Europe’s Wind Energy Industry Has Hit A Rough Patch

By Haley Zaremba, a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. Originally published at

Why isn’t wind power going gangbusters? In Europe, the energy crisis is causing solar power growth to break record after record. In the United States, the Inflation Reduction Act has provided major incentives to the renewable energy sector. For the last two weeks, the world’s preeminent energy and environmental experts have reemphasized the extreme urgency of decarbonization at COP27. And yet wind power has yet to enjoy the windfall. In fact, across Europe, major wind turbine makers are reporting massive losses and laying off swaths of employees. Just this month, Denmark-based Vestas Wind Systems, the largest maker of wind turbines in the world, reported a third-quarter loss of 147 million euros (about $151 million). General Electric, another major wind turbine producer in the United States and Europe, reports that its renewable energy unit is likely to report a $2 billion loss at the end of the year. Spanish company Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, a Madrid-based company that is a leading producer of offshore wind turbines, reported an annual loss of 940 million euros ($965 million) and has announced spending cuts which will incur 2,900 job losses – approximately 11% of the company’s workforce.

According to the CEO of Siemens Energy, the issue is supply chains. “Never forget, renewables like wind roughly, roughly, need 10 times the material [compared to] … what conventional technologies need,” said Christian Bruch in an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe. “So if you have problems on the supply chain, it hits … wind extremely hard, and this is what we see.”

Supply chain woes originating from the Covid-19 pandemic continue to cast a pall over the wind power sector. Lulls in the production process have left wind turbine makers bound to contracts based on pre-pandemic prices that are now well under the going rate while cost of parts and labor has soared, meaning that they’re currently selling their products at a significant loss. Because of the scale of these projects, the financial losses from a single contract can be enormous.

Supply chains are not the only issue plaguing the wind sector, however. Increased competition from China has made the market even tougher for European companies. China has been making major additions to its own mind power production and manufacturing capacity. In 2021, China built more offshore wind capacity than every other country combined built in the last 5 years. And as we speak, China is busy building the world’s largest wind farm, which is so unthinkably enormous that it could power all of Norway by itself.

In an effort to keep up with the competition and to meet lofty decarbonization goals, European wind companies have also financially overextended themselves. In the race to create bigger, more powerful turbines, manufacturers in Europe have invested hundreds of millions of dollars on new turbine models in a time when they are not making enough profits to cover the cost.

In short, the wind industry has a number of problems it needs to solve before it can capitalize on the current gains in the decarbonization movement. But Siemens CEO Bruch says that the industry is up to the challenge – it has no alternative. “If we don’t resolve it as an industry,” he told CNBC, “we are missing a substantial part of the energy transition, and we’ll fail with the energy transition. So there’s no option but to fix it.”

And there are lots of reasons to keep betting on wind energy. Governments are throwing a lot of investment dollars into new wind ventures and incentives, from Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act to France’s big bet on floating offshore wind farms. As markets normalize and the wind industry works past pandemic-era supply lags, there’s no reason that wind power can’t get back on its feet. But before that happens, the sector has a very tough fourth quarter to get through.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I think this is a fair summary. The wind energy industry has been overtaken by events the past few years and is really struggling to match demand, not just in terms of numbers, but turbine types – the switch to favouring off-shore has taken it by surprise which has led to much stronger demand for the super-large turbines over those favoured for typical upland and coastal locations. And the delays and relatively long lead in times has led to contractors losing money on past contracts.

    The key problem of course is the reliance by governments on incentives and the free market, rather than giving investors confidence by committing to long term contracts with planned roll-outs. This has led to uncertainty in the industry about how much, and where, to locate manufacturing facilities, as the transportation of large blades is always problematic.

    It doesn’t help of course that the move to off-shore has brought up a whole nest of complex legal issues when building the turbines outside close to shore coastal waters. When you mix in domestic law, EU law, maritime law, plus fisheries and defence interests, then you create a situation where only lawyers thrive. Turbine manufacturers will not put in place the big investments needed for oversized blades and other elements until there is some certainty.

