The Hydrogen Economy

  • Posted: February 17, 2022
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I have a peculiar affection for Yogi Berra, Hall of Fame baseball player, artless philosopher and namesake to Jellystone Park’s most famous Ursus Americanus. I was too young to have been around during his exploits at Yankee Stadium but Yogi’s character and memory was a pungent addition to the soil of baseball lore within which I wallowed as a callow youth. Perhaps I missed Yogi’s home runs, but his avatar’s antics in Jellystone Park were a regular stop in our family’s Monday night TV viewing.

Yogi, Berra not the Bear, was known for his epigrams, Homer Simpson like quips that were nuggets of common sense wisdom. One quip in particular remains with me, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”, a pithy and humorous way of saying, “Make a decision and move on”. Good advice that.

Some thirty years ago, there came a fork in the road in my own life. I could remain an engineer, safe and secure within the certainties of my craft, or I could satisfy ambition’s itch by going rogue, abandoning professional rectitude and becoming a “developer”.

The professions, engineering, accounting, law and medicine, offer a refuge from the ambiguities of the world. We learn the rules of our craft, practice them as neutral observers much like referees in a game. In our role as professional arbiters of the “rules” whether of nature or man, we are given an exemption from the anxieties and temptations part and parcel of capitalism, red in tooth and claw. We are paid by the hour and are “above” the passions driving our clients.

But behind the plaster masks of our profession, we are only human beings. We are tempted, we are ambitious and we are beset with pride. We imagine ourselves so much smarter than those we advise. And so those most prideful sometimes succumb to ambition’s temptations. Thus exist the billboards and bus benches proclaiming Frank Azar, The Strong Arm of the Law and his cousins of the liability bar who bowdlerize their profession for a piece of the action. Doctor’s and CPA’s have their own roads to the smoking pits of Gehenna.

Engineers are denied the opportunity for parasitic symbioses with human misfortune that are the gravy train for other professions. Playing games with our expense reports is usually the limit of an engineer’s malfeasance. The particular temptation for engineers is development, to not only engineer that which we build, but to take that brilliant idea, spawn of a midnight’s intestinal distress, and make it ours. There are better mousetraps to be made!! We can achieve the fantasies of our ambition, standing astride the world as a “developer”.

Like much of Yogi’s advice, “take the fork in the road” is about the moment rather than its consequences. I did choose the road to perdition known as development. Once one takes that fork in the road, there is no turning back. I did attempt U-turns, not once but many times, but like Adam and Eve, once one’s eyes are open, there is no closing them again. We who have eaten of the forbidden fruit have no choice but to make do with fig leaves.

It is the itch in all engineers to do things, to remake the world. That is our Achilles heel. It leads us down many roads best not taken. All of us engineers think that with enough time and money, we can do anything. Once we take that fork in the road called development, we put our money, our life and our character, on the table to back up that belief.

And therein is the rub. Time is in the hands of God and though engineers repeatedly negotiate with him, He rarely responds. Ah, but money is in the hands of another party entirely. And as the 3rd Chapter in Genesis et.seq. makes clear, this window is open to negotiation though the terms are murky, ambiguous. Perhaps engineers might be well served to intersperse their studies in calculus and heat transfer with an occasional foray into classical literature. The legend of Dr. Faustus serves warning as to the nature of the deals made at the money window.

It is my experience over the years that engineers are not good at negotiating with the “monied interests” as we might call them. Engineers, as a class, are a sober and principled group of people in most respects, concerned with the purity of their craft, one might think of them as Eagle Scouts canoeing in the amoral currents of commerce. But the cruel joke is that our craft is useless without that money. Though we avert our eyes to our need, at the end of the day we have more in common with a junkie trolling the alleys for his next fix than we care to admit.

And so this post descends into the depths of my own particular professional misappropriation – Energy. I must admit to a certain hauteur, an ill becoming hubris. Back in the day, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sympathy for engineers engaged in the more prosaic fields of our profession, driving trains, working in factories, designing buildings or routines even more quotidian. In contrast to that imagined paucity of grandeur, I felt myself privileged to inhale the acrid odors of weld smoke on a pipeline firing line, thrill to the thunder of gas turbine drives, to walk the alleys of controlled chaos in refineries and gas plants.

But there exists balance in the world, grandeur is a function of cost. And thus engineers engaged in the business of energy are particularly vulnerable to lopsided negotiations with the “monied interests”. One hesitates to even use the word negotiate, as our time at that window more closely resembles a humble appointment with the Godfather.

There is a simulacrum of Facebook for the business minded – LinkedIn. Like Facebook, LinkedIn allows for communities of the like-minded to share news, views and cat videos. My own echo chamber on LinkedIn, as you might expect, is quite leery of the Green Energy infatuation common to educators, journalists, politicians and the graduates of Gender Studies programs. But even my own echo chamber is beginning to show symptoms of that same pandemic.

There are numerous posts on LinkedIn resonating to the drums beating for the Hydrogen Economy. The Hydrogen Economy is the result of engineers coming to that fork in the road and letting their ambition choose the road taken.

The Hydrogen Economy is another battleground in the climate wars. In contrast to the Gender Studies graduates commanding the fight to Save Planet Earth in the media and regulatory bureaucracy, actual engineers are involved in the Hydrogen Economy. Remember that not all engineers are professionals in the staid sense of the term, some of us fell into that pit of depravity known as “development”.

