Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that Tesla in your hand?

Some notable environmentalists have been ‘against’ Hydrogen as a possible energy solution for a remarkably long time – Joe Romm’s ‘The Hype About Hydrogen’ goes back ten years now, to 2004. The RMI (Rocky Mountain Institute) isn’t keen. In the meantime, other energy solutions have made progress, in particular, as Romm points out in his recent series on ClimateProgress, in the field of personal transportation. But even on that site, Ryan Koronowski reports on developments at Toyota and Hyundai which look promising (here).

hydrogen_fuel_cell_car2In 2006, Romm’s main criticism was summarised nicely in the Scientific American article ‘Hybrid Vehicles’, and usefully quoted by him in one of his articles;

For policymakers concerned about global warming, plug-in hybrids hold an edge over another highly touted green vehicle technology — hydrogen fuel cells. Plug-ins would be better at utilizing zero-carbon electricity because the overall hydrogen fueling process is inherently costly and inefficient. Any effective hydrogen economy would require an infrastructure that could use zero-carbon power to electrolyze water into hydrogen, convey this highly diffuse gas long distances, and pump it at high pressure into the car -– all for the purpose of converting the hydrogen back to electricity in a fuel cell to drive electric motor.

The entire process of electrolysis, transportation, pumping and fuel-cell conversion would leave only about 20 to 25 percent of the original zero-carbon electricity to drive the motor. In a plug-in hybrid, the process of electricity transmission, charging an onboard battery and discharging the battery would leave 75 to 80 percent of the original electricity to drive the motor. Thus, a plug-in should be able to travel three to four times farther on a kilowatt-hour of renewable electricity than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle could.

Summarising the problems that all AFVs have, Joe usefully produces a list:

  1. High first cost for vehicle
  2. On-board fuel storage issues (i.e. limited range)
  3. Safety and liability concerns
  4. High fueling cost (compared to gasoline)
  5. Limited fuel stations: chicken and egg problem
  6. Improvements in the competition (better, cleaner gasoline vehicles).
  7. Problems delivering cost-effective emissions reductions

Some recent research, though, has led me to question some of the assumptions which lead away from Hydrogen as a viable energy ‘solution’, and to reach