Hot Air

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 20, 2005

Proponents of the postwar status quo insist that hydrogen will be the new gasoline and that we'll all be driving clean, efficient, guilt-free hydrogen cars from our suburban homes to our jobs by mid-century.

There's just one problem: hydrogen isn't exactly sitting in the ground waiting to be dug up.

It's a way to store energy, not a source of energy. In fact, since no energy exchange is ever 100 percent efficient, the simple act of producing hydrogen is a net energy loss.

Natural gas is the most likely candidate to fuel a 'hydrogen economy' (Solar or "renewable" hydrolysis just can't produce the sheer volume that would be required). The problem is that natural gas already has a lot of demands heaped on it.

A March 2004 report (PDF file) from Simmons & Company International, an energy investment bank, is instructive:

U.S. conventional natural gas peaked in 1973, and has since been augmented by offshore drilling and imports from Canada. Unfortunately, Canadian conventional natural gas peaked in 2002. Mexico may have large reserves, but it's too early to tell.

Large reserves in the Caspian Sea region and elsewhere are appealing, but it is very expensive to liquify natural gas for shipping, and the specialized infrastructure - specially equipped ports, natural gas tankers, etc. - simply doesn't exist today. Building that infrastructure will cost billions upon billions of dollars.

The problem with energy is that it's an absolute barrier. All economic activity requires energy, and if there's not enough energy to meet demand, certain activities will simply cease.

At the same time, no one will voluntarily freeze. People will pay to heat their homes whether it costs $100 or $500 a month to do so, so price has only a limited short-term direct effect on demand. (Indirectly, it will crowd out spending on other areas by swallowing more family income and raising the price of other products.)

So it looks like natural gas may not even be able to sustain the roles it serves today as the main supply of electric power and heating. The prospect of taking automotive transit on its shoulders as well is laughable.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.

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By David (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2006 at 01:41:35

You nailed it, Ryan...

And the "crowding out" is the big part of this whole issue. If the majority has things crowded out of their budget, then the manufacturers of those items suddently have a lot of trouble paying for their energy and go out of business, wherein all those employees will then have even more items crowded out - the first domino will then hit the second. This is why I believe that it will only take energy becoming unaffordable for relatively few in order to start the snowball rolling down the mountain side.

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