Fuel of the future

It’s important to separate the positive work being done in Unst which is being deployed in places like Africa, where it makes sense, from the more general SIC initiative referred to in the article (SIC hydrogen fuel study; SN, 22/4/15) which is intended, ostensibly, to replace fossil fuels with locally-produced hydrogen as Shetland’s “fuel of the future”.

Here’s what is being proposed:

Shetland communities will build wind farms to generate electricity at over twice the cost of fossil fuel electricity. They will then use this electricity to produce hydrogen from water, for which they will have to buy expensive production, compression and storage equipment, and will lose significant amounts of energy in the production process.

They will then use that hydrogen to generate electricity in thermal power stations or vehicle engines with an efficiency of, say, 30 to 60 percent (70 to 40 percent energy lost, respectively) or transport it via cables and charge points to charge up electric vehicles’ batteries, again, incurring energy losses.

How much is all this going to cost? I don’t know, but I do know it will be a damned sight more than the cost of using oil or gas as we do now. How do I know this?

Because the technology for obtaining energy from oil, gas and coal is advancing rapidly, prices have fallen and even the UK is replete with fossil fuels. Large unconventional gas resources exist, not only, in England but also in the central belt of Scotland, a few miles from Grangemouth whose owner, INEOS, has bought the exploration rights from BG for about £1 billion.

A vast oil reserve has been found in Sussex, reportedly equivalent to about 40 percent of what has come out of the North Sea, to date; there are huge, easily-accessible, coal reserves, suitable for coal gasification and more and more oil and gas fields continue to be discovered in the North Sea, notably, west of Shetland.

Furthermore, vast unconventional oil and gas resources exist around the world – China has 50 percent more than the US! – and technology is being developed to tap into the, effectively, limitless gas reserves from methane hydrates found in continental shelves around the globe.

Throw in the near-term development of intrinsically-safe thorium nuclear plants with fuel for thousands of years and we may well ask, “When is exactly is this “fuel of the future”, this hydrogen, going to be needed, far less, become economic?”

Assuming the normally sensible Michael Stout and Frank Robertson haven’t completely ‘lost their marbles’, they will, presumably, be able to answer that question?

I realise Holyrood politicians have committed the SIC to the lunacy of a 42 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020, however, hydrogen fuel won’t help to achieve that quixotic aim which, itself, will make zero impact on global climate; and in the absence of massive government subsidy, hydrogen fuel is unlikely, ever, to be economic.

While school closures remain on the SIC agenda, people employed on such fanciful schemes will, inevitably, find themselves under the spotlight for potential spending cuts. There are far more worthwhile things they could be doing.

Total is about to open a large gas plant at Sullom Voe and BP is about to build another one. Use gas! For heaven’s sake, wake up and grab the opportunity, it’ll be there for a long time.

It’ll even greatly reduce your carbon dioxide emissions and nobody alive in Shetland now – and probably long after – will ever have to think about hydrogen fuel.

No one, Michael Stout, is “going to be left behind”. Producing hydrogen from water using electricity isn’t ‘rocket science’. All you’ll need to do, if and when the time comes, is buy the equipment and the wind turbines from China and get on with it.

And Iceland doing something isn’t by itself a reason to copy them; there needs to be logic in the decision. Logic which, if I may say, is spectacularly absent in the case of Shetland shunning natural gas in favour of hydrogen as her “fuel of the future”.

Invest in hydrogen when it becomes necessary and/or economic, not before. Don’t waste time and money on it now, when both are in extremely short supply, due to spending cuts.

John Tulloch