EverWind: Powered by ‘Hopium?’

Having tried to understand the financing of the EverWind green hydrogen project in Point Tupper it’s now time to consider the science—or lack thereof—behind it.

First, you need to understand that hydrogen does not come in a variety of colors. The color coding is used to denote how the hydrogen is produced. If it is produced using fossil fuels without any form of carbon capture, it is black (or grey); if it is produced using fossil fuels with some sort of carbon capture, it is blue; and if it is produced using renewables like wind or solar, it is green. (Carbon capture is also a technology of dubious efficacy, of course, but that’s a topic for another day.)

EverWind proposes to build a windfarm that will generate electricity that will be used to produce hydrogen and if you’re wondering how it will all work, you’re in luck, because the company provides this comprehensive overview:

 

Overview

 

May I begin by saying I find this whole schtick of pretending concern for Nova Scotia really annoying? Investors don’t get involved in projects like this because they care about the environment or they want to help “local ice rinks.” (Do you honestly believe EverWind’s founder, New York-based private equity manager Trent Vichie, has been losing sleep over the lack of green ammonia in Nova Scotian ice rinks?) They get involved because they smell money.

Also, I lied about EverWind’s “comprehensive” description of its process. From simply stating it will lead “innovations in green hydrogen and green ammonia production” the way one might state, “I will sell shoes” or “I will open a motel,” to supplying green hydrogen “as a substitute for coal,” to suddenly, in phase two, “becoming globally competitive” this entire plan hinges on what I discovered this week is called “hopium.”

I learned the term from Paul Martin, a retired chemical engineer and co-founder of the Hydrogen Science Coalition, a non-profit organization made up of academics, scientists and engineers who, as Martin told me when we spoke on Tuesday, know something about hydrogen but “unlike most people in the space, have no money riding on it.”

The group’s tagline is:

Bringing an evidence based viewpoint into the political discussion on hydrogen.

 

Multiple inefficiencies

I spoke with Martin and I read some of his articles and I listened to an interview he did with the HC Insider podcast (which I highly recommend) and my big takeaway is this:

Green hydrogen for fuel—bad.

Green hydrogen for fertilizer and ammonia—good.

Paul Martin

Paul Martin

EverWind, as you will just have read, is promising fertilizer and green ammonia for the local market but its real aim, when it becomes “globally competitive,” is to produce fuel.

But Martin says talk of using hydrogen for fuel is a “dumb distraction” on the road to decarbonization. To begin with, turning water into hydrogen is really inefficient. You have to feed electricity into an electrolyzer, a highly expensive piece of equipment that splits the hydrogen from the oxygen and in the process loses 30% of the energy. (Although as Martin explains on the HC Insider podcast, that 30% loss is a best-case scenario, achievable only with a “bleeding edge, state of the art” electrolyzer that an outfit like EverWind would be unlikely to be able to afford.)

Once the hydrogen is produced, it has to be stored and Martin says the most basic way to do this is by compressing it into a high-pressure gas, a process that is about 90% efficient.

In Martin’s example, the gas doesn’t have to be moved, it’s used where it’s produced, but it has to be converted back into electricity in an engine or a fuel cell, which are about 60% efficient. By the time you multiply out the efficiencies, he says, you’re left with 37% of the energy you started with.

EverWind’s plan envisions the Point Tupper coal generation facility being “retrofitted to use green hydrogen, while providing the same amount of power to the grid per year.”

So they plan to use wind power to generate electricity to convert into hydrogen to produce electricity? Is this some sort of Rube Goldberg approach to decarbonization?

As Martin says, if your goal is to help decarbonize Nova Scotia, a province that produces 60% of its power from fossil fuels, why not just feed the electricity produced by the windfarm directly into the power grid?

 

Pipelines

EverWind offers no hint as to how it will transport the hydrogen it produces and that’s likely because transporting hydrogen is a whole other kettle of fish. Exploring the problem in Forbes, James Morris says transporting hydrogen to a fuel station will result in “another 26% loss of the remaining energy…meaning, you’ve already lost a total of 48% of the energy before any hydrogen makes it into a vehicle.” Morris adds:

In comparison, the typical loss from transferring electricity over wires to a charging station is just 5%, so you still have 95% left.

The lure of hydrogen as a fuel for cars and light trucks is that it will allow us to continue driving as we always have—we’ll pull up to hydrogen stations and fill up in about the time it takes to fill our gas tanks. This contrasts favorably with waiting a few hours to recharge an electric car. But producing and transporting hydrogen requires significant energy which Martin says would make your hydrogen car five times more expensive to run than your electric car. And that’s assuming we actually figure out a way to transport significant amounts of hydrogen efficiently.

Man with hydrogen car

EVP Mitsuhisa Kato reveals the 2015 Toyota FCV hydrogen fuel cell vehicle to the media in Tokyo on June 25, 2014. (Photo by Bertel Schmitt (BsBsBs), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Martin says in all of the United States, there are about 2,000 miles of hydrogen pipelines and they all connect chemical plants or refineries to each other so that, if necessary, they can draw on each other’s supplies of hydrogen. In contrast, the US has about 2 million miles of natural gas pipelines. The amount of hydrogen moved is “trivial,” he says, and that’s because it has got “a very poor energy density per unit volume and as a consequence that makes it energy inefficient to move.”

