"Green" Is a Terrible Word to Describe Hydrogen

Written by Adam English
Posted February 16, 2021

I hate the word "green." It is a marketing tool nine times out of 10.

It’s been reduced to a keyword. It’s a diluted panacea of PR jargon that tests well in ad campaigns, akin to "sustainable" and "natural" and "renewable."

The problem is we just can’t shake it for something more specific. I’m afraid "green hydrogen" will be a casualty of this dilution of meaning. This would be a travesty.

It is a profoundly different approach to energy than anything we’ve seen to date, but a cursory glance makes it seem like a gimmick.

So what makes it so good? And if some hydrogen is "green," what is the rest of it?

Let’s talk about these quandaries and cut through the nonsense.

First up, and straight up, hydrogen is hydrogen. It is not a categorical thing but an immutable definition of the simplest stable element in existence. Let's not talk about isotopes for now, but deuterium and tritium are pretty rare and wild.

Hydrogen, due to its very nature, is derived from reductive processes. There is no way around it. What makes hydrogen "green" as opposed to "gray" — in the parlance of the industry — is the source.

"Gray" hydrogen dominates the market right now and almost exclusively comes from hydrocarbon, or organic, molecules. Think oil, natural gas, or coal.

We have already built a worldwide system of multibillion-dollar refineries that break down carbon chain organic chemicals for a whole host of energy-rich fuels like gasoline, kerosene, and whatnot, so this makes sense for now. Gray hydrogen fuel these days is a byproduct.

"Green" hydrogen comes from any other source, in theory, but only water matters. Nothing without carbon packs quite as much of what we want into a molecule, and there is certainly a lot of water around.

This also presents a basic chemical engineering problem. Energy needs to be used to "crack" molecules and isolate hydrogen, but there is always a net energy loss.

We do-but-don't have that problem with hydrocarbons. It takes countless eons for the chemistry to pan out to make some good crude oil. It takes so long that we don't even think about time being a thing. We only talk about what's left in the ground right now. Centuries of oil use don't matter one bit for regeneration of supply.

For hydrogen to be used as a fuel we need to collapse that time function from eons to months. There is no way to tap a millions-of-years-old pocket of it.

Gray hydrogen isn’t past the break-even point yet. Green hydrogen is even further off. What would it take to cross that line? And why is it such a hot topic right now?

This "energy in, energy out" problem is hardly new in the energy scene. Oil, coal, solar, wind, batteries, etc. — they all had to cross this break-even point to become viable. Part of it is the science and part of it is engineering; after that it's all about scales of economy.

It just isn’t quite as apparent how the business side of all this stuff works, since the process is far more convoluted for petrochemicals.

For creating green hydrogen as a fuel, the absurdity is far more apparent due to its relative simplicity. We lose energy pulling it from water only to, after it is used, produce water as the only emission. 

The answer to why we’d choose to lose energy overall to produce something to use as energy comes down to an arbitrage play.

Green hydrogen is an answer to the excess power generation issue and offers a novel way to transfer the stored energy to more mobile and adaptable purposes.

The sun is only above the horizon for so long. Wind power is even more fickle. We are constantly building power production capacity we cannot consistently use with renewables and are at a loss for how to capitalize on it.

Combining the excess energy production from solar and wind, when it is abundant and cheap, with a noncarbon-based fuel like hydrogen creates an arbitrage opportunity that will allow producers to take advantage of the cheapest energy rates possible to create an easily transportable fuel.

Produce cheap power, convert it to a mobile form, transfer it to places or applications where energy isn’t as cheap, and profit from the difference.

There is a reason why Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are investing heavily in both solar power and green hydrogen production. It is an arbitrage play.

There is a reason why Europe is investing heavily — both in subsidies and carbon tax schemes (carrots and sticks) — to build out infrastructure and real-world applications.

There is a reason why Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy, a coalition of businesses, funds, and research organizations, is committing to the development of a 100 billion-euro initiative for green hydrogen by 2025.

Green hydrogen is going to mirror both the modern-day hydrocarbon extraction and distribution system we have in place today. Instead of drill rigs and nodding donkeys, it’ll be desalination plants tied directly to massive arrays of solar panels.

And that is where the true promise exists. We always knew the USA was chock-full of oil. The arbitrage just wasn’t there until the tech caught up, particularly fracking techniques to drive down extraction costs. It always was energy- and capital-intensive to get it out of the ground, but it finally crossed that break-even point.

It was the arbitrage play that made it possible. There was room to find it elsewhere for cheaper and make a profit by finding the cheapest way to extract, refine, and transport it around. The global energy paradigm changed in a matter of years,

Green hydrogen is no different in that regard. All it needs is a cheap source and some good tech to make a buck off it.

That is happening right now, and costs are plummeting to source green hydrogen just as they did for coal, oil, solar, and wind before. Just as they did for oil when global supply shifted from the U.S. to the Middle East and then back again.

As for the tech, that is moving faster and faster, and the breakthroughs we need are already hitting the market.

I just wish it wasn’t sold as a "green" thing. It’s a terrible disservice.

Take care,

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Adam English

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Adam's editorial talents and analysis drew the attention of senior editors at Outsider Club, which he joined in mid-2012. While he has acquired years of hands-on experience in the editorial room by working side by side with ex-brokers, options floor traders, and financial advisors, he is acutely aware of the challenges faced by retail investors after starting at the ground floor in the financial publishing field. For more on Adam, check out his editor's page

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