St. Paul in the Book of Romans speaks of men who know God, but turn their backs on his righteousness, saying that “God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting”. Recalling my own experiences as a developer during my darker hours, I find this a disturbingly accurate description of the job.

The actual circumstances leading to the Hydrogen Economy are straightforward, even banal to such an extent that Gender Studies graduates can understand them. This understanding is critical for developers, as government sets the rules of the game as well as operating the money window. It was Elon Musk who pioneered the enticing possibilities for engineers in the battle to Save the Earth.

The foundations of the Hydrogen Economy are both straightforward and logical:

  • Wind and solar power have grown to such a size they often generate more power than needed when the fickle hand of Mother Nature permits their operation.
  • Existing electrical grid regulations treat renewable energy in the same manner as bouncers treat hot girls at the entrance to crowded dance clubs. They go to the front of the line and get in no matter how crowded the dance floor.
  • There is currently no viable economic/environmental method to store this excess energy nor does one seem on the horizon.
  • In contrast to the ugly people at the end of the line waiting to get into the dance club, large quantities of dispatchable (fossil fueled) power are needed on the electrical grid, both now and any foreseeable future, to prevent large scale blackouts or rolling interruptions for the air conditioning in Adorable suburbs.

Developers even in their fallen state remember the ways of their craft. Putting on their engineering hats, they can take these circumstances and craft a compelling case for the Hydrogen Economy.

  • Take the waste electricity generated by renewables and use that waste power to electrolyze water. The water breaks apart into its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen gas. This continues to allow the hot girls in the club even when there are too many of them.
  • Separate out the hydrogen.
  • Use existing natural gas infrastructure, including storage, generation and transportation to replace natural gas with hydrogen creating both “renewable” energy storage and dispatchable electrical generation.
  • When the hydrogen is burned to produce electricity on demand, it simply creates water which is then electrolyzed once more. A totally sustainable and recyclable product, a closed cycle with no pollution or carbon emissions.

One can imagine the eyes of Gender Studies graduates rolling back into their lids as they shudder in ecstatic embrace of Nirvana. They knew those nerdy engineers would come through.

The sober and principled mind of the engineer recoils at the idea of the Hydrogen Economy. Leaving aside the huge energy efficiency penalties in such an idea, the entire system of natural gas infrastructure is really not usable for hydrogen. While hydrogen and methane are both flammable gases, hydrogen is a Dire Wolf compared to methane’s yip yip lap dog. The Hydrogen Economy would require replacing the entire natural gas infrastructure at perhaps 3-4X cost and significantly less safe.

But then as St. Paul intimated, we developers are given over to a debased mind to do that which ought not be done. Back in my own past, I invested a shameful amount of money and time pursuing the development of a new more efficient process for the production of fuel ethanol. Turning corn into fuel ethanol, a lesser fuel required to be blended into gasoline by government diktat, is a travesty on so many levels. Is ethanol any different than the Hydrogen Economy?

Turning once more to the wisdom of William Shakespeare in his play “Hamlet” by paraphrasing Hamlet’s response to Laertes, “every dog has its day”. While engineers, even developers, are at a great disadvantage negotiating with the monied interests, we do sometimes get our own back.

To take a story from that justly vilified literary trope, Uncle Remus, engineers are often in the position of Brer Rabbit. The Fox, otherwise known as the monied interests, controls our destinies, forcing us into disadvantageous circumstances. In our need we cry, “Oh please don’t throw us into the briar patch”.

And so the Fox throws us into the briar patch. And once in the briar patch, we know that we now have the upper hand. Who has ever heard of an energy project that came in on time or budget? They must continue to pay us and employ us. While they complain at the injustice forced upon them, we both realize we are no more than remoras feeding on their sufferance, the Great White Sharks.

Even though the more altruistic among us might regret the thermodynamic miscarriage upon which we work, that fetal malformation provides an unending source of employment for engineers. Society is much the poorer, but engineers are employed.

In my career as a developer, I was aware of my fallen state. Reconciling my chosen mode of employment with my walk with Jesus was often difficult. One often feels very alone as the modern Church is very much focused on the individual. The shepherds of our Faith have very little to say, other than vague homilies, about the hierarchy of the individual’s wider responsibilities, to teammates, employees, customers, legal, regulatory, professional, etc.

Those of us choosing that fork in the road known as development assume broad responsibilities. It is all well and good to make moral stands. Hell no, I don’t want anything to do with ethanol (Hydrogen Economy)!! But we have a family that depends on us, we have employees whose livelihood are in our hands. Customers and suppliers expect us to fulfil our duties. If I chose to hurt myself rather than compromise, there are others who hurt as well.

Compromises must be made, conflicting priorities must be mediated, ill-informed decisions must be made. Development is necessary, else we face a dystopian future. Those who remain ensconced in the personal rectitude allowed the professional are for the most part spared the need to compromise, to make a choice between Scylla and Charybdis.

Mathew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach, was written over a century and half ago, but its lines well describe the world of the developer:

“Hath neither joy, nor love, nor light

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night”

The professional remains above the storm, but those who take the fork, brave the maelstrom, must deal with the darkling plain and the ignorant armies, accepting the consequences. And even worse, we must watch as those depending on us reap the consequences of our choices as well.

 

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