natural gas in the first instance – and possibly even more.
You’ll remember from last week that green hydrogen is created by passing electricity from renewable sources through water to split the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. No greenhouse gases are released at any stage.
Blue hydrogen, on the other hand, is extracted from natural gas by a process of steam reformation. This releases CO2, the GHG, which is captured and stored. The problem is the fugitive gases which will escape at all stages of the production and supply chain. These will include both CO2 and methane, which is far more potent than CO2 in the short term.
As I said, greenhouse gases are not released at all in the production and use of green hydrogen. (Except perhaps nitrous oxide, which would come from any hydrogen, but I need to do more research on that). The main problem with green hydrogen is cost. It is a very inefficient use of electricity and the hydrogen produced has far less energy than the electricity used to produce it. The rest is lost as waste heat. As large-scale battery storage improves, green hydrogen will struggle to stay competitive.
Hydrogen without Electricity
Elsewhere on H2View I found an article about generating hydrogen from water without electricity. GenHydro aims to produce green hydrogen at ‘ground-breaking’ costs. They say, “The GenHydro™ reactor system utilises a reactant-based approach for separating hydrogen from water. We make use of the stored energy in highly reactive and abundant pure elements to rapidly produce large amounts of hydrogen, with zero emissions and a non-toxic byproduct.
“The Next Gen reactor system not only produces hydrogen but also produces enough heat and pressure to operate a steam-powered turbine for the cogeneration of electricity alongside hydrogen.”
The company claims that its process is cost-effective now. And if the byproducts are non- toxic it sounds like a world-beater. Watch this space and check out Genhydro’s website – link on the Sustainable Futures blog.
Hydrogen and Steel
Still on hydrogen, Daniel Stanley draws my attention to an article on Swedish steelmaking using hydrogen instead of coal. HYBRIT, a partnership between steel company SSAB, state-owned mining firm LKAB, and state-owned utility Vattenfall, said it delivered the clean steel to Swedish automaker Volvo. This was just a test run, but the firm plans to ramp up production to commercial scale by 2026.
And yes, the article confirms that the process used green hydrogen. Given that the IEA reports that the global iron and steel industry accounts for 7% of global emissions this is highly significant news.
The UK government is likely to give approval to a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, northern England, later this year, for the production of metallurgical coal. What they use for iron and steel. Could be obsolete before it comes into production if hydrogen takes over. Surely a better investment must be to convert our steel plants to hydrogen and step up green hydrogen production.
The cement industry is a major energy user and has similar global emissions to the steel industry. Research needed here too, into whether hydrogen can also displace coal in this production process.
Energy Observer is a catamaran and floating research laboratory. It’s covered with solar panels and electrolyses hydrogen from seawater. In turn this is used to create electricity in a fuel cell to drive the vessel’s propellors. Progress is assisted by the Ocean Wings, towering from the deck. EO has been sailing round the world since 2017, gathering data. More detail from the project website - link below.
If this research can lead to decarbonising commercial shipping it will be another major step towards global net zero. Shipping uses some of the dirtiest fuels - almost the scrapings from the bottom of the refineries - and has a similar contribution to global emissions as aviation.
Maersk Hybrid Container Ships
Still on shipping, this week Reuters reports that shipping line Maersk has placed orders for eight container ships able to run on carbon-neutral methanol, although they will be able to use normal bunker fuel if no methanol is available. This is in response to demands from major customers like Amazon who want to green their supply chains. The 8 vessels will come in to service in 2024 and join Maersk’s 700-ship fleet. A drop in the ocean, as some unkind commentators have called it.
There are many ways of storing energy. Hydrogen is one of them, batteries or another. As we increasingly rely on renewables which are intermittent because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, storage to keep the power flowing and to stabilise the grid is becoming vital. I've mentioned the iron-air battery in the past. That’s iron as in iron and steel. Form Energy have developed a battery which works by converting an iron electrode into iron oxide as it discharges, and restoring that oxide to iron as it’s recharged. Simple! Well I’m sure there’s a very special electrolyte in there somewhere, amongst other trade secrets. The advantage of this system is that it can discharge over long periods - days rather than hours which are the best a lithium ion (that’s ion as in ionosphere) battery can manage. The system is modular and it’s available commercially. It’s a bit heavy and bulky, but that’s not a problem if you don’t plan to install it in a car or a smartphone.
