ESPcat – Hydrogen Madness

When it comes to electricity, New Zealand finds itself in an enviable position compared to most of the world.  NZ presently gets 79% of its electricity from renewable sources including hydro, wind and geothermal.    The “enviable” part comes from the fact that New Zealand has an aluminum smelter that is scheduled to close in 2024.  

Tiwai Point Smelter Closing in 2024       

The smelter uses absolutely tons of electricity.  By tons I mean 15,000 MWh of electricity per day which is 13% of New Zealand’s total electricity consumption.   

The fact that the smelter’s owners have decided to close the plant is certainly a very sad thing for the people who work there but for New Zealand’s electricity grid, that closure couldn’t come at a better time.  Once the 15,000 MWh of energy from Manapouri hydro, is directed into NZ’s electricity grid, we will stop burning most of the coal and gas now used to top up our electricity supply.  We will stop dumping tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.  We will not require an expensive, pumped hydro storage scheme.  Electricity prices will go down. New Zealand will lead the world in environmental progress!  Or maybe none of those things will happen. 

It seems that some of NZ’s big energy players including Contact Energy and Meridian Energy have other plans for what happens when the smelter closes.  Those two big players want use taxpayer money to build a giant hydrogen plant to direct all the electricity from Manapouri hydro into making hydrogen by electrolysis.  The resulting Green Hydrogen is simply perfect according to proponents.  We can run cars, trucks, and trains on it.  We can cook and heat with it.  Green Hydrogen produced by Manapouri Hydro is the way of the future, or is it?  Just how green is “Green Hydrogen” compared to simply connecting Manapouri Hydro to the grid?

To begin with, the proposed electrolysis system for making hydrogen is at best, only 80% efficient.  20% of the power is wasted.  When you finally get the hydrogen to a car or bus, or train (which isn’t easy), you need a hydrogen fuel cell to turn it back into electricity. A fuel cell is only 60% efficient at best.  The whole end-to-end efficiency for Green Hydrogen is a miserable 48%!  With Green Hydrogen, you throw away more than half the energy you started with.  Green Hydrogen is not all that green after all. 

Hydrogen isn’t a fuel.  You can’t dig hydrogen out of the ground.  Hydrogen is only for energy storage.  Compare hydrogen energy storage to an every-day lithium battery at 95% efficiency.  48% efficiency compared to 95% efficiency; what the hell is going on with this Hydrogen Madness?  Why would anyone trade 95% efficient batteries for 48% efficient hydrogen?  What madness is causing Auckland Transport to test a 48% efficient hydrogen bus at the same time as it is testing 95% efficient battery busses?

Are these big energy players crazy or is there something sinister going on?  What happens to the price of electricity when you suddenly add 13% more lovely, renewable Manapouri Hydro to the grid?  First off, you get to burn a whole lot less coal and gas. Secondly, the price of electricity is very likely to go down.  We know that the environment and the consumer will benefit but who will lose out by Connecting Manapouri Hydro to the grid?  Which organizations have suddenly discovered that they are slipping into a desperate situation as New Zealand switches from an oil and gas economy to an electric economy?  Who hates the idea of EVs powered by renewable electricity?  The oil and gas industry has some very big players. 

Coal, oil and gas are sunset industries.  They are on the way out; dead, finished, done for.  Contact Energy is about to lose its gas business so is searching for another revenue stream such as hydrogen.  Neither Contact or Meridian care much about climate change or government plans to convert our transport fleet to EVs.   Contact and Meridian will lose out when we connect Manapouri Hydro to the grid.  Clearly neither Contact nor Meridian have the consumer’s best interest at heart.  And let’s not forget First Gas.

First Gas owns the gas pipelines.  Gas is a fossil fuel that generates greenhouse gas when you burn it.  The entire gas distribution system is now a sunset industry.  First Gas is looking at a future consisting of electric oblivion, but they are not giving up without a fight.  First Gas wants to start putting hydrogen into their pipelines as gas runs out.  Plans to replace natural gas with hydrogen are about as mad as things can get.  Every gas component, pipe, regulator, and appliance would have to be upgraded or replaced to switch from natural gas to hydrogen.  Heating with Green Hydrogen is about 20% as efficient as heating with an electric heat pump.  The gas industry is desperate for the long-suffering taxpayer to pay for a Green Hydrogen plant to suck up all the power from Manapouri Hydro.    

And then there is the practical side, or should I call it the impractical side?  Hydrogen is great for balloons but causes metal to become brittle and has the tendency to leak and explode unless you are very, very careful.  Hydrogen is extremely light so is difficult to transport without first compressing it.  Compressing hydrogen wastes even more energy.  And where is all this hydrogen supposed to come from.  Oh yes; from the new Green Hydrogen plant at Tiwi Point, paid for by the long-suffering taxpayer.   

Transpower estimates it will take 3 years and $110 million to upgrade the transmission lines from Manapouri Hydro to the grid.  If we start now, the upgraded lines will be ready in 2024 when the smelter closes. Transpower says it will cost a further $450 million and take a 5 to 8 years to fully balance the grid. 13% more clean, green hydroelectric energy and storage will be added to the grid. 

We can all be saved from Hydrogen Madness by forgetting about Green Hydrogen while concentrating on adding Manapouri Hydro to the grid.    

John Caldwell has a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maine and an MS in Control Systems Engineering from California State University.  John and his wife Gallagher live in Howick, Auckland.   

* https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/434490/tiwai-point-aluminium-smelter-to-keep-operating-until-end-of-2024

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