Tesla CEO Elon Musk fires hydrogen as energy saving tool

Elon Musk has a history of expressing strong views on hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells. A few years ago, when the issue came up during a discussion with reporters at the Automotive News World Congress, the electric vehicle magnet described the hydrogen fuel cell as “extremely stupid.”

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk reiterated his skepticism about the role of hydrogen in planned migrations for a more sustainable future, describing it as “perhaps the most dumb thing I can imagine for energy savings.”

During an interview at the Financial Times Future of the Car Summit on Tuesday, Musk was asked if he thought hydrogen had a role to play in accelerating the shift away from fossil fuels.

“No,” he replied. “I can’t really stress it enough – every time I’ve been asked about hydrogen, it could be … it’s 100 times, maybe 200 times,” he said. “It’s important to understand that hydrogen is a bad choice if you want a way to save energy.”

Extending his argument, Musk said “huge tanks” would be needed to hold hydrogen in liquid form. If it is stored in gaseous form, it will require “even larger” tanks, he said.

Described by the International Energy Agency as a “versatile energy carrier”, hydrogen has a wide variety of applications and can be deployed in sectors such as industry and transportation.

In 2019, the IEA stated that hydrogen “seems to be one of the leading options for saving energy from renewable energy and is committed to the lowest cost option for saving electricity in days, weeks or even months.”

The Paris-based company added that both hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels were “able to transport energy from renewable over long distances – thousands of kilometers away from energy-hungry cities in regions with abundant solar and wind resources, such as Australia or Latin America.”

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Musk has a history of expressing strong views about hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells.

A few years ago, when the issue came up during a discussion with reporters at the Automotive News World Congress, the electric vehicle magnet described the hydrogen fuel cell as “extremely stupid.”

He tweeted in June 2020 “Fuel cells = sells fools,” Adding in July of that year: “There’s no point in selling hydrogen fools.” Judging by his comments this week, he remains incredible about hydrogen.

“It doesn’t happen naturally on Earth, so you either have to split the water with electrolysis or rupture the hydrocarbons,” he told the Financial Times.

“When you’re cracking hydrocarbons, you don’t really solve the fossil fuel problem, and the electrolysis efficiency is poor.”

Today, most hydrogen production is based on fossil fuels. Another method of production involves the use of electrolysis, the splitting of water into oxygen and hydrogen by electric current.

If the electricity used in this process comes from renewable sources such as wind or solar, some people call it green or renewable hydrogen.

Hydrogen projects using electrolysis have attracted interest from large companies and business leaders in recent years, but it would seem that Musk is not a fan.

“The effectiveness of electrolysis … is bad,” he told the Financial Times. “So you’re really spending a lot of energy … to split hydrogen and oxygen. Then you have to separate hydrogen and oxygen and press it – it also takes a lot of energy.”

“And if you have to liquefy … hydrogen, oh my god,” he continued. “The amount of energy needed to make hydrogen and turn it into a liquid is amazing. This is probably the dumbest thing I can imagine for energy storage.”

Different perspectives

Musk may dismiss the role of hydrogen in energy change, but other influential voices are a little more optimistic. Among them is Anna Spitzberg, the US State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Power Transformation.

During a recent panel discussion hosted by CNBC’s Hadley Gamble, Shpitsberg called hydrogen “a game-changing technology that speaks to different sources … because it can underpin atoms, it can underpin gas, it can underpin renewables.” Maybe, it can clean up part of it and so can CCUS [carbon capture utilization and storage]”

Elsewhere, in February, Michelle Delavigna, the leader of Goldman Sachs’ commodity equity trading unit for the EMEA region, saw the important role she felt would move forward.

“If we want to go to Net-Zero, we can’t do that with renewable energy,” he said.

“We need something that plays the role of natural gas today, especially to manage seasons and breaks, and that is hydrogen,” Delavigna argued, describing hydrogen as a “very powerful molecule.”

“The key is to produce without CO2 emissions. And that’s why we talk about green, we talk about blue hydrogen,” he said.

Blue hydrogen refers to hydrogen produced using natural gas – a fossil fuel – with CO2 emissions captured and stored during the process. There has been a charged debate around the role that blue hydrogen can play in the decarbonization of society.

“Whether we do it with electrolysis or we do with carbon capture, we need to create hydrogen in a clean way,” Delavigna said. “And once we get that, I think we have a solution that could one day become at least 15% of the global energy market, which means it will be … a trillion-dollar market every year.”

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