Dave Borlace of Just Have a Think has an excellent video-blog on this. There’s a link below.
Extinction Rebellion - XR
Which brings us to Extinction Rebellion. They’ve just launched another two-week protest, but if you’re outside London you’d be forgiven for not having noticed. In London they are blocking major streets and causing traffic chaos. The aim is to paralyse the City of London in protest at the continuing financing of fossil fuel industries. Clearly in the light of all we know and all we have known long before the latest IPCC report, continuing to expand fossil fuel production and use is reckless folly. Nonetheless it is highly profitable reckless folly so there are powerful people who are determined that it will continue.
So far the campaign has not made the national front pages. No doubt some see it as more of the same and there are fewer people on the streets than there were in in 2019.
Lord Walney, who was asked by the Home Office this year to examine disruption and violence by extreme political groups, told XR activists last month that he did not regard the movement as uniformly extreme. This is at odds with the attitude of Home Secretary Priti Patel who has called for XR supporters to treated as terrorists and criminals. After similar statements from the Metropolitan Police the force appears to have moderated its views. So far, Day 3 of the protest, the police seem to be taking a light touch approach and avoiding confrontation.
Nonetheless, people have been arrested. Some have set out to act in ways likely to get themselves arrested, relying on a recent judgment which freed protestors accused of obstruction on the grounds that they had a legitimate right to protest. It’s still high risk, and all credit to those who take those risks in the light of their beliefs. Their aim, after all, is to get the British government, and all governments for that matter, to take action to meet the challenges the climate emergency. Action, not headlines.
Insurance and Visas
Have you looked at your house insurance policy recently? I was glancing at mine as I renewed it this week and saw that I’m under an obligation to inform my insurers if I or anyone living in the house receives a police caution, is arrested or found guilty of a criminal offence - apart from some motoring offences. Fortunately I am not guilty of any of those things, but had I been they could presumably have raised my premium or declined cover altogether. I’m sure the same applies to motor policies, (motoring offences included.) If I wanted to get a visa to visit the US or family in Australia, would a caution disqualify me?
Young people starting out on their careers could have a lot more to lose than I have. I don’t need a job, but what effect would an arrest or a caution have on someone’s employment prospects?
I fear that this is a subtle pressure which will stop people from protesting, and I fear it may catch out those people who demonstrate their principles without realising the wide-ranging consequences that might arise. We live in dangerous times; times that will be even more dangerous when the police get the enhanced powers from the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, shortly to be enacted.
Let’s not give up hope and let’s not give up protesting against the government’s inaction; as safely as possible.
And that’s it…
…for this week, and while there won’t be any more episodes of the Sustainable Futures Report until 1st October, you can find details of my September panel discussions, part of York Environment Week, on the www.sustainablefutures.report/events page. Sustainable Business and Decarbonising York. You can register to attend and add your questions, or catch up later on demand.
Sir Ronald Cohen
In September I shall be interviewing Sir Ronald Cohen for publication in October. He’s been described by some as "the father of British venture capital" and "the father of social investment". His book Impact - Reshaping Capitalism to Drive Real Change, is available now.
I’m entering the Sustainable Futures Report for the P.E.A. (People. Environment. Achievement.) Awards - the UK’s leading sustainability awards. I’ll let you know the outcome.
Patrons at Patreon
Before I go I’d like to remind you of the unsung heroes who are the Patrons of the Sustainable Futures Report. A small but very loyal group of people who contribute each week to the costs of running this podcast. You know who you are and I’m more than grateful for your support.
If you like the Sustainable Futures Report but you’re not yet a patron you can join at patreon.com/sfr . I look forward to welcoming you.
For now, stay safe, have a good September and Think Carbon.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time.
Storage - Iron-air battery