climate change energy technology

Book review: The Hydrogen Revolution, by Marco Alvera

A couple of weeks ago the UK government announced its hydrogen strategy, a new roadmap for expanding the hydrogen economy as part of its net zero plans. It didn’t get a huge amount of attention, but one thing that jumped out to me is this: it’s happening. People in climate change and green tech circles have talked a lot about the merits of hydrogen and whether we should bother with it. It has its fans and its detractors, but events have now overtaken the discussion. It’s happening.

With that in mind, I thought I would read up on hydrogen and write about it, and Marco Alvera’s new book The Hydrogen Revolution landed on the doormat at an opportune moment. It’s a perfect introduction to what hydrogen is, how it’s made, and the role that it could play in a sustainable future.

Hydrogen is a gas that can be burnt for fuel, and that burns without carbon emissions. Unlike natural gas or other fossil fuels, it isn’t found and extracted. It is made, most commonly through from water with an electrolyser. These can be run on renewable energy, which creates a variety of useful clean energy opportunities.

For instance, you can use renewable energy to make hydrogen in the summer, and store it to burn in the winter. You can create green gas and inject it into the gas grid. It can be used in transport applications, in the form of hydrogen fuel cells, which turn it back into electricity. Since gas pipelines have fewer transmission losses than electric cables, you can move power from one place to another more efficiently. If anyone is going to sell North African solar energy into European grids, it would be cheaper to do it through the gas grid as hydrogen than to lay long distance cables for electricity.

Your guide to this “exciting new future of energy” is Marco Alvera, Italian CEO of SNAM, the energy infrastructure corporation. SNAM runs gas pipelines, and is the hived-off infrastructure division of the Italian oil company ENI. I suspect that for some in the climate change world, that will make Alvera too close to the fossil fuel industry to be a reliable witness. But if you want someone to tell you the practical details of what hydrogen can and can’t do, and the economics of it and the geopolitical implications, you really won’t find anyone better qualified.

And that’s what you get here – an overview of the science, the key technologies, the most likely places where hydrogen will break through first. As a businessman, the book is particularly good at describing how important price parity with fossil fuels will be, how far we are from that point and how it could be achieved. It’s all presented in clear language, low in jargon and high in sense of possibility.

Like Bill Gates’ recent book, this is a vision of a sustainable future that can’t imagine substantial lifestyle change. It’s all about finding the right techological solutions, in this case aiming to provide around 25% of total energy as hydrogen, as part of net zero targets. That will be in hard to decarbonise sectors such as steel and heavy goods shipping, but also in cars, energy storage and in heating – including the promising idea of seasonal energy storage: “How wonderful it will be, one cold January day in 2030, to crank up the boiler and bask in the heat of June’s Sahara sun.”

The Hydrogen Revolution is unapologetically advocating hydrogen, and other opinions are available. Nevertheless, hydrogen has a unique and highly versatile role to play in the climate story, whether or not it turns out to be as extensive as Alvera suggests. Take the book as a guide to the possibilities, and it’s a very useful and readable introduction.

4 comments

  1. As an ex-science / chemistry teacher, I know only too well how easily hydrogen can escape through the smallest leak. It also makes explosive mixtures with air very easily. I havn’t seen any of its advocates mentioning how much of it will escape through leaky old gas pipes or how many accidental explosions are likely. I’m saying well clear!

    1. You’d see exactly that in this book. It has a whole chapter on the challenges of storing hydrogen when it loves to escape. Another looks at the safety of using hydrogen – both what the risks are, and how they compare to other forms of energy. After all, petrol is a highly dangerous substance that is explosive when mishandled, and yet society doesn’t live in fear of it.

    1. Yes, and this is another thing I want to explore. Hydrogen can be a way for fossil fuel companies to extend their power through illusory clean energy, and that’s one of the risks. But it would a shame to throw the whole idea out the window because of it, and the more people understand how hydrogen could be done badly, the better our chances will be of doing it well.

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