Celebrated UK green activist and Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, today argues that “This is embarrassing, but I’ve become a fossil fuel supporter”. He argues: “I find myself at odds with almost everyone, by deciding, at the worst possible moment, that in one respect at least our battle against climate change depends on neither nuclear power nor renewables, but on a fossil fuel”.
Monbiot argues gas is the answer as it powers hydrogen. He writes “It seems that there is only one low-carbon source of heat that could (with a massive investment in new infrastructure) be supplied to most of the homes in the UK between now and 2030. It is hydrogen. Hydrogen can be used to power a fuel cell, which is a kind of gas battery. If, as their promoters predict, fuel cells can very soon be made small enough, cheap enough and reliable enough to take the place of domestic boilers, they could provide the heat and electricity our homes require.
“There are three means of making hydrogen without releasing much carbon dioxide: by reacting natural gas with steam and capturing and burying the carbon it contains, by passing steam and oxygen through pulverised coal (and catching the carbon) and by the electrolysis of water. The last option is the one beloved of environmentalists (because the electricity can come from wind) and the nuclear industry.
But a hydrogen network will be viable only if it is cheap. According to a report by the US National Academy of Engineering, the wholesale price of hydrogen made from natural gas with carbon capture will, in “the future”, be $1.72 (96p) per kilogramme; from coal, $1.45; and from electrolysis $3.93. In other words, if a hydrogen economy is to be taken seriously, the fuel has to be made from gas or coal, rather than by either wind turbines or nuclear generators.
Even in my confessional mood, I cannot bring myself to support coal. I defy anyone who knows what open-cast mining looks like to say the words “clean coal” without blushing. This leaves only gas. If my calculations are correct, the retail price of hydrogen made from natural gas will be about 50% greater than the retail price of gas itself. But because fuel cells supplying both heat and electricity are more efficient than gas boilers, the total cost would be roughly the same”.
There are several flaws in Monbiot’s argument – not least the inseparable link between oil and gas. To continue the gas age is to prolong the oil age. There is also the large methane leakage from the UK gas distribution system – once recognised to be 10 per cent – which would make his calculations completely off-beat. He has underestimated the role of renewables and the role of energy efficiency and conservation. Some would argue he is losing his touch.