“Renewable Hydrogen” (or RH₂) is the sustainable energy source obtained when hydrogen is extracted from water using only renewable energy.
A sustainable local cycle of Renewable H₂
The most common Renewable Hydrogen system consists of an electrolyzer and a fuel cell (FC). You may remember conducting experiments with electrolysis when you were in grade school!
In summary, the RH₂ paradigm is as follows:
Create Renewable Hydrogen locally and use it locally;
Use local renewable energy to make hydrogen through electrolysis;
Store hydrogen in tanks in either a gaseous or liquid state;
Use a fuel cell to convert hydrogen into electricity when needed. This is accomplished through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen present in the atmosphere.
Since the electrolyzer and fuel cell cause opposite reactions, water, oxygen and hydrogen become components in a positive feedback loop. We call this the “RH₂ Cycle.”
The best way to generate electricity using an RH₂ cycle is via a continuous generation system, for example utilizing low head hydropower (i.e., tidal flows or rivers with a head of 20 meters (66 ft) or less), tidal power, or leveraging hot springs or ground heat to provide energy. Using these methods, surplus energy generated overnight can be converted to hydrogen.
Let’s go over the mechanisms behind both the electrolyzer and fuel cell.
In an electrolyzer, when electricity is applied to water, hydrogen and oxygen are created on the negative and positive electrodes, respectively. This phenomenon is known as electrolysis.
A fuel cell, on the other hand, causes the opposite reaction. When hydrogen and oxygen are respectively supplied to either side of an electrode, hydrogen is ionized via electron emission, and oxygen combines with electrons and hydrogen in order to generate water. Electric energy is then captured from the flow of electrons between the two electrodes. Generally, platinum (a rare metal) is used in the electrodes, but recently low-cost alternatives have been discovered.
The mechanism behind this process is simple, since a fuel cell requires fewer components and has a simpler structure compared to a battery. It is also easy to scale the system downwards for personal computers, or upwards for large applications, including houses and buildings.
Electrolysis is not the only sustainable method whereby hydrogen can be generated. In addition to research being carried out on artificial photosynthesis modeled on the process performed by plants, we can also extract hydrogen from biomass, such as algae and scrap wood.
Regional Self-Reliance & Cyclical RH₂
Now, let’s look at the merits of an RH₂ Cyclical Society, one based on local communities creating renewable energy and storing hydrogen to create an RH₂ “virtuous cycle,” which helps make communities more independent in the process. Such a cycle allows energy to be more democratic and peaceful.
The Water-Oxygen-Hydrogen Cycle
The RH₂ cycle is a process where water, oxygen and hydrogen circulate. It doesn’t produce poisonous gases or pollute the water and air necessary for life. In the absence of pollutants, rain that falls from the sky will become clean, as will the earth, rivers and oceans. Food from these sources will become purified and humans will grow healthy.
Natural Disaster Resilience through Local Energy Storage
During the March 2011 Great East Japan earthquake, harbors and coastal areas were damaged extensively by the tsunami, roads and gas stations were destroyed, and power lines were damaged. The energy infrastructure of Northeast Japan suffered incalculable damage. In order to protect ourselves from climate change, earthquakes, and increased volcanic activity resulting from rapid geological changes, it is critical to achieve sustainable energy storage on the local level. The case of Kuzumaki City, Iwaki Prefecture makes an important point: while Kuzumaki was well-known for having achieved 100% sustainable energy independence, the Great East Japan earthquake triggered a three-day blackout. Unfortunately, energy generated in Iwaki first traveled through power lines to power facilities where it was sold, with no energy being stored at the local level.
Think of this from the perspective of our food supply: if you harvest a large amount of vegetables at one time, what do you do? You can make pickles. If you haul in a lot of fish, you can make dried fish. Properly stored, rice is a non-perishable food. Preserving food helps stabilize our daily lives. Finding a way to store nature’s wealth for later use is an important aspect of the wisdom that has allowed human civilization to advance.
