How should meet environmental goals such as solving problem of plastic pollution? Individual acts such as removing plastic from the beach? Organizing beach cleanups and involving thousands of people? Or producing less plastic in the first place? Clearly, the answer is “all of the above.”
But here’s a too-common and foolish answer to the question I found in the comment section of a blog post:
Holding these greedy petroleum based plastic bottling manufacturers accountable is the only solution. All single use plastics must be banned including plastic bags, bottles, plates, utensils, cups, and foam take-out containers. If people want a soda from either a convenience store, fast food restaurant or vending machine, they should be forced to use a reusable container. (Emphasis added.)
As H.L. Mencken observed a century ago, “Explanations exist; then have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”
Environmentalists’ advocacy of coercive tactics falls under that heading.
Coercion as a strategy
The idea that coercion is necessary to achieve environmental goals has been persistent in the environmental movement at least since Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.”
The commenter above, for example, is but one of many people who see corporate greed as the root cause of our problems. But greedy or not, corporations attempt to give their customers what they want. And what many customers want is the convenience of disposables.
And so the commenter says that customers should be forced to do what they don’t want to do.
Who is supposed to force them? And how?
Hardin seemed to think that coercion included ordinary legislation. And indeed, several jurisdictions have taken steps to ban certain disposables.
Such bans haven’t worked very well to meet environmental goals in the past.
In the 1970s, phosphates in detergents polluted every lake or stream that received water from wastewater treatment plants. Suffolk County, New York decided to ban sale of detergents. So residents simply bought them from neighboring counties. Eventually manufacturers of detergents found a substitute for phosphates that didn’t cause algae blooms and kill fish.
Despite the doubts of too many environmentalists, we need to seek technological solutions to our environmental problems.
But the commenter didn’t say we should pass laws against disposable containers. S/he said customers should be forced to use a reusable container.
Organizing boycotts? Holding demonstrations outside convenience stores? Vandalizing vending machines? Over the years, environmentalists have used all those tactics.
It sounds so neat and plausible, but it won’t work. And society won’t tolerate any kind of coercion unless valid legislation really comes under that heading.
Advocating force and coercion is the kind of shrill and intolerant rhetoric that gives the environmental movement a bad name.
What’s more likely to help meet environmental goals?
Technology offers the promise of biodegradable and compostable containers and packaging. It might be a long way off. We can’t sit on our hands waiting for it.
But here are a couple of useful tactics in the meantime:
A public relations campaign eventually turned public opinion against the tobacco industry. Turning public opinion against disposables might be more difficult since they don’t have such obvious public health risks as lung cancer. But persuasion works better than force.
One possible legislative solution, extended producer responsibility, makes producers of disposables pay for collecting and recycling them. The whole concept has stirred up opposition, but some large corporations are already on record as favoring it.
TerraCycle has made partnerships with several of them. Corporations such as Taco Bell pay consumers to collect single-use products and ship them to TerraCycle, which thereby gets free resources to recycle.
Once you haul your recyclables out to the curb, what happens to them? A lot of the recycling process depends on your municipality’s practices. Most rely on single-stream recycling. That is, they require households and businesses to separate commingled recyclables from trash. Recycling goes to a materials recovery facility (MRF, often pronounced “murf”).
Dual-stream recycling programs require households and businesses to further divide recyclables into two categories. Usually, it means separating paper from metal, glass, and plastic. I have heard of places in Europe that require still more rigorous source separation. But I can’t think of any in the US.
Both of these methods produce a higher quality output, but fewer people are willing to participate. So single-stream recycling has become the norm.
Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is best known for designing Central Park in New York, the US Capitol grounds in Washington, and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He opened the first landscape architecture firm in the US.
But on closer examination, he was much more than just a leading landscape architect. He worked in journalism, sanitation, and health. In this post, we will explore Olmsted as an environmentalist, long before anyone started to use the word. Continue reading →
Contributed by Anna Brui
Every decision we make regarding our homes plays a crucial role in shaping our environmental impact and the depth of our pockets. Do you look at the world around you through energy-efficient windows? Double- or triple-glazed windows?
We’ve all been there, staring at those drafty, ageing windows that seem to let in as much cold air as they do natural light.
You might be contemplating whether to invest in new, energy-efficient windows to combat these problems and contribute to sustainable living. The first question that often pops up is, “What does it cost to replace windows in the first place?” Continue reading →
Large-scale geothermal energy relies on the heat and water that exists below the surface of the earth, but not everywhere has accessible naturally occurring hot water. A fairly recent technique called enhanced geothermal energy or hot dry rock geothermal energy makes it possible generate electricity from the earth’s heat in more places.
