Thursday, October 26, 2023

Myth Busting (Episode 4): Hydrogen Haters

Image created using Bing AI

This episode of hydrogen myth busting is dedicated to the source of a great deal of misinformation on the topic: hydrogen haters. And with the recent announcement of the US hydrogen hub awards, they are in full blast mode in the news, social media, and many other available venues that provide a soapbox.

It's a curiosity of human behavior that we are willing to accept the assertions of people who have no expertise in some areas, but openly challenge them in others. If our friend who has never set foot in a kitchen (except to eat) started giving us a lecture about cooking a gourmet meal, we would laugh at them. Many of us would have a similar reaction if someone who doesn't know a wrench from a hammer started giving us advice on car repair.

In contrast, it seems that anyone with a mouth or keyboard can make absurd and unsubstantiated pronouncements about hydrogen that get blindly accepted as true by some. This misinformation often gets re-posted and amplified by a bandwagon of equally unqualified sources until suddenly it becomes the assumed 'conventional wisdom'.

Types of Haters

In my experience, hydrogen haters can be categorized into four main types depending their viewpoint. You might be a hydrogen hater if:

1. It threatens your business or expertise. This may seem obvious, but it's surprising how many people don't take this into account when they listen to someone's opinion on the subject. Clearly, if the use of hydrogen represents a threat to your business model, or a better alternative to your product, you are highly incentivized to trash talk it. Some cynical types might call this marketing 101. Similarly, if it has the potential to make the expertise you've developed over a career less relevant, you might be looking for any opportunity to derail its implementation.

2. It competes with your preferred solution. Closely related to the previous type, this category often includes proponents of other solutions to decarbonization. Sadly, this is analogous to picking a fight with someone on your own team, and can sometimes take on the heated tenor usually reserved for brawls (e.g., batteries vs hydrogen). We need a portfolio of solutions to the problem... attacking other legitimate options causes confusion and is counter-productive to the overall goal.

3. You think it's an oil and gas industry conspiracy. I admit to being taken off guard by this one having spent nearly four decades developing hydrogen systems, none of them associated with the oil & gas industry. The fact that this industry has recently begun investing in hydrogen projects as a path to transition away from legacy fossil fuels seems like a positive trend to me. Of course, any of these efforts must be assessed in terms of their lifecycle environmental and public health impacts to be certain we are heading in the right direction and not supporting 'greenwashing' projects. That said, the workforce skill sets in the oil & gas industry overlap very closely with those needed for large scale hydrogen infrastructure. Let's not throw out the baby with the dirty bathwater.

4. You are a victim of misinformation. The previous categories are largely responsible for creating this type of hydrogen hater. A primary challenge for this category is separating the signal from the noise on the topic, and then being open to changing one's mind based on facts, data, and evidence. The remainder of this post will address this challenge with some guidance on how to assess the misinformation overload when it comes to hydrogen.

Red Flags and Filters

There are a few red flags to watch for when you're reading or hearing opinions about hydrogen:

  • "I ran some calculations...". Some people seem to think if they start with a preconceived (and often self-serving) conclusion, pull together some unverified assumptions that support it, and then reverse engineer simplistic equations full of errors and omissions, they can 'prove' their case. If it hasn't been published, or at least vetted by an independent third party, be very skeptical of anything claimed by these hand wavers.
  • When someone challenges another's hydrogen claims with data and evidence, the best response is to engage in an objective discussion with the willingness to adjust both of your perspectives based on what you each learn. Compare this to bad behavior responses such as egotistical rants, personal attacks, trolling, empty sarcasm, ghosting, or continuing to repeat the same claims ad nauseum after being proven wrong. Be extremely skeptical of any information from individuals exhibiting these bad behaviors
  • Claims that any given solution is always right or always wrong. This is an easy flag. Anyone who is forever beating the same dead horse at every opportunity and refuses to acknowledge that their preferred solution isn't universally the best in all applications - or that their hated solution will never work - can safely be ignored.
Once you've checked for the red flags, here's a quick set of questions you can ask to assess the source of the information:

How long has this individual worked with the relevant hydrogen systems being discussed? (points: 3-decades, 2-years, 1-studied it, 0-none)

What data and evidence is being provided to support the claims made? (points: 3-operational or test data, 2-technical publication, 1-validated model, 0-personal opinions)

Is the individual's income, status, business, ego, or religio-political beliefs threatened by increased use of hydrogen? (points: 3-definitely not, 2-maybe, 1-probably, 0-oh hell yes)

Now add up the points. Scoring:
    6 or higher: Information from this source is worth consideration
    3 to 5: Take information from this source with a grain of salt
    Below 3: Why are you reading/listening to this person?

Matt Moran is the Managing Member at Moran Innovation LLC, and previous Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy. He's been developing power and propulsion systems for more than 40 years; and break-through liquid, slush, and gaseous hydrogen systems since the mid-1980s. Matt was also the Sector Manager for Energy & Materials in his last position at NASA where he worked for 31 years. He's been a co-founder in seven technology startups; and provided R&D and engineering support to many organizations. Matt has three patents and more than 50 publications including the Cryogenic Fluid Management series. He also leads the monthly LH2 Era™ Webinar.