Can we just acknowledge the “hydrogen transition”?
by guest blogger, Stan Thompson
Let’s limit the damage to hydrogen progress caused by “friendly fire.” Good reportage, scholarship and fair play do not require that every article point out that most hydrogen comes from extracted carbon.
It’s true, it’s undeniable—but it’s totally irrelevant.
The vast amounts of hydrogen produced from hydrocarbons to make petrochemicals, fuels and ammonia for fertilizer simply have nothing whatever to do with the introduction of electrochemistry to enable nuclear and intermittent renewable energy to power ships, cars, planes, trucks and hydrail trains.
Of course the earliest mobility applications of hydrogen tap-off a tiny fraction of the fertilizer reagent H2 until they can justify a post-carbon creation and distribution system. It would be economically absurd to stall HFC mobility development until a green hydrogen network was in place. That’s not the way it works.
Seven-Eleven’s were not wired for diesel before the cars rolled-out. Truck stops and early adopters made common cause and lower cost per mile just made it happen. Markets find a way.
By repeatedly mentioning the sea-owe-too word and natural gas reforming without also mentioning the fertilizer connection, hydrogen pioneers are apologizing speed bumps into the hydrogen highway unnecessarily.
Hydrogen is wonderfully versatile. But the center ring is electrochemistry—fuel cells and electrolysis. It’s an unfamiliar and daunting subject to reporters more comfortable with political scandals and school bus wrecks. But it’s where the spotlight belongs, if the lay public is ever to “get it.” Until a clue comes into view, the H2 cognoscenti should refrain from bringing up H2’s tenuous link to the oil industry ad infinitum.
H2’s an unacknowledged offspring of the power grid. Or perhaps it’s the energy Boy Scout trying to help the power grid across a street called Change which it really doesn’t want to cross.
Reluctance is entirely reasonable. Utility plant, once placed, has to remain productive and relevant for about thirty years in order for investors to get a fair shake. Utility employee career tracks are not crowded with people announcing new ways to make The Company’s capital plant obsolescent—or with hydrogen advocates.
Hydrogen looks to utilities like a disruptor. In a few ways it is; someday the old transmission lines that now wreak fire havoc in California will be replaced by hydrogen pipes buried safely out of the way. That could begin to happen before some replaced pylons and high-tension transmission lines are fully amortized.
When it happens will not be a matter of economics or technology state-of-the-art or enabling scientific breakthroughs. It will be determined by how soon and how much the public gets informed and involved.
But hydrogen is not a real menace to utilities; it’s a fast-growing cash calf. Already, nuclear power plants—along with wind and sun—are giving market share to power utilities that once belonged to the oil giants. The rise of hydrogen will vastly expand the this transfer.
Silicone Valley i-Thingies are bred in strict secrecy and marketed, in rapidly enhanced iterations, to us eager masses by the millions. We quickly replace them. In contrast, trains evolve over decades, in plain sight, and are purchased by a very few public-obliged entities who expect them to last a VERY long time.
For hydrail to emerge, a mass of latent passengers, investors and suppliers—acting on an cadre of manufacturers, legislators and regulators—had to ask for climate protection; for aerial plant removal; for quieter cities; for cleaner air; and for all the other advantages that fuel cell trains afford.
It’s been over a decade since Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s HH 1205 hydrail locomotive strutted its stuff in California. It will be a couple of years yet before the next American hydrail rolling stock appears—also in California. In the intervening dozen years, billions of dollars will have been invested in 1880s Ukranian trolley tech—probably to be salvaged long before its service life is realized. How many hundreds of thousands of tons of railway diesel fine particulate exhaust will have been puffed toward the nation’s lungs during this dozen-year lag?
Why? Only because the public didn’t get the word and couldn’t ask for the new cleaner trains!
After 2013, when Hydrogenics Inc. and Alstom Transport decided to birth hydrail, is was less than two years before they announced the sale of forty Coradia iLints to four German states. In 2016, they showed one at a transit fair in Berlin. In 2018, two iLints were in public service.
In 2014, only one company—California’s TIG-m Modern Street Railways in Chatsworth—built hydrail rolling stock and they could only be sold off-shore because needed enabling specs had not been produced in the USA. Today, just six years after Hydrogenincs met Alstom, nine manufacturers are building, or have announced, hydrail product—including the largest: China Railway Rolling-stock Corporation and Siemens. Today at least twenty-three countries have proposed hydrail corridors. Three or more countries have committed to end rail diesels by the mid-2030s.
No scientific breakthrough enabled hydrail’s bursting onto the railway scene. All it took was a tiny glimpse by the public of what could be…and then it was.
Heavy industries and utilities don’t evolve without public interest or pressure. And the public doesn’t know what might be…unless someone tells them!
“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked Romeo. As it turned out, it was a matter of life and death. I suspect that Jeremy Rifkin’s naming of The Hydrogen Economy may have had an unintended consequence, leading to the false starts that plagued hydrogen’s stammering beginnings.
An “economy” is not anchored in time; a “transition” is.
Rifkin’s vision galvanized (electrolyzed?) me and others into action. But, at first, we did not stay the course.
Might we now give the term “hydrogen economy” a state funeral with all due honors? Let’s begin asserting the “hydrogen transition” instead…and leave references to “reforming” and “sea-owe-too” to the fertile imaginations of H2’s detractors.
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