If there is a prize for the most tortured analogy of the year, there must be every chance that this column will win it with a comparison between Daniel Craig’s much-derided second James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, and the global Hydrogen industry. All I can ask is that ever-patient Reaction subscribers bear with me as they recall that at the end of Quantum’s predecessor movie, Casino Royale, Bond shoots a Mr. White in the leg at a property on Lake Como and then stands over him in a three-piece suit, gun in hand.
Quantum of Solace picks up from this point with Bond driving White to a secure location in Sienna following a frantic car chase. White is then given some rudimentary medical treatment before his interrogation by Bond and M begins. With his first answer, White states, “the first thing you should know about us is that we have people everywhere” following which one of M’s bodyguards starts firing and White escapes without elaborating any further. This is frustrating but also typical of this film which suffers from short, over-written scenes that don’t appear to lead anywhere much. We can say much the same about Hydrogen: it’s also everywhere, it hasn’t led anywhere much despite years of discussion, and like Mr. White’s Quantum organisation, it has the potential to change the world but somehow hasn’t got round to it just yet. The question is whether that is about to change.
Hydrogen technology which, in itself, is both clean (its only by-product is water) has been around for decades. I worked for Shell 20 years ago when Shell Hydrogen, led at the time by a senior executive called – and this is not made up – Jeremy Bentham, was rolling out a fleet of Hydrogen-powered buses in Iceland that would show the world how Hydrogen could be the fuel of the future. Shell’s energy scenarios published at the same time saw a world in 2050 fuelled entirely by Hydrogen but has seemingly done little to make this come true. In between times we have seen fuel-cell technology advance to the extent that Hydrogen fuelled planes, trains and automobiles have all been proven to work but have not captured the imagination of investors, the public or governments. The reasons why are simple: first, producing Hydrogen is energy intensive and thereby expensive. Second, the energy used to produce Hydrogen is – at the moment – mostly powered by fossil fuels making it emissions intensive. Third, transporting Hydrogen is both expensive and complicated – it is highly flammable – and, right now, would require government-level investment to create the required infrastructure to transport it.
None of these problems are easy to solve and the industry is well aware of them. This is why Hydrogen is divided into a number of different colours depending on how it’s produced: Grey Hydrogen is the most common form and is generated from natural gas or methane through a process called steam reforming. This generates a smaller amount of emissions than Black or Brown Hydrogen which use coal (oh dear) in the Hydrogen-making process. Blue Hydrogen also uses steam reforming but captures the emissions generated and stores them underground. Green Hydrogen uses renewable power to produce Hydrogen through electrolysis which splits water into two Hydrogen atoms and one atom of oxygen. There’s also Turquoise Hydrogen where the carbon produced can be used elsewhere, Pink Hydrogen which uses nuclear power and Yellow Hydrogen which uses solar power only.
At the moment, Green Hydrogen is capturing the zeitgeist because it really does have the potential to be a game-changer and both industry and some governments have woken up to the fact that they have the space and the natural resources to make Green Hydrogen a mainstay of their economies. For example, Morocco is not only signing deals to send power via vast cables to Europe but is also scaling up its plans to build huge wind and solar plants to fuel Green Hydrogen production on a massive scale. Even then, the problems with Green Hydrogen don’t go away: it’s efficient enough as a fuel but not as efficient as its fossil fuel rivals and the processes of producing, transporting and using Hydrogen involves substantial energy losses along the way. Furthermore, the size and scale of the renewable power plants required to fuel major Hydrogen producing facilities dictates that these plants will be a long way from their markets which then, in turn, increases transportation costs of a fuel that’s already hard to transport. And yet there is a solution: by using Green Hydrogen to produce Green Ammonia which can be refined into Nitrogen and Hydrogen after it has arrived at market, many of the transportation issues are avoided not least because transportation of Ammonia is already widely understood. Even then, Ammonia needs to be handled with significant respect as anyone who remembers the explosion in the Port of Beirut in August 2020 will tell you.
Despite the issues – none of which are new – the move into Green Hydrogen is real because Governments are getting real about the need to tackle climate change and how the scale of the challenge requires a previously unseen scale of response. Green Hydrogen provides a genuinely exciting way to reduce emissions and our Earth has all the space and resources to produce all the Green Hydrogen we could ever need. But this brings us back to Quantum of Solace: Bond spends much of the film tracking down the shadowy Quantum organisation before intruding on a senior staff meeting, which includes our friend Mr. White, at the Bregenz Opera House during a performance of Tosca. Bond breaks up the meeting with some characteristic pithy asides before being chased out of the building after which the Quantum Group gets on with taking over the world. Except that it doesn’t. In fact, it’s never heard of again and appears to be subsumed into Spectre, an altogether different league of criminal enterprise, in later films. Is this to be the fate of Green Hydrogen? Lots of talk, huge potential, plenty of glamour but no delivery? Possibly. But probably not. We have known about the potential of Hydrogen and the fact that it is, at its core, the cleanest source of energy for a long time. Given that we’re short of time and short of options, it’s easy to see how those scenarios of Shell published 20 years ago become a reality.
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