Similarly, it’s not an overstatement to say the widespread storage and later use of sustainable energy will be the next step in the evolution of human civilization!
Local Cyclical Economy
Creating energy, storing it, and then using it locally is the foundation of a local cyclical society. Energy created locally, which can be bought and used locally, translates into money being circulated locally. In Japan, in one year each household spends approximately ¥300,000 JPY on heating, electricity, and gasoline. For a small town with 10,000 homes, household energy costs amount to three billion JPY. Looking at the town as a whole, even more energy is used. Imagine if that money circulated locally. The community wouldn’t be a pawn in the global economy’s money game, and complicit in the energy business—the culprit behind many of the world’s problems. Keeping that money inside the community would make it a stronger, more stable, and more appealing place to live.
Revolutionary Energy Conservation
A community-based, sustainable society progressively reduces energy consumption. The global consumption of primary energy in 2010 was the crude oil equivalent of 12 billion tons. Those who forecast the future based on traditional methods of energy consumption project this number to increase to over 17 billion tons in 2030. These astronomical numbers raise the question: wouldn’t it be better to reconsider our current lifestyle, which requires the long-distance transportation of energy, industrial products, and food?
Even if the world were to suddenly shift to renewable energy, that shift would still be rendered pointless in a world dependent on high levels of energy consumption. If each of us switched to local products and avoided unnecessary purchases, global energy consumption would decrease by half, or even as much as two-thirds. Our reduced energy needs could then be met with renewables.
Ending Our Reliance on Fossil Fuels, Nuclear Energy, and Sprawling Power Grids
The RH₂ cycle is powered by easily accessible renewables and water. As opposed to fossil fuels, these “raw materials” don’t need to be transported from afar at a high cost. Energy can also be saved in large quantities, allowing us to break free from fossil fuel stockpiles and fossil fuel power plants.
Furthermore, there would be no need for nuclear power plants. Considering the environmental and human rights issues surrounding uranium mining and the added risks of accidents and radioactive waste, the future clearly cannot be entrusted to nuclear energy.
Moreover, there would no longer be a need for substations, steel towers, electric power cables or large infrastructure built on unpopulated mountains to carry energy across long distances. We would also be relieved from having to spend the massive amount of money necessary to build and maintain these structures.
Journalist Naomi Klein perfectly summed up the stark contrast between global and local energy economies on Democracy Now!, an independent, ad-free daily news program: “Fossil fuels are the centralization of power. Enormous infrastructure is needed to mine, transport and provide fossil fuels. However, wind, solar and waves can be used endlessly and [are] ubiquitous. Anyone can become the energy provider. Fossil fuels are the possession of the wealthy 1%, but if we decentralize renewable energy, it will become the [possession] of civil society, which is the other 99%.”
Ending Energy Poverty
There are 1.4 billion people in the world, or approximately 10 times the population of Japan, who live without electricity. Additionally, about 40% of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. Without electricity, there is no internet. Without the internet, it is more difficult for people living in remote areas to learn about pressing issues, like the nuclear accident in Fukushima or our worsening climate crisis. The more difficult it is for citizens to obtain objective information, the more difficult it is to cultivate democracy.
In 2014, Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate in history, stated in her acceptance speech, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”
With the addition of energy from RH₂, the chance that a child can escape from a powerless state—both figuratively and literally—increases. With energy and education, a child can learn how to read by taking free classes on the internet. The child may even learn how to express their opinion, a far more valuable lesson, as free expression is the foundation of democracy. Resolving energy poverty would facilitate information exchange and, in turn, help develop the partnerships necessary to protect the earth.
Hydrogen—Our Greatest Energy Hope
When looking at the history of human energy consumption, it’s clear that we are gradually decreasing our dependence on carbon. From early energy sources like charcoal to modern-day natural gas we use at home, there has been a historical trend of new energy sources containing less carbon and more hydrogen than previous ones.
Today, 200 years after the Industrial Revolution first began, our long journey to carbon-free energy has reached its final stage: an era of Renewable Hydrogen with zero carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions.