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The Hydrogen Revolution - Marco Alverà ***

The idea of using hydrogen to aid our move to green energy is gathering pace. At one point it was described primarily as a replacement for petrol in fuelling cars - though Marco Alverà does mention this still as a possibility for some vehicles, the far bigger picture is for hydrogen's role as a potential replacement for natural gas and as a means to store energy to enable to it to be transported from solar-rich locations, or to hold energy for use at time when renewables aren't delivering, such as in winter in many European locations.

Despite portraying the seriousness of climate change's impact, Alverà is relentlessly upbeat about the capability of hydrogen in sorting out our problems. It ought to be said upfront (and perhaps isn't explored enough in the book) that Alverà is CEO of an energy pipeline company that is moving into hydrogen in a big way, so to say that he has a potential conflict of interest is, if anything, understating things.

This doesn't mean that some of Alverà's thoughts and suggestions aren't interesting, but it does mean that the way he brushes over the pitfalls and potential barriers is perhaps a little unbalanced. For instance, reading this, you would think that the US and China were doing great things on the climate front, rather than failing to deal with the situation. You would also think that the EU is a paragon of climate change action, when, for example, Germany's disastrous action on nuclear has resulted in a heavy use of coal.

Similarly, while it probably is a good idea in an ideal world to generate solar energy cheaply in the Sahara, say, and transport that energy as hydrogen rather than high voltage DC, Alverà underplays the concerns about putting Europe's energy future in the hands of potentially unstable countries and doesn't even mention threats from terrorism etc. In fact you'd think mostly hydrogen was a harmless substance without a track record of explosions - there's even a suggestion we might return to using hydrogen airships. That went well last time.

Alverà makes good technical points about the comparison of battery and hydrogen technology for long distances and heavy goods vehicles, though the comparison is very much dependent on today's battery technology and doesn't give any allowance for the speed at which this is developing. There is also some remarkable political naivety in a comment on the speed of China's development of hydrogen fuel cell capability saying 'One of the reasons why China is so good at making things happen is its economy is centrally planned...' - neither the Soviet Union nor China historically have shown that central planning is exactly a great way forward.

I don't want to be too hard on this book. It has genuinely made me more positive about hydrogen for some applications, notably energy storage to level out peaks and troughs in renewable supplies, though I'm still pretty certain I wouldn't like to travel in a vehicle sitting on a big hydrogen tank. It's also good to discover a climate change book that isn't all doom and gloom. But anyone reading the book does need to be aware this is a written from the perspective of someone whose company needs hydrogen to succeed and is perhaps talking it up beyond what may be realistic.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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