Energy when Sun doesn’t Shine – Wind don’t blow?

As world leaders pledge a sharper pivot toward a carbon-free future, an old answer is resurfacing to a many-trillion-dollar question: Where will we get energy when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow?

Set aside thoughts of giant batteries, nuclear fission, natural gas, and pumped hydropower for the moment. The future of global energy markets might be in creating carbon-free hydrogen. According to scholars Fridolin Pflugmann and Nicola De Blasio, green hydrogen may upend (or perhaps just rework) the century-old balance of power between oil- and gas-exporting countries and those that rely on them.

Green hydrogen is created when carbon-free electricity (usually made from wind or solar) forces water molecules to split, storing energy that’s later released when the hydrogen rejoins with oxygen, forming water again. Hydrogen can be stockpiled or transported as a liquid or gas, and may replace both oil and natural gas in sectors that are tricky to electrify, like heavy industry and air travel.

The technology has existed for decades, but because renewable energy was expensive until recent years, any hydrogen made with it was likewise too costly to use at scale. Now that wind and solar are cheap, and the world is more serious about tackling climate change, the green hydrogen future may be poised to take off—a shift that could redistribute geopolitical power.

After a century of dominance by globalized petrostates, a green hydrogen boom could democratize energy. Instead of drilling and fracking for deposits deep beneath the soil, an exporting country would simply need to capture more sun or wind energy than it needs over the course of a year.

But abundant wind and sunny days alone do not make a green hydrogen magnate. Many of the oil-rich and sun-scorched nations of the Middle East that dominate oil production today could certainly produce extra solar energy, but they may never become major green hydrogen exporters because they lack another increasingly valuable resource: water. Pflugmann and De Blasio also find that fossil fuel transport infrastructure, like pipelines and storage areas, could help set up nations to become major green hydrogen exporters, since this infrastructure can be repurposed for hydrogen.

There is one hopeful distinction between the existing global politics of oil and gas and the burgeoning politics of green hydrogen: Unlike fossil fuels, which are concentrated in a handful of nations, all sorts of countries have strong renewable energy resources and water. Because the ones best equipped to export green hydrogen are so geographically and politically diverse—from Morocco to Australia to Norway—the rise of hydrogen may take the edge off global politics, at least around oil.

Source: JSTOR Daily.

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