    1. Michaelmas

      “Why isn’t wind power going gangbusters?”

      Interesting that the original post presents every possible answer but one: the real-world experience of winter, 2021, for the UK and Germany, the two nations that invested most in wind.

      ‘The situation is especially acute in the U.K., where wind is currently providing only 7% of the country’s energy makeup—a steep drop from the 25% it generated on average across 2020.

      ‘The U.K.’s offshore wind sector had been a success story of the energy transition, drastically cutting emissions by rolling out 24GW of wind power over the past decade—enough to power 7.2 million homes. But as wind slowed and the price of carbon credits rose to record highs, the electricity market has experienced extreme volatility.

      “We have very steep targets for increased renewable energy penetration, and the growing problem alongside of that is this fluctuation in prices that we’re seeing,” says … an offshore wind analyst

      ‘As a result, gas- and coal-fired electricity plants have been brought online to fill the gap. Gas now makes up more than half of the electricity in the U.K., and while the U.K.’s offshore wind is covered by subsidies and operating at zero marginal cost, gas is not.’

      More —

      Note that this immediately precedes the idiot sanctions then blowing the price of gas through the roof.

      1. Ignacio

        A week ago 50% of energy in Spain was wind generated during the whole week. That was a record for Spain.
        The problem with sanctions is it will hurt either turbine makers, applicants for wind farms or both. One hopes the idiots in charge read PK above and have some reaction.

      2. PlutoniunKun

        As of this minute, wind is generating 29% of the UK’s electricity needs.

        Its a nonsense to say nobody anticipated the impact of low winds. There are such a thing as weather forecasts. All sorts of issues can arise when one or other power source is off-line due to weather (all thermal plants can be impacted in drought and even jellyfish attack), costs, wars, strikes, etc. Without wind energy, the current gas crisis would be orders of magnitude worse. The issues of integrating wind with existing networks is well known and been worked on for decades. Journalists love to highlight a ‘problem’ when these are the usual mix of issues that arise with every power source. Remember, gas used to be considered reliable and relatively cheap.

        1. Bsn

          Good observations. Also, look who published the article, But it’s good to read all sides.

        2. Michaelmas

          PK: As of this minute, wind is generating 29% of the UK’s electricity needs.

          So what, when in December wind power might be generating just 7 percent again?

          A bump down of 18 percent of a country’s electricity supply — which, when wind fell out over the winter of 2021, was what the decline from 25 percent to 7 percent of the UK’s electricity summed to — is a serious unreliability issue that is not addressed by waving one’s hands and talking about what wind happens to be at the moment.

          PK: There are such a thing as weather forecasts.

          Come on. I don’t know any place that does more weather forecasts than the UK, as it’s an island on the Atlantic’s edge where the weather changes constantly. If weather forecasts could predict that wind was going to drop for most of the winter season of 2021, why didn’t they?

          The very first computers — the Eckert-Mauchly design that became the von Neumann architecture — were developed for weather forecasting purposes. But weather remains an emergent phenomenon that can never be entirely forecast a whole season ahead, unless you’re talking about something like solar in the Sahara or the release of a cloud of particulates from a volcano.

          PK: The issues of integrating wind with existing networks is well known and been worked on for decades.

          And yet worked on is not solved, apparently. Why is that? One reason might be the denial of renewables’ real-world unreliability by renewables’ supporters. I have no objection to them being one element of the energy supply, but if you tell me that they’re reliable enough to carry a national grid on their own that’s clearly untrue.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            Seriously, these points you are raising are all issues that everyone is aware of with power projects, thats why there is always multiple redundancy built into generating networks no matter what the supply. Every form of power generation is subject to unexpected downtimes. Multiple nuclear stations can go down in droughts (lack of cooling water). There were major outages all summer with nuclear in Europe, mostly due to supply chain issues for spare parts. Hydro is subject to drought (China has had huge problems the last two years for this reason). All fossil fuels are subject to cost/political problems as we know from Europes gas problems. These are all issues built into well functioning grids design assumptions.

