The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) has a legal mandate for New York State greenhouse gas emissions to meet the ambitious net-zero goal by 2050. I recently used my pragmatic environmentalist principles to show that there are very few aspects of the Climate Act that represent a pragmatic approach to climate change mitigation. I recently read an article about green hydrogen that described it as a process that is technically feasible, but highly undesirable. I am going to add the description of that type of process to my list of pragmatic principles.
Everyone wants to do right by the environment to the extent that they can afford to and not be unduly burdened by the effects of environmental policies. Unfortunately, I have written extensively on implementation of New York’s response to that risk because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that it will adversely affect reliability, impact affordability, risk safety, affect lifestyles, and will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change in New York. New York’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions are less than one half one percent of global emissions and since 1990 global GHG emissions have increased by more than one half a percent per year. Moreover, the reductions cannot measurably affect global warming when implemented. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
Climate Act Background
The Climate Act establishes a “Net Zero” target by 2050. The Climate Action Council is responsible for preparing the Scoping Plan that will “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda”. They were assisted by Advisory Panels who developed and presented strategies to the meet the goals to the Council. Those strategies were used to develop the integration analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants that quantified the impact of the strategies. That analysis was used to develop the Draft Scoping Plan that was released for public comment on December 30, 2021. Comments on the draft can be submitted until June 10, 2022.
My primary concern is that the Climate Act over-simplifies the problem and the solution. There are serious challenges for the transition to a zero-carbon grid that have not been adequately addressed by the Draft Scoping Plan. In my opinion the biggest issue is intermittency of wind and solar. In order to address those times when the wind is not blowing at night, for example, energy storage is required. The ultimate problem is that there are multi-day renewable resource drought periods when the wind resource is low and, especially in the winter, solar resources also can be reduced. It is especially concerning because those periods can coincide with the highest expected future loads after homes and cars are electrified. In order to help meet these requirements a generating type called Dispatchable Emission-Free Resource (DEFR) has been identified. The Draft Scoping Plan proposes the use of “green hydrogen”, that is to say produced by wind and solar hydrolysis, as a placeholder for this technology.
Green Hydrogen Swindle
A recent article in the Telegraph by Andrew Orlowski describes the United Kingdom’s hydrogen initiatives and the issues surrounding the use of hydrogen as has been proposed there. The introduction described a principle that I hadn’t heard before, “Kicking a dead whale down the beach”:
Engineers will rarely tell you something is impossible, even when your proposal is a very bad idea. Computer scientists at Stanford and MIT in the 1970s came up with a wonderful expression for this, an assignment that was technically feasible, but highly undesirable. They called it “kicking a dead whale down a beach”. The folklore compendium The Hacker’s Dictionary defines this as a “slow, difficult, and disgusting process”. Yes, you can do it like that. But you really don’t want to.
The article continues on to describe two big problems with hydrogen that turn any project into a dead whale exercise.
The first is that pure hydrogen doesn’t exist – it’s both everywhere and nowhere. We must generate all the hydrogen we can then use, and this requires a lot of energy. This is fine when the output of the process is something very valuable to us, such as fertiliser. But less so when the output of the process must compete with much cheaper commodities, as it must in an energy market.
Secondly, hydrogen’s intrinsic physical properties create a whole range of unique problems. It’s a tiny atom that easily escapes confinement. Keeping it captive for storage is expensive, and moving it around safely even more so, because in liquid form it must be very cold.
Hydrogen advocates tend to shrug off these issues – solving them will be someone else’s problem, they reckon. Individually, none of these factors make hydrogen as an energy carrier or storer impossible, but the whale-like properties are becoming harder to ignore.
The rest of the article is a highly recommended summary of the many issues that make a hydrogen economy technically feasible but highly undesirable.
All of the issues that are being raised in the United Kingdom related to the hydrogen economy envisioned there will inevitably also come up in New York as the Climate Act transition unfolds. Orlowski describes our fate well:
In its efforts to show the world how keenly it is embracing CO2 emission targets, our Government has left a lot of dead whales on the beach for us, and as consumers, we’ll be the ones doing the kicking.
The “dead whale on the beach” principle is a great example of pragmatic environmentalism. Just because a so-called solution is technically feasible it may not be desirable for a whole host of reasons.