What are the implications if ‘white hydrogen’ isn’t a white elephant?

So you’ve probably heard of grey, blue and green hydrogen – I won’t explain here, if you haven’t then google it and then come back. But as of the last few days, you may also have heard of ‘white’ hydrogen (also sometimes called ‘gold’ hydrogen). I first came across the idea earlier this year, and I’ve been meaning to write about it, but this week it hit the mainstream with a piece in the Telegraph.

White hydrogen is hydrogen that forms naturally in the rocks under our feet, like oil (although by a different process, and in different rocks). And some reliable sources (like the US Geological Survey) have estimated that there may be a lot more of it than anyone had previously guessed – enough to entirely replace the fossil fuel industry with hydrogen that we can extract at about the same cost as those same fossil fuels.

If you’re like me, and most other commentators, your immediate reaction is, that sounds too good to be true, because surely we couldn’t have missed something that big? Right? Well, I’ve linked to some other sources below, but to summarise:

  • People have noticed seepages of hydrogen from rocks all over the world for a long time. The same was true of oil for hundreds of years before anyone thought of developing it.
  • Hydrogen forms in completely different rocks to oil, so we haven’t looked in the right places at all.
  • People prospecting for oil (and other things) just haven’t been testing for hydrogen.

So, it is possible that vast reservoirs of naturally occurring hydrogen exist under our feet and haven’t been found. Surprisingly little of the earth has been comprehensively geologically mapped.

One key thing about white hydrogen is that it is continuously being formed, mainly by water reacting with certain types of rock. That means that if/when a reservoir is tapped, it may well keep producing forever, as unlike oil the hydrogen is continuously replenished. In fact there is the tantalising prospect of a win-win-win – pumping water and carbon dioxide down a hydrogen well, where the CO2 reacts to form rock, some of the water creates fresh hydrogen, and the rest of the water is heated. The heated water and hydrogen then circulate back up, providing geothermal and hydrogen energy.

Of course it’s impossible to know at this point how much H2 might be economically recoverable, and how long this industry might take to develop. But there is the chance it could happen quite quickly – after all, we have a load of highly capitalised global companies specialised in this type of thing, that we’re currently telling to abandon their primary product.

What would be the implications is we could suddenly produce as much hydrogen as we could use, at a cost per unit of energy comparable to oil? A major worry is that even considering that question might lead to a stalling of current efforts to decarbonise using existing technology. However, I think that’s unlikely – even if we find huge amounts of white hydrogen, it will still mainly dovetail with wider efforts at electrification, we’ll just have more fuel cells and fewer batteries.

The fuel cell industry will be a massive winner, as the economics of fuel cells vs bigger batteries will win out for more vehicles. Efforts to decarbonise current industry with hydrogen will get a huge boost – primarily fertiliser, but also steel and chemicals. And it will make decarbonising shipping with ammonia as a fuel far more attractive. Electrolysis may be a big loser, but then again maybe not – hydrogen will still be hard to transport, and if the use of hydrogen becomes far more widespread, then there may well be interest in producing it by electrolysis in locations further from hydrogen wells.

Then of course we have to consider the possibility of leaks, and whether hydrogen is itself a pollutant? Hydrogen is not itself a greenhouse gas, and it doesn’t last long in the atmosphere, but it does increase climate heating by prolonging the life of methane in the atmosphere, and its effects on ozone. However, some useful work has been done on this by the UK government, which concluded that since some hydrogen is created by the burning of fossil fuels anyway, the amount likely to leak in a hydrogen economy would be less than the reduction in hydrogen from the fossil fuels we would have burned instead. Still, leaks would need to be closely regulated from day one if drilling for hydrogen takes off.

Overall, this may sound a little far fetched, but I think it’s something that everyone in the transport and energy space needs to keep a close eye on. It’s just possible that ten years from now the energy economy could look very different from any of the current predictions.





If we want to keep the EV momentum going, it’s time to make small cars cool again

In the world of EV sales, things are shaping up for a showdown between market forces and, well, common sense.

On the side of common sense, authorities in Paris have declared war on ‘auto-besity’, and are going to introduce parking fees that get progressively higher based on the weight and size of vehicles. Deputy mayor David Belliard said SUVs were incongruous in an urban environment. “There are no dirt paths, no mountain roads … SUVs are absolutely useless in Paris. Worse, they are dangerous, cumbersome and use too many resources to manufacture.”

Unfortunately, the higher charges in Paris won’t apply to electric SUVs. Which is a shame, because the market forces that have pushed ICE vehicles towards SUVs seem to be having an even greater effect on the EV market, where an ever higher proportion of the models on offer are SUVs and ‘crossovers’.

The trend towards heavier vehicles started in the US as a way for manufacturers to avoid stricter air quality regulations that did not apply to ‘light trucks’. But it continues on the logic that big vehicles don’t cost that much more to make than small ones, but consumers will accept a proportionally bigger price mark-up. As manufacturers switch over to EVs, with expensive batteries, it’s easier to lose that extra cost in a big luxury vehicle which has a larger profit margin to start with.

Still – does a trend towards bigger cars matter, if they’re electric? Well, yes, for a lot of reasons, but three in particular – equality, efficiency and liveability.

First, equality. A few years ago I fully expected the switch to EVs to reverse the trend towards SUVs, as the desire for greater range would push consumers towards lighter vehicles. Instead, manufacturers have doubled down on size and found they have more space for giant battery packs, which have come down in price to levels which are ‘affordable’, at least in the higher end of the market. But where does that leave ‘mass market’ adoption?

Big, heavy EVs won’t be cheap for a long time (if ever) because they need lots of batteries. If that’s all that European manufacturers want to make, then one of two things will happen. Either the rollout of EVs will stall, and leave the majority of consumers with no option but to stick with ICEs (and you could be forgiven for thinking this has happened if you read the current backlash in the press). Or, more likely, Chinese companies will fill the void and eat their lunch.

Second, efficiency. We are heading for a 100% renewable grid – but we’re not there yet. And don’t forget, we have to switch most of our heating to electricity, which will need a lot more renewables, and that’s predicted to keep the price of electricity high for years. So if your electric car is twice as heavy as it needs to be, and uses twice as much energy, then the extra power you use is adding to demand and slowing our progress towards getting rid of fossil fuels and bringing prices down. (And don’t forget that it’s also taken more energy to build it.)

Efficiency matters – comparing like-with-like, EVs beat ICE. But as of now, smaller, lighter petrol cars still have a smaller environmental footprint than bigger, heavier EVs.

Finally, liveability. More SUVs make it harder to get people to cycle and walk, because they take up more road space and are more likely to kill people in collisions. And they need bigger parking spaces, accelerating the trend to tarmac over more of our urban space, exacerbating flash flooding and the heat island effect.

So, what’s the answer? I think it’s high time to make small cars cool again. I don’t know what they’ll do in America, where their icons are the Hummer and the F150 pick-up, but we’re European. The re-launch of the Fiat 500 was a great success a few years ago, as was the new Mini (even though it’s admittedly a lot bigger than the old Mini).

Our automotive industry has a great history of making small cars profitable, and cool. The ‘European dream’ if there is one, is zipping from a pavement café to the beach, parking in a space not much bigger than a picnic blanket at either end. Michael Caine didn’t need an SUV to transport his gold bullion, ‘Nicole’ and ‘Papa’ didn’t need to impress with a Chelsea tractor. It’s time for the electric revolution to give us new cars that are small but iconic.




Is electrification already pushing European truck OEMs to change their business model?

Last Thursday was ‘truck decarbonisation day’ at the Road Transport Expo, and very interesting it was too. I could write about any number of topics that came up, but I’ll start by joining a few dots to point to what’s shaping up to be a significant change in the business models for truck manufacturers.

Like many in the audience, I was particularly struck by a comment from Harry Campey, of hauliers Campey’s of Selby. This small family firm is showing real leadership as an early adopter of electric trucks, and in his presentation Harry included the interesting detail that they had decided to risk taking their DAF electric truck without an R&M contract. Based on his own experience of driving a Tesla, Harry had concluded that EVs just wouldn’t need enough maintenance to make it worthwhile.

It’s an open secret in the automotive world that manufacturers don’t make great margins on the cars, or trucks, they sell. The majority of overall profits are actually made by the finance companies that loan you the money to buy, and the sale of parts and maintenance after the fact – with this latter being especially true for commercial vehicles. It’s early days to know for sure if electric trucks will need less maintenance, but based on the experience with cars few would bet against it.

What might fill the profits gap left by lower maintenance? Well, in the last few weeks Ford and GM have both struck deals with Tesla in the US to allow their customers to use the Tesla Supercharger network, making Tesla’s decision to invest in charging as well as cars look remarkably prescient. And late last year, four of the big European truck brands joined forces in the Mileance partnership, which is setting out to build the truck equivalent of the Supercharger network in Europe.

This could be the beginning of a pretty fundamental shift in the automotive world. Imagine if Henry Ford had also set out to own the distribution of petrol – that’s the model we may see for trucks, and possibly cars too if Tesla achieves the same success in Europe.

Shell and BP are certainly investing heavily in car charging networks, and with such a huge market they are unlikely to be edged out. Truck charging is still at an early stage though – will the vehicle manufacturers seek to make the sale of energy to power those trucks the revenue stream to replace maintenance? In January this year BP announced it was investing in six charging stations along a 600km stretch of the Rhine-Alpine corridor across Germany, so the oil companies won’t go down without a fight.

If the business model does shift, there’s also the question of where that leaves the dealer networks. One possibility is that electric trucks will be run for longer than diesel equivalents, with regular refurbishments to the cab, or drivetrain upgrades, throughout that longer life, which could be a lifeline for dealers.

There are certainly interesting times ahead…