Rufus Miles, Hydrogen and What It Means to be Clean

Saving the planet will be a multi-faceted mission requiring a variety of tools. But we must be judicious about where and how we employ them.

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These days, we tend to frown upon the term "Washington insider," but sometimes it takes a lifelong bureaucrat to understand how the proverbial sausage gets made. Rufus Miles served in three presidential administrations (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson) in a wide variety of roles. As he moved across departments and positions, he came to an astute observation, an aphorism enshrined as Miles' Law: "Where you stand depends on where you sit."

As an energy executive who has worked closely with governments in multiple countries and continents, I've often reflected on the truth of Miles' Law. It's an inherently human tendency to work to serve our own interests and points of view. However, if we are to step up and save the planet from environmental catastrophe, we need to step away from positional thinking. We need to realize we all "sit" in the same place: on planet Earth.

Rufus Miles has been on my mind as hydrogen has become trendy. As we move toward mass electrification, we must rely on renewable energy. Anything that can be electrified should be. Hydrogen, though touted as "clean," still needs to be produced and converted using methods that are less so. However, as the debate rages as to how to "be clean" and how to "go green," we need to remember that weaning ourselves off of hydrocarbons will be a complex process. We cannot get stuck simply serving our own industries and interests.

Our approach should be nuanced and specific to energy usage and application. But our thinking must be rigorously broad. We cannot collapse into an incremental approach where special interests can distract from the existential threat we face. Smaller steps are easier, but they won't save us. As systems scientist Peter Senge once put it, "The easy way out usually leads back in."

Our first priority must be to electrify everything. Only once we have fully gleaned where mass electrification fails us; we can see where hydrogen will make sense and fill in the gaps. Of course, this assumes that hydrogen will be produced in a green way. Converting green electricity into another fuel simply makes no sense. It's not efficient: Whenever one form of energy is converted into another, some is lost. That said, there might be application-specific, regionally useful places for hydrogen. This article attempts to lay out how to define those places.

Hydrogen is far from ideal where green energy is concerned, but there are specific gaps that reveal limited applications where hydrogen could prove a sound investment. There are key instances where this holds true:

1. Heavy transportation needs: This includes freighters, other large vessels and long-distance trucking.

2. Industries with significant process heat loads: Any industrial setting that cannot be electrified, requiring gaseous fuel for heavy thermal loads.

3. Stranded green electricity: Any instance where green electricity can't get to load or bulk electric markets because of long-term transmission constraints.

4. Air travel: Hydrogen may also be well-suited to certain aircraft.

Some large vessels, aircrafts and industrial sites cannot be electrified because they require the kind of heavy heat load that makes them best suited for gaseous fuel. In these cases, hydrogen is a better, greener option, as electrification is entirely off the table. In such instances where hydrogen is the best fit, we should then consider if excess green assets could be used to create it. The key phrase here is excess, putting green energy to use where it would otherwise go to waste. Again, using electricity to create hydrogen to serve loads that could be electrified is inefficient, so we should only aim to create it when electrification can't be used, and when the energy required to create it is already abundant.

When heavy transportation needs, heavy process heat loads, and stranded green electricity intersects, it's logical to invest in a hydrogen mini-grid. To meet these local and site-specific needs, the technology needed to realize hydrogen mini-grids must be modular — so it can stack on top of each other and meet load as it grows — as well as scalable and flexible, so it can run specifically at times when green electricity is readily available and cheap. This is the precise instance and application of hydrogen that makes sense.

Unfortunately, in both government and private businesses, the predominant motivators for hydrogen development have been sunk costs or sunk investments. We're seeing this in both Australia and Europe. "We already have a network of pipelines, so we might as well use them for hydrogen," the thinking goes. Again, it comes back to standing where we sit: Those sitting on a network of pipes are going to be eager to put them to use. But just because you have something doesn't mean you have to use it, nor does it make it the most reasonable or efficient choice.

It's natural to want to find a good use for existing pipelines — after all, billions of dollars were invested in them. But we need to ask the question: If we didn't have these pipelines already, would we build them for hydrogen? No. While it might sound appealing to discuss green or blue hydrogen, it would be a choice motivated by desires to appease investors and shareholders, regrouping sunk costs — not by what makes the most sense for our energy needs.

Saving the planet will be a multi-faceted mission requiring a variety of tools. But we must be judicious about where and how we employ them. To do so, we'll need to step beyond our respective industries and interests. While hydrogen can be part of this solution, it certainly is not the first step we need to take. We must think in terms of wide-scale change and adoption needed to power the future.

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