Getting off fossil fuels to generate electricity requires using renewable energy, but renewable energy has downsides, for example, intermittency. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. Battery backup overcomes intermittency, but it has its own environmental problems.
Enhanced geothermal energy can play an important role in the energy mix, but, of course, nothing is perfect. What is enhanced geothermal energy and what are possible problems? Continue reading →
I have written a few times before about the technological and financial hurdles facing the development of green hydrogen. Along the way, I mentioned specific companies working on hydrogen fuel cell projects.
Hydrogen is not so much an energy source as an energy storage medium. Hydrogen fuel cells operate on the same general principle as batteries, but they can operate continuously as long as they have a steady supply of hydrogen gas. They emit no gases at the end of the process, only water.
Now that it is possible, at least in California, to buy a hydrogen-powered car, it seems good to look at how much progress has been made in green hydrogen. How many of the companies I have mentioned before are still in business? What is available now for sale? What is happening to address the economic issues?
Prospective uses of hydrogen
Pure hydrogen doesn’t exist in nature. The only way to get it is to separate it from other molecules. The long-established method of doing so, steam reforming, splits hydrogen from fossil fuels, a dirty process that pumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
So-called green hydrogen uses electrolysis, powered by renewable energy, to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Although it causes fewer environmental problems, its high price tag has made it difficult to establish.
That said, for years, we have heard promises that green hydrogen can play a role in several different industries:
- Personal transportation (fuel-cell electric cars and light trucks)
- Mass transportation (buses, trains, and even airplanes)
- Freight (hydrogen-powered long-haul trucks and possibly cargo ships)
- Warehouse operations (hydrogen fork lifts, pallet jacks, etc. to improve indoor air quality)
- Backup power generation (especially for large-scale use such as data centers or grid storage)
Some ongoing green hydrogen projects
The chief problem with green hydrogen is the cost of traditional electrolysis. Therefore, researchers have been looking for cheaper ways to make it.
An academic research project
In 2019, scientists at the University of Calgary announced that they had found a way to crack oil to capture hydrogen without having to remove it from the ground. That is, it produced desirable hydrogen while leaving undesirable carbon dioxide behind. Green hydrogen, in other words, without electrolysis.
These scientists have worked with the Canadian company Proton Technologies to commercialize the process. Their work is ongoing, and a recent scholarly paper describes its progress.
Of course, academic research can seem to take a leisurely approach. Startup companies must work faster, but they have a high failure rate. In 2016, Joi Scientific announced a method of deriving hydrogen from seawater. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, and it took the company three years to admit as much to its investors.
Fortunately, all the other projects I have written about are still at work toward their goals.
Continuing, promising green hydrogen projects
SGH2 has been working with the scientifically sound but still experimental process of plasma enhanced gasification to create green hydrogen. Other companies have been working on it for waste-to-energy. SGH2 has recently contracted with the city of Lancaster, California to build and operate a “greener than green” hydrogen plant there.
SunHydrogen, formerly HyperSolar, has not yet gotten to the point of building a production facility, but it has recently announced a technological breakthrough in its development of a nanoparticle-based solar device with inexpensive catalysts to produce hydrogen inexpensively using sunlight.
A proposed hydrogen city
Perhaps the most intriguing of the projects that I have come across over the past decade is the proposed city of Neom in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government announced the intention to build a new city from scratch in 2018.
The plan is for Neom to cover 10,230 square miles and eventually be home to 9 million people. Among other ambitious goals, it will include the Octagon, a floating port and research hub. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer, but its government plans for Neom to run entirely on green hydrogen, with no oil at all. It wants to become a leader in renewable energy.
Many analysts are skeptical that such an ambitious project can ever succeed, but the global utility project developer Acwa Power has announced the beginning of construction on a green hydrogen production plant on the Octagon. It expects completion by 2026.
Once in operation, it will generate green hydrogen and use it to make up to 1.2 million tons of green ammonia every year for export. Ammonia is easier to transport and store than hydrogen gas and can easily be reconverted to hydrogen.
Hydrogen fuel cell projects in operation
While finding inexpensive and scalable ways to produce green hydrogen is still the in the experimental phase, hydrogen fuel cells are a proven technology. Regardless of the source of hydrogen, it has been difficult to find economic and scalable ways to use them. Here are two kinds of hydrogen fuel cell projects that are making progress.
Creating electricity with hydrogen fuel cell backup.
The French-based Engie SA is working on a number of hydrogen fuel cell projects all over the world. As early as 2017, it proposed a demonstration project on the Semakau Landfill in Singapore to build a microgrid. That is, it does not aim to find inexpensive ways to make green hydrogen. It intends to develop a new and practical use for hydrogen fuel cells.
