Hydrogen Is As Broadly Useful As Hemp, And Will Be Used Just As Much

Hemp is a wonderful plant as proponents of it will assure anyone who will listen to them for more than 5 seconds. At my local organic grocery store, there are hemp-based lotions, hemp-based breads and hemp biscuits. I’m sure there’s hemp toilet paper in there too. (It’s actually a great store, and I buy most of my groceries there, but nothing with hemp in it.)

Hemp is an incredibly versatile plant. It’s a jack of all trades. If I was stranded on a desert island, I would have hemp seeds. You can make ropes, clothes, food and oils out of it. It is apparently good for skin irritations, inflammation and rheumatoid arthritis. You can make sails out of it. You can make paper out of it. Heck, you can make lighting oil out of it.

As a very enthusiastic market report said, the global market share in 2020 for industrial hemp was $ 5.6 billion. It is a useful agricultural product and it is still used for a lot of things.

But here’s the thing: Our world is running on specialization, not generalization. If a country is really good at making cars, and mediocre at making wine, but the country next door is making mediocre cars and good wine, they are really better at doing what they are good at. And the same goes for materials and plants.

Hemp rope is good. Hardly anyone uses it anymore because other plants make cheaper, better ropes, and artificial fibers make absurdly strong, much lighter ropes with properties like longevity and variety of extensibility that make them excellent for various applications. Do you want to climb? Do not use hemp rope. Do you want to tie up ships? Do not use hemp rope.

Hemp oil acts as cooking oil. Avocado oil, walnut oil and olive oil are all better along different vectors of better but definite taste and mouthfeel.

Hemp cloth is also okay. Almost no one uses it anymore because cotton is much better at making cloth. It makes clothes that are much smaller like carrying a burlap bag and it is cheaper for the purpose. And that is before synthetic fabrics that wick, breathe and stretch.

Hemp sails were amazing for a long time. Now no hemp is used for sails because modern sail material is far better.

Hemp as a topical treatment for inflammation is also okay. But tubes with anti-inflammatory creams that you get over-the-counter at pharmacies are better. They are more convenient, more efficient, cheaper and last longer in the tube. Heck, other natural remedies are much better than hemp.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

Hemp can do many things adequately, but most of the things it could do are made better and cheaper by something else that is less versatile.

Which brings us to hydrogen. Right now, about 120 million tons of hydrogen are used annually for things that hydrogen is actually good for. It’s all made from fossil fuels with zero attention to pollution and CO2 emissions, and as a result, it’s cheap. The S&P Plat’s hydrogen spot price index costs one kilogram of pure hydrogen $ 1.25 to $ 2.00 USD in the United States today. As I have written a lot about, a large majority of it is used for things that are good for at the price level, which includes removing sulfur from fossil fuels – a market that needs to go away – and making fertilizer – another market that needs to gone. Why are they going away? Climate change. They are both massive contributors to climate change, and as a result, they need to be addressed, not just replaced with low-carbon hydrogen. We need to stop turning crude oil into fossil fuels, and we need to stop spreading lots of fertilizer out on fields if it turns into 6x CO2e of its mass into nitrous oxide, a large greenhouse gas in itself.

But we can not make hydrogen so cheaply if we want to do without massive pollution and the impact of global warming. That’s just the reality. The price of hydrogen will rise. Whether we’re looking at carbon capture and sequestration – incredibly wasteful, silly and impractical – or running renewable electricity through sophisticated electrolysers, it’s becoming more expensive than gray or black hydrogen. Even at $ 20 / MWh – my expected stable final price for electricity decades from now after the $ 2021 transition – and 90% electrolyzer utilization, energy costs alone are $ 20 / MWh. Lazard’s hydrogen LCOE far above the current spot price, from $ 2.56 to $ 2.96 USD.

The laws of thermodynamics will not allow it to become much cheaper. We’re definitely taking a 10% discount on it, maybe 20%, and that’s great, but we’re not going to halve it.

Liebreich’s pure hydrogen ladder commented on competing technologies, courtesy of Michael Liebreich.

As I have assessed, the top line and its “no real alternatives” are somewhat insignificant, as three of these uses – fertilizer, hydrocracking and post-sulfurization requirements will fall over the coming decades, not stay put and certainly not grow. And let’s be clear, the top line is the only place where hydrogen is used in all quantities today. Everything else is an expected new use of hydrogen.

Like all the expected uses of hemp outside of odd niche -enthusiastic consumer groups.

For anything that has a competitive technology for electricity / batteries, guess what. Using electricity directly or through batteries is almost always more efficient, effective and cheaper than using hydrogen.

Like all the things we use instead of hemp today.

Hydrogen can be burned for heat. But we do not do it today and will not do it in the future because it is easier to get heat directly from electricity in exactly the quantities and places we need with electricity. (Pro-tip: electricity is actually an amazingly efficient, effective and cheap jack in all industries. Typically if it can be used at all, it’s the best choice. The only reason we do not use it for more things is that When we are allowed to treat our atmosphere like an open sewer, fossil fuels are cheaper.)

Hydrogen can be stored for long-term storage. But we do not do it today and will not do it in the future because pumped water storage and batteries are cheaper and better.

Hydrogen can be used as a transport fuel. But we do not do it today, and will not do it in the future, because mains-bound and battery-powered vehicles are absurdly more fit for purpose until we get into massive scales that cannot be bound on the net, at which point it is still not hydrogen , because biofuels that package hydrogen and coal using sunlight are cheaper and more efficient.

Hydrogen can be used for heating and cooking in the home, as natural gas is today. But we do not do it today, and will not do it in the future, because electricity is already in every home, heat pumps are far better and safer than the combination of gas stoves and air conditioners, which they displace, we already have very efficient, cheap and very efficient electrical appliances and we have no hydrogen appliances.

Hydrogen can be used for steel. We do not do that today, but we will probably do much more of it in the future. Even though direct reduction of iron ore is being used using electricity to electrify the way we electrified aluminum production. And we have electric steel mine machines to process all the remaining scrap metal from all the fossil infrastructure and equipment that gets turned off. Steel is not a guaranteed growth market for hydrogen, just a likely one.

Hydrogen can be used for methanol. But a useful result of this comparison of hemp with hydrogen is that Liebreich has pointed out that biomass / biogas can also be used for this purpose, and if hydrogen is twice as expensive, alternatives will be explored and commercialized quickly. As a result, my projection of demand for flat line methanol hydrogen is actually optimistic. When I publish v2.0 of the outlook for hydrogen demand, it will decrease and reduce net hydrogen demand further.

All the people shouting from the rooftops about the wonders of hydrogen are just as wrong as all the people shouting about the wonders of hemp, and for the same reasons. There are better and cheaper alternatives. So why are we aware of people shouting about hydrogen?

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