Friday, January 28

Don’t believe the hydrogen and nuclear hype: they can’t get us to net zero carbon by 2050 | Energy

NorthNow that the entire world appears to be aligned with the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the nuclear industry is struggling with all its nerves to present itself as an invaluable ally in the ambitious goal. Energy experts remain divided on whether or not we can achieve this net zero global goal without nuclear power, but despite everything, it remains a hard sell for pro-nuclear enthusiasts.

The problems they face are the same that have plagued the industry for decades: rising costs, seemingly unavoidable delays, no solutions to the nuclear waste challenge, security risks, and proliferation.

The drawbacks of nuclear power are compounded by the growing success of renewables: both solar and wind are getting cheaper and more efficient, year after year. There is also a growing understanding that a combination of renewable energy, smart storage, energy efficiency and more flexible grids can now be delivered at scale and at high speed, anywhere in the world.

While most environmentalists continue to oppose nuclear power, there is now a significant minority, increasingly concerned about accelerating climate change, who simply don’t see how we can get to that net zero comfort zone without it. They are right to be concerned, it is a really daunting challenge. All greenhouse gas emissions (across the economy, including from transportation, heating, manufacturing and refining, agriculture and land use, as well as from shipping and aviation) should be reduced as much as possible. as close to zero as possible, with all waste emissions offset by removing an equivalent amount of COtwo of the atmosphere.

It is the magnitude of that challenge that has led many people (including Boris Johnson with the government’s 10-point plan in November) to not only hold a flag flying for the nuclear industry, but to revisit the idea of ​​hydrogen doing. some of the heavy lifting. Hydrogen bomb It has become all the rage in the last 18 months, and some offer this “clean energy technology”, as government officials insist on describing, as the answer to all of our net zero prayers.

For those prayers to be answered, there will need to be a complete revolution in the way hydrogen is produced. How are the things going, 98% of 115m tons used worldwide is “gray hydrogen”, made from natural gas or coal, which emits around 830 million tons of COtwo per year – 2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond that, there is a small amount of so-called “blue hydrogen”, essentially gray hydrogen but with its COtwo captured and stored emissions, and even less “green hydrogen” from water electrolysis, both of which are much more expensive than the climate-destroying gray hydrogen.

The gulf between that current reality, rarely mentioned by hydrogen enthusiasts, and the prospect of an affordable and readily available green hydrogen that could help us get to net zero is absolutely huge.

Don’t get me wrong: we will indeed need significant volumes of green hydrogen and it is a good thing that the government has set an ambitious target for 2030, in the hope that this will significantly reduce the electrolysis costs to create it. But we must be clear about what that green hydrogen should be used for: not for electricity; not for heating homes and non-domestic buildings; and not for cars, where electric vehicles will always be better. Instead, we’ll need it for what are called the “hard-to-beat” industries: for steel, which replaces high-carbon coking coal, cement, and shipping.

Much of the hype for hydrogen comes from the oil and gas sector, in the hope that gullible politicians, seduced by an unattainable vision of unlimited green hydrogen, will subsidize the large investments needed to capture hydrogen gas emissions. His motivation couldn’t be clearer: to postpone the inevitable decline of his industry.

The nuclear industry is also desperate to play that game. You have to admire his ability to pivot opportunistically. In February, the Nuclear Industry Council (made up of industry and government representatives in the UK) released a shiny new Hydrogen roadmap, exploring how large-scale nuclear or small modular reactors could generate both the electricity and heat needed to produce large amounts of green hydrogen. But the whole plan is based on spectacular and wholly speculative reductions in the cost of electrolysis.

Rather than being the solution we have been waiting for, this nuclear / hydrogen development would actually be a disastrous technological solution. Low-carbon nuclear power will always be vastly more expensive than renewables and we will never be able to build enough reactors to replace those that will go offline over the next decade. We also know that producing hydrogen will always be very expensive. The truth is that it takes a lot of electricity to produce little hydrogen. All of which makes the illusions of substituting hydrogen for conventional gas in the UK gas network, or producing millions of tons of blue hydrogen, seem almost completely absurd.

This, then, could lead to an economic double whammy of rather monstrous proportions. It should be paid through general taxes or through higher bills for consumers. That is particularly problematic from the perspective of the 10% of households in England it continues to live in cruel and degrading fuel poverty.

Environmentalists who are tempted by this new nuclear / hydrogen hype should remember that our transition to a net zero world has to be a just transition. Every kilowatt hour of energy generated from nuclear power will be a kilowatt hour far more expensive than one delivered from renewable energy plus storage.

So let’s limit both the hydrogen hype and nuclear propaganda, and focus instead on increasing what we already know to be a profitable product: renewable energy. We need to do it as quickly as possible.

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