            Most grids can handle around 40-60% wind capacity without major changes. Some grids are up to 80% now, with sufficient investment in interconnections, additional spinning capacity and storage. Off-shore wind and storage is now significantly cheaper than nuclear in most markets and rapidly getting competitive with coal. There is simply no good reason not to maximise wind penetration to most grids.

          2. PlutoniumKun

            Apologies, btw, if my comment came across as sharp, but I’ve been hearing the issues raised in those Fortune and Bloomsbury articles since the 1990’s. All those issues were very real back in the early days of wind. But after a quarter of a century of experience, they are all issues that have either been ‘solved’ or are well enough studied to be fully integrated into grid management modelling. The limitations of wind are well known, but they are not objectively greater problems than any other source. This is precisely why almost all grids use a variety of power sources and have lots of spare capacity built in for resilience. There is no ‘perfect’ power source, despite what advocates for any of them will claim. But wind and solar are now established, mature technologies, and are unique in that the cost curve is sharply downwards.

            1. Michaelmas

              Apologies, btw, if my comment came across as sharp

              No problem. It sounds like you’ve thought about the issues more than the all-renewables cultists.

              Still, the possibility of an unpredictable, season-long drop — a drop of almost one-fifth of the nation’s whole electrical supply, in the UK case — would not make me comfortable enough to say, “There is simply no good reason not to maximise wind penetration to most grids.”

              That said, you write “Off-shore wind and storage is now significantly cheaper than nuclear in most markets.”

              I’m curious. Have there been developments in how power from off-shore sources is stored in the last few years?

              1. PlutoniumKun

                Storage is a complex area – its not really something you can consider separate from the simpler options of expanding grids (which has been the favoured option for most grids the past two decades), or using existing or legacy systems more efficiently as balance. In northern hemisphere areas, solar is an effective counterbalance to wind – when high pressure areas lower wind outputs, you tend to get high solar outputs. Ultimately, most legacy plants with the exception of nuclear plants are kept ticking over for years as potential backup. Designing grids is not a matter of picking the cheapest power source. All resilient grids balance different sources to try to balance cost with reliability and resilience. All power systems have at least a theoretical possibility of multiple parallel shut downs, this is not unique to wind.

                Pretty much all hydroelectric systems can act as storage, thats essentially the purpose of a reservoir, as can CSP plants – increasingly existing hydro schemes can be redesigned to increase storage by, for example, providing secondary impoundments downstream. China has focused initially on pumped storage (270GW of capacity is the 2025 target), although they are now investing heavily in redox flow batteries as well as conventional battery storage. Battery storage (usually redox flow) is now pretty much standard for small to medium wind farms in Europe as it allows more dispatchable power onto individual circuits. Developers are doing it without incentives as it allows for wind farm to scale above the local circuit capacity and dispatch able power is far more profitable. Various forms of thermal storage are being increasingly favoured in Europe. The problem of shorter term storage (spinning capacity) is mainly being addressed through the use of flywheels, usually based in existing thermal plants to reduce infrastructure costs. There is also increasing investment in using surplus power in the grid for conversion liquid fuels such as ammonia, or increasingly green hydrogen – these can then potentially can be used for backup or peaking power.

                With the possible exception of pump storage, the costs of all the major storage types have been dropping due to scaling effects and rising efficiencies. Even fairly basic established technologies such as compressed air are now far more efficient. Grid technology has advanced enormously all over the world in the past few decades. Well, apparently except for in the US.

                1. upstater

                  Many of the Great Lakes have good potential for offshore wind. But none exists and I can’t recall any active proposals, at least in NYS. We sit on the beginning of the plateaus of the Appalachian and Catskill mountain, with pretty steady winds off Lake Ontario. Yet it has been almost 20 years since two 15 MW wind farms were built and none since. Ag land continues to be consumed for PV, however.