Martin says natural gas pipelines can carry hydrogen, but the expensive pipes, the ones that carry natural gas long distances, are made of steels with higher-strength carbon content and even adding a small amount of hydrogen to these pipes “reduces their fatigue life considerably.”

 

Green ammonia

There’s more, in his piece “Distilled Thoughts on Hydrogen,” Martin demonstrates why hydrogen makes no sense for powering ships or airplanes or as a source of home heating and I encourage you to give it a read, but I’m going to move on to the use for which green hydrogen does makes sense and that is, as a replacement for black hydrogen.

As Martin explains, hydrogen is used to produce ammonia and ammonia is used to produce fertilizer and fertilizer is essential to agriculture or, as Martin says, is necessary to ensuring people can eat. Even in a decarbonized future, we will still require millions of tons of hydrogen each year. But 98.7% of our hydrogen is produced with fossil fuels using no form of carbon capture—that is, with black hydrogen:

Hydrogen is a valuable (120 million tonne per year) commodity CHEMICAL – a valuable reducing agent and feedstock to innumerable processes- most notably ammonia as already mentioned. That’s a 40 million tonne market, essential for human life, almost entirely supplied by BLACK hydrogen right now. Fix those problems FIRST, before dreaming of having any excess to waste as an inefficient, ineffective heating or comfort fuel!!!

A facility that used renewables to produce hydrogen to turn into green ammonia could be a good thing, Martin told me, but “you wouldn’t build it in Cape Breton, you’d build it in Western Australia” which has a combination of desert and ocean that means you have sun all day and winds that blow in, reliably, every night. So your expensive electrolyzer can run on solar power by day and wind by night and never sit idle.

Ammonia

An ammonia molecule, NH3 (I know, it would be better if they Nitrogen were green but I could only find it in blue.)

But no matter where your green ammonia is produced, Martin says it’s going to be prohibitively expensive compared to black ammonia unless carbon taxes make the black alternatives unaffordable. Given we’re nowhere near that stage yet, I would really like to see EverWind’s business case.

As noted, Martin thinks talk of using hydrogen for anything other than the production of green ammonia (and some other, niche uses) is a “dumb distraction” but a dangerous one that could stop us from doing things that could actually help decarbonize our province—like investing heavily in wind and solar and “electrifying everything” (an idea Paul Strome floated in these pages back in February 2021).

 

Oh Joi, Oh Rapture!

Martin blames fossil fuel companies for hyping hydrogen and delaying electrification and that’s a topic I need to explore further, but governments are also to blame for supporting some seriously hare-brained hydrogen technologies and I’m going to leave you with a cautionary tale from just over the border in New Brunswick, where the provincial government gave millions of dollars to a Florida-based company called Joi which promised, in return, to break the laws of thermodynamics.

As the CBC reported:

NB Power paid Joi Scientific $13 million Cdn to license a technology that claims to be able to efficiently generate hydrogen gas from seawater to generate electricity on demand, something that would be a major scientific breakthrough.

Of the payment, $6.7 million came from taxpayers via the province’s Regional Development Corporation. NB Power CEO Gaëtan Thomas said earlier this year that the other half of the licensing fee came from a fund for research and development that is part of the utility’s regular annual budget.

One of the company’s patents claims it can generate hydrogen at 200 per cent efficiency. For one watt of input energy, the patent says two watts of energy in the form of hydrogen gas are produced.

“We’ve seen results indicating, clearly indicating, independently witnessed, that it does produce more energy than in,” Thomas told CBC News in May.

By the fall of 2021, Joi was admitting its calculations were wrong and the CBC’s Jacques Poitras was reporting that “flattery, connections and looming carbon costs” had driven the partnership, which by then was on the rocks (New Brunswick cut its funding of the project in December).

Poitras had accessed “hundreds of pages of documents” which revealed, among other things, that:

Mike Sellman, a U.S. nuclear power specialist on NB Power’s board of directors, said Joi appeared to be claiming it could break one of the fundamental laws of science.

“You can’t get more energy out than you put in,” he wrote in an email exchange with senior NB Power staff. “This flies into the face of what Joi Scientific seems to be saying.”

Vancouver energy consultant Michael Barnard had told the broadcaster back in May that Joi’s claims were like:

…saying you have a machine that works on cake. You have a cake, you put it in the machine, you press a button, it produces not only the cake you had, but a new cake. So you sell or eat the cake, and you put the cake back in the box.

While I feel for the people of New Brunswick, who did not deserve this, I cannot disguise the joi joy I am experiencing looking at this photo, which seems to suggest the technology would have allowed you to plug your grandmother’s table lamp directly into the ocean:

Three men on a beach with a lamp

 

Gaëtan Thomas stepped down as president of NB Power in May of 2020. I do not know if Lampgate ended his career but he is now president and CEO of the Conseil économique du Nouveau-Brunswick (CÉNB), which just goes to show a lack of familiarity with the laws of thermodynamics can’t keep a good man down.