Environmental Aspects & The Hydrogen Economy

Environmental Aspects

Renewable energy sources have a completely different set of environmental costs and benefits to fossil fuel or nuclear generating capacity.

On the positive side they emit n99o carbon dioxide or other air pollutants (beyond some decay products from new hydro-electric reservoirs), but because they are harnessing relatively low-intensity energy, their ‘footprint’ – the area taken up by them – is necessarily much larger.

Whether Australia could accept the environmental impact of another Snowy Mountains hydro scheme (providing some 3.5% of the country’s electricity plus irrigation) is doubtful. Whether large areas near cities dedicated to solar collectors will be acceptable, if such proposals are ever made, remains to be seen. Beyond utilising roofs, 1000 MWe of solar capacity would require at least 20 square kilometres of collectors, shading a lot of country.

In Europe, wind turbines have not endeared themselves to neighbours on aesthetic, noise or nature conservation grounds, and this has arrested their deployment in UK. At the same time, European non-fossil fuel obligations have led the establishment of major offshore wind forms and the prospect of more.

However, much environmental impact can be reduced. Fixed solar collectors can double as noise barriers along highways, roof-tops are available already, and there are places where wind turbines would not obtrude unduly.


The Hydrogen Economy

Hydrogen is widely seen as a possible fuel for transport, if certain problems can be overcome economically. It may be used in conventional internal combustion engines, or in fuel cells which convert chemical energy directly to electricity without normal burning.

Making hydrogen requires either reforming natural gas (methane) with steam, or the electrolysis of water. The former process has carbon dioxide as a by-product, which exacerbates (or at least does not improve) greenhouse gas emissions relative to present technology. With electrolysis, the greenhouse burden depends on the source of the power.

With intermittent renewables such as solar and wind, matching the output to grid demand is very difficult, and beyond about 20% of the total supply, apparently impossible. But if these sources are used for electricity to make hydrogen, then they can be utilised fully whenever they are available, opportunistically. Broadly speaking it does not matter when they cut in or out, the hydrogen is simply stored and used as required.

A quite different rationale applies to using nuclear energy (or any other emission-free base-load plant) for hydrogen. Here the plant would be run continuously at full capacity, with perhaps all the output being supplied to the grid in peak periods and any not needed to meet civil demand being used to make hydrogen at other times. This would mean maximum efficiency for the nuclear power plants, and that hydrogen was made opportunistically when it suited the grid manager.

About 50kWh is required to produce a kilogram of hydrogen by electrolysis, so the cost of the electricity clearly is crucial.