                  Pump storage requires technical competence, long term vision and bonding. New York State and most of the Great Lakes have abundant opportunities for development of pump storage. Hydro and nuclear plants ring the lakes to provide nighttime energy to fill reservoirs. The land consumed for reservoirs must be far, far smaller than that required for PV per megawatt, in this second most cloudy area in the United States. Yet it has been more than 50 years since the last pump storage generation has been developed here. PV is a cheap sugar high in NYS. Just the thing for a guy like Cuomo or his corrupt successors.

                  While pump storage certainly costs more than the tens of thousands of acres of intermittent PV that has sprung up from Cuomo’s “green” energy plants, there is little doubt that the immediate on/off abilities of any hydro or pump storage is unique, especially for black starts.

                  We are victims of neoliberal short-termism. Reality, engineering and science doesn’t enter the decision processes.

                  1. Tom Pfotzer


                    Luddington Michigan has a big pumped storage facility.

                    It also happens to be right beside the 100MW Lake Winds energy park, which catches the west-to-east wind off Lake Michigan.

                    So there’s one example of what you’re suggesting, and there’s no question we should be building more of these things.

                    And those pumped-storage facilities, sited well, can become enormous environmental and recreational assets. Lakes provide a lot of habitat, and for a lot of species. And they’re quite beautiful.

          3. p fitzsimon

            I agree, Here in New England the grand plan for net-zero by 2050 includes developing 30GW of offshore wind. After twenty years of citizen complaints fighting offshore wind we have a total of 30 MW. In the meantime we are removing onshore turbines because of citizen complaints. The only place for onshore wind is Northern Maine but citizens do not want high voltage transmission lines running through their state to supply the big load centers in Southern New England. Most of the available lease area for offshore wind north of cape cod is in deep water >200ft,which means floating turbines, very expensive. In the meantime we are running the grid on mostly natural gas and nuclear. For us pipeline NG is incredibly cheap. Our coal and oil plants are inactive and nuclear plants have shut down all because they cannot compete with pipeline NG. However, no new pipelines will be built in New England and we no longer have enough pipeline gas. On Nov 1st the utilities jacked up our supply charge from 11cents/KWH to 33cents/KWH to pay for the high priced LNG that we now buy on the world market.

            And no the unreliability of gas and nuclear plants is absolutely nothing like the unreliability of wind. Gas and nuclear have planned maintenance outages and statistically small unplanned outages which are covered through regulations requiring well defined amounts of available backup power.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Reading this I was wondering how economical it would be to manufacture wind turbines in the EU due to the rapidly rising cost of energy, inflation and a host of other problems. I was reading earlier that perhaps one in four enterprises in Germany are considering moving to another county so perhaps this would be true of wind turbines manufacturers as well. Only taking a guess here but I would say that such manufacturing would be energy-intensive. And if this happens, then that might mean that the EU would have to import all that gear from another country rather than making it in the EU itself.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Major elements of turbines are very large and expensive to transport, so there is a strong bias towards (at least) local construction of the blades and masts. There is also an issue that cheaper Chinese turbines could fall foul of licensing and patent issues in Europe.

      The key issue is scale. Making blades, for example, requires huge kilns and facilities to produce them in the numbers needed to keep costs down. Energy is an input to this, but not especially so as the materials used are fairly straightforward. Its really the capital costs of the factories that is the problem, not particularly labor or energy input costs.

      1. upstater

        It is understandable that certain components, like turbine blades, require manufacturing facilities requiring significant long term investments and associated skills. However, structural components are not rocket science. Today’s NYT had an interesting piece partially addressing the supply chain issue (with fantastic pictures)

        Giant Wind Farms Arise Off Scotland, Easing the Pain of Oil’s Decline
        Oil and gas workers, losing their jobs as fossil fuel investment wanes, find work in the wind energy business. (paywalled)

        This part is instructive about the deindustrialization and dumbing down of the skilled workforce:

        At Nigg, cranes are loading yellow-painted turbine stands, called jackets, onto ships. (These stands were not made in Britain, but in China and other locations; British companies say they would like to make these parts locally but will need to become more competitive on costs.)