People living in remote areas of the world where there is no grid have long relied on loud and dirty diesel generators to obtain electricity. Engie SA aims to provide electricity using renewable energy instead, with hydrogen storage to mitigate intermittency.
The site was commissioned during the pandemic. Since the summer of 2022, it has operated 24/7 using only renewable energy. It is therefore no longer an ambitious proposal. It is now a working research and development facility, one step closer to bringing clean electricity to remote areas.
Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.
As with battery electric vehicles, fuel-cell electric vehicles require infrastructure that does not yet exist before they can be practical. Nonetheless, about 15,000 of them are now traveling California roads. At least eight manufacturers either offer hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles for sale or have at least one in development.
Toyota began developing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in 1992 and began to mass produce them in 2014 with the introduction of the Mirai. It sold 2,094 of them in 2022, which marks a 20% increase over its sales in 2021. It seems like a paltry number, but battery electric vehicles likewise got off to a slow start.
The Mirai’s success encouraged Toyota to announce development of new hydrogen fuel cell projects. One is a hydrogen fuel cell version of its Hilux pickup truck. Another is to develop a hydrogen engine for class 8 semis to replace diesel engines. It is also working on hydrogen fuel cell buses. In addition, the Yaris H2 will use hydrogen as a combustible fuel rather than fuel cells.
Hyundai introduced a fuel cell SUV, the Nexo, in 2018 and a fuel cell heavy duty truck, the Xcient, in 2020. It is also working on a hybrid fuel cell/battery electric model.
Honda offered a hydrogen fuel cell version of its Clarity model between 2017 and 2021. Its sales were insufficient to continue to make it, but in 2022, it announced its intention to introduce a hybrid hydrogen and battery version of its CR-V to the US market in 2024.
BMW developed a hydrogen concept car in 2019 and has recently announced plans to introduce a demonstration fleet of less than 100 cars. It plans eventually to offer a hydrogen version of its X5.
Riversimple, a fairly new British manufacturer, introduced its Rasa hydrogen concept car in 2016 and plans to produce 5,000 of them annually beginning in 2023. Jaguar, an established British company, has announced the intention to make a hydrogen version of its Landrover Defender SUV. It hasn’t announced when it plans to make it public.
The Italian company Pininfarina has announced the concept vehicle NamX HUV and expects to make production models by 2025.
Finally, the American company Hyperion made a one-off XP-1 hydrogen powered concept car in 2020.
New government subsidies for hydrogen fuel cell projects
Development of green hydrogen and specific hydrogen fuel cell projects has faced scientific, technological, and economic hurdles. Like renewable energy in general, it is less well understood and more expensive than traditional fossil fuels.
Different fuels have traditionally been measured in different way: gallons or liters for liquid fuels such as gasoline or diesel, cubic meters for natural gas or hydrogen, and metric tons for solid fuels such as coal. These differences have made it difficult to compare costs. It makes more sense to compare the energy in fuels instead of considering their weight or volume. The unit for doing so is the gigajoule (GJ).
Considering all energy types, the US consumes 280 GJ per capita per year. The retail price of diesel fuel, including fuel taxes, is about $30 in the US. The International Energy Agency estimates the cost of producing green hydrogen in the range of $25-59 per GJ. The costs of electrolyzers and the renewable energy needed to run them are declining.
The US Inflation Reduction Act (2022) offers a $3/kilogram tax credit for green hydrogen and smaller credits for less-green hydrogen over ten years. The subsidies will cost $13.2 billion in that time and amount to $23 per GJ.
Even without the subsidy, then, hydrogen is competitive with diesel. Manufacturing trucks with fuel-cell electric drive trains remains more expensive than diesel trucks. The infrastructure for refueling hydrogen-fuel-cell cars and trucks has not yet been built. The subsidies should hasten both developments.
Natural gas and coal remain less expensive than green hydrogen. The US tax subsidy should close most of the fuel cost gap between hydrogen and natural gas, but it is not enough to close the gap with coal. The US needs some kind of carbon pricing to accomplish that.
Related posts on Sustaining Our World
Can hydrogen fuel cells provide green electricity and storage?
Green hydrogen and green ammonia: will they ever fulfill their promise?
Green hydrogen energy: when will it fulfill its promise?
Hydrogen as an alternative fuel
Using solar electrolysis for clean hydrogen energy storage
8 vehicle manufacturers working on hydrogen fuel cell cars / Fastech. July 7, 2023
“Green” hydrogen portends progress on climate, with government help / Steven Fries, Peterson Institute for International Economics. March 29, 2023