        Let’s recall that Scotland was the center of the offshore oil and gas industry in the UK. Many drilling rigs and production platforms were designed and built there using domestically manufactured steel and components by a highly skilled workforce. Yet today, it seems “impossible” to fabricate far simpler stands and masts.

        I read some years back (FT?) how a firm in the UK shutdown a facility making the masts and outsourced to Vietnam. Why UK firms and managers cannot make simple products is beyond comprehension. Labor costs are a small fraction of the process. Neoliberalism is the root if the problem.

        1. Tom Pfotzer

          Upstater: Great post. Your observation that “labor costs are a small fraction of the process” is terrific. Yes, there _may_ be addnl material transport, addnl local production capacity investment…which would add to project cost in addition to higher local labor costs. Yes. Are those addnl costs compelling? Show us the numbers, please.

          I think another big issue is the lack of public awareness that these major national infrastructure investment decisions hinge on a few margin points one way or the other (mfg’g abroad or locally), therefore are the pivot point that are steering huge societal impacts – on labor earnings, and therefore local aggregate demand – away from the national (e.g. _your_) interests to somewhere else.

          This is not good national econ policy, and it ought to get called out. Put these decision-makers on the carpet, and make them explain why they’re not investing in the economies of the nations and locales where these projects are installed.

          Make the installation license (enviro impacts, siting political process, etc.) and the taxation contingent upon local mfg’g of at least some of the strategic components.

          Who’s going to be buying the electricity these projects produce? Where does the project revenue and investor profits come from? They come from _your_ wallet, so get your money’s worth.

        2. bold'un

          “Why UK firms and managers cannot make simple products…” Part of it is lack of vertical integration and commitment. The BritishVolt battery project is in trouble because it cannot find financing absent a committed motor manufacturer; but the latter cannot afford the risk of finding themselves married in 2025 to a product that ends up either too expensive or underperforming. So Tesla can create a battery production factory but a standalone battery factory does not work; too few potential clients who will not commit. Similarly for making blades, a manufacturer needs to be convinced of many years of demand and not just of a six-month order book.

          1. Tom Pfotzer

            Maybe they need to aim their production at a product that can start small and scale. Or aim at a different segment, like stationary home use, which would provide a lot more flexibility on all costs, from design, materials sourcing, mfg’g.

    2. Tom Pfotzer

      Rev Kev:

      Consider that the renewable industry can produce the very same energy required to manufacture new renewable capacity.

      Think about the daily costs of those materials I mention below (once the post clears moderation). That’s an awful lot of money, once and done, per day, down the chute to neverland.

      Yes, certainly the manufacturing all that new capacity will take a lot of energy, and a lot of materials. The question turns on the subject of “proportions”, and the contrast of “investment” .vs. “expense”.

      I’m quite sure you know all this, and better than I do. I think it’s worth reminding people of this, and maybe it will occur to EU policy-makers that there are options to de-industrialization.

      As I mentioned many moons ago, the EU at large, Germany in particular, need new product lines and new markets. They could get really good at making the energy systems they need for themselves and concurrently create the product lines (energy-systems, and product-designs that efficiently recycle materials) that the rest of the world desperately needs.

      Consider all those countries that don’t happen to have access to fossil energy, or materials. There’s a lot of them. Every day a lot of wealth leaves those countries (paying for imports) that might well be applied elsewhere.

      That’s a whole lot of debt that wouldn’t have to get serviced, too.

  3. Tom Pfotzer

    This quote, I think, deserves to be examined in a bit more detail:

    “Never forget, renewables like wind roughly, roughly, need 10 times the material [compared to] … what conventional technologies need,” said Christian Bruch

    Hmm. Let me share with you an observation. Near where I live is a major east-west U.S. rail artery. Several times a day – several – trains pass there carrying coal. Those coal cars (hopper cars) carry around 80-100 tons (net) of coal.

    Each train consists of a minimum of 100 cars, so that’s (conservatively) 8,000 tons of “material” per train. There are (my guess) 10 such trains per day, servicing coal-fired power plants in my region. Now we’re up to 80,000 tons. Per day. For just one of the dozens of major metro areas in the U.S.

    80,000 tons per day, times dozens of metro areas. That’s a heck of a lot of “material”.

    The material required for wind or solar is invested _once_ for physical plant that has a useful life span of several decades. The major parts that wear out are the turbine blades and the solar panels.

    I am very skeptical that a wind farm weighs much more than 80,000 tons. Remember, that 80,000 tones is a one-day supply of material for our existing energy operations, not many decades’ supply.

    Let’s remember that as we evaluate the impact of the current fossil-fuel technology. Recall further that most of that 80,000 tons of “material” ends up as CO2 loaded into the atmosphere. Per day. What are those externalized costs? Rabbit or Elephant?


    Let’s consider the subject of materials recycling. As you read the following, please keep this question in the back of your mind: “can coal be recycled?”

    Solar panels can be recycled. They aren’t recycled well, yet, but they certainly can be. Here’s a piece from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency speaking on the subject.

    If the solar panel industry agreed upon a form factor (common dimensions) and a modularized interconnect regimen (like electric socket in your kitchen, and your toaster’s power plug), then there would be no reason to recycle the frame of the panel, just the cells. Unplug the old, take it out, replace with the new one, plug it back in, box up the old cells, send to reclamation site. Done.

    If the solar panel industry settled on a manufacturing design that prioritized materials recovery, then the reclamation activity could be standardized, scaled, simplified, etc. Recovery would become trivial, and the need for new material acquisition would attenuate once the major mfg’g and installation wave had stabilized over the next few decades.

    I expect that the same would be possible for the turbine blades. The rest of the wind farm – the support structures, the transmission cables, the alternator and rectifiers in the wind turbine are parts that can be designed to last a very long time and the parts with relatively frequent failures are most definitely designed for easy maintenance and replacement.

    Note that above, I said “relatively frequent failures”, because the bulk of the wind-farm system, including the support structures and the wiring, the turbine gear-sets (like auto transmission), alternator, rectifier, etc. (the major parts) last many decades.

    Think about the transmission pylons that support high-tension wires that strung up across your country. I can’t remember seeing one of those dis-assembled and replaced due to structural failure. Same for the transformers we use. Unless they get bombed like in Ukraine, they last for many decades.

    The big problem with renewables is intermittency.

    As I have mentioned elsewhere, there are several technologies to address this key problem that are now at commercial scale-up, and they use components, materials, and technique that is well-known, well-tested, and readily available in high-quantity. Those ready for scale up technologies include:

    Siemens’ electricity-to-hydrogen fuel plants, and
    Cummins’ electricity-to-hydrogen energy, fuel, fertilizer system architecture. See page 4.

    These two companies, Siemens and Cummins, are major, highly-experienced, fully capable manufacturing and design outfits. They know what they’re doing. Their products are going to work.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Last point, and this a big one: the development/install frontier for renewables has moved beyond basic research, beyond laboratory prototypes, beyond scaled-up demonstration facilities. That’s now _done_.

      The frontier is now building plants and supply chains to scale up manufacturing and installation.

      That’s – here it is, now – that’s “capital allocation”. Capital Allocation.

      And for all the dip-s**ts on Wall Street, the “City” and other bastions of financial capitalism, please get yer head out of your bottom, and do something useful.

      The industrial capitalists – Siemens and Cummins, for ex. – have done their job. Paved the way, put the rose-petals down, got the breakfast-bar and water-bottle way-stations all set up along the route.

      The West is awash in credit. Got money supply out the wazoo, sloshing around wrecking anything in its path.

      The mighty Finance industry. Serving humanity 24 x 7.


      Conor, as you can see, I’m making some pretty big claims here, and they need to get vetted by people with more engineering and econ chops than I have.

      I’m pretty sure I’m mostly right, but a lot of readers don’t currently share my enthusiasm.

      May I suggest that you reach out to a few rather more competent people, like Grumpy Engineer, and tell him that “Tom’s gone over the edge. Can you take a look at this, and put that boy back on the rails?”.

  4. diptherio

    China has been making major additions to its own mind power production and manufacturing capacity.

    I’ve been wondering when someone would make the switch to mind power.

  5. Eclair

    Thank you, Tom. Hydrogen as a fuel sounds great; leaves nothing behind but water.

    A possible problem? Production of hydrogen requires tons of water. The Cummins article refers to ‘tap water,’ in a rather disingenuous manner, as if ‘tap water’ is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

    The production of one kilo of hydrogen (which contains approximately the same amount of energy as one gallon of petrol/ diesel) requires 27 gallons of water as feedstock, plus, depending on electricity source, 110 gallons of water (dirty stuff will do here) as coolant.

    Based on 2007 useage, the US must produce 60 billion kilograms of hydrogen per year to replace fossil fuels, which would require 146 billion gallons of water as feedstock. Purified water.

    Another question I have is, what happens to the water that is the by-product of hydrogen being used as fuel? Is it released into the atmosphere as vapor? Is it collected ‘on site’ in containers and returned to the hydrogen-producing facility?

    Fossil fuel wars have been brutal and we don’t even drink the stuff. Water wars?

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Eclair: Great points, thanks for raising them. I posted a while back in reply, it’s not showing up, so here’s the redux:

      For stationary production of hydrogen that’s subsequently run thru a fuel cell – which outputs electricity, heat, and water – the same amount of water input is output. So, with minor exceptions for leakage, once the plant’s commissioned and provisioned, little further water is required.

      For mobile applications involving hydrogen -> fuel cell -> electricity -> traction motors, e.g. locomotives, ships, trucks, autos – the water from the fuel cell can be captured and returned to the fuel station.

      Think about that fuel station, and imagine a hose-set with highly specialized fittings; one channel of the hose-set removes water from the car’s water tank while the other one loads hydrogen into the car’s hydrogen tank. Sensors would check water quality before the cross-load occurred to insure that potential impurities in the car’s water tank didn’t contaminate the fuel station’s water tank. If your car’s water didn’t make the grade, that water would be discarded and you’d have to pay a surcharge for your fill-up.

      Next: sea water can be used as input to hydrolysis. Lots of that. Here’s one repurposing an offshore oil drilling / production platform for the task. Lots of well-developed research and testing on this score.

      What about hydrogen applications that use combustion instead of fuel cells? They are likely to emit water vapor, unless they’re stationary applications that can condense the vapor to water. So some water will end up as vapor, and get into the planetary water cycle, and will drop as rain somewhere, of course.

      The issue will be “where’s the liquid water sourced, and where’s the rain end up dropping down”?

      The answer will depend upon how much hydrogen combustion happens in mobile applications, and of course where the vapor’s injected into the atmosphere, and whether the point of injection is generally amenable (cold enough at higher atmospheric levels) to cause rain to occur within a few hundred miles of where the vapor was injected, based on prevailing winds and the (general) weather patterns. Case by case regional analysis would tell a lot, and regional taxation, permitting, etc. would steer investment decisions accordingly.

      1. Eclair

        Thanks, Tom. I did read something recently about the best uses for hydrogen. The author was not sanguine about using it to power private automobiles, for various reasons. I believe he /she thought the best uses would be for stationary power plants for electricity generation and mass transit, i.e., trains, ships and planes. Maybe massive farm machines and trucks.

        I was listening to an NPR (captive audience on long trip) interview with an entrepreneur who was developing a method to build and transport containers of hydrogen, for example, to airports to pop into planes. Kind of like propane tanks. That, versus another proposed method of transport from plant to end use, involving ‘repurposing’ of oil and gas pipelines.

        The complete revamping of our energy infrastructure to accommodate this new energy source will require immense amounts of money, political will, and coordination.

        1. Tom Pfotzer


          I agree that mobile use of hydrogen has technical complexity which may slow acceptance / market penetration down, but if batteries don’t get a lot cheaper, better, use fewer rare materials, etc. then hydrogen may overtake the battery-based solution.

          As an interesting aside, I suggest you take a look at metal hydrides – they are generally a compound that accepts / bonds to hydrogen, in high density, and then releases that same hydrogen on-demand. The accept – release conditions are apparently easy to control. The application of the tech is hydrogen storage tanks that are stuffed full of this hydride compound. Judging by their pricing, they seem to be relatively cheap to build and operate. They are commercially available now.

          With respect to the transition to new technology, consider that “complete revamping” isn’t sudden. It starts somewhere that’s commercially most advantageous, and works outward from there. Solar panels were originally used in space-craft – a very specialized app that justified the high devel and mfg’g costs at a very low volume.

          Then look what happened.

          Another example: electric cars. Did you ever, ever in your life expect the acceptance and investment in electric cars to move as fast as it did? I’m _still_ astonished.

          The hydrogen economy uptake rate may surprise us again, since there’s such enormous pressure to deal with the negatives of fossil fuels, and the sheer cost of fossil fuel energy. It ain’t cheap, and as we can see in Germany’s case, if someone can cut off your energy source, you’re in big trouble.

          That fact is not lost on the rest of the world. China, Japan, RoK, Taiwan, UK, almost all of EU ex. Norway…doesn’t have owned control of energy. They have to buy it.

          They do have access to renewables, though, and many of those countries have lots of really good industrial engineers. That may change what the acceptance / transition dynamics turn out to be also.

          The countries that don’t currently have great big investment in fossil fuel technologies, excepting distribution apparatus – may be the early national-scale adopters. And if, like China, they make major strategic investment – as a national security move – in electric cars, trucks and trains, the cutover investment from fossil-to hydrogen-assisted electric may get a shot in the arm.

          While the U.S. may be the laggard here…I’m not sure about it. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Texas is national leader in windmill investment. Texas!

          And Cummins has a big stake in oilfield equipment mfg’g. Compressors, pumps…all that stuff. Major market share. And yet…here they are rolling out a very well-thought-out hydrogen economy architecture, with a significant number of ready-to-sell products to flesh out that same architecture.

          Makes you wonder what’s actually going on under the rug, doesn’t it?

  6. steven

    The fly in the ointment is, of course, long-term storage. Just like solar and other forms of renewable energy, the utilities love storage – as long as they own it. There are a ton of gravity-based storage technologies out there. Some of them utility companies could even conceivably own. And then there are flow batteries. Gravity-based systems might set the world’s NIMBYs aflame. But that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from insisting on trying every possibility that will avoid turning the planet into a flaming hell – any more than the utilities not being able to make enough money stopped FDR from electrifying the country in the 1930s.

  7. Altandmain

    A big part of the reason why renewable energy fell in cost was because of the extent of the subsidies that the Chinese government has undertaken. They had a well planned industrial policy and also built up the economies of scale.

    It’s not just Europe, but also the US.

    Manufacturing in the European countries or inthr US would be mean having to build the economies of scale and industrial policy.

    Then there are the challenges with the intermittent nature of renewable energy, which is going to require a lot of cheap energy storage. Whether or not hydrogen is the solution remains to be seen, but I would support a serious industrial policy to try to research and build up a solid renewable energy system.

    Right now Europe is also going to be facing a loss of energy to subsidize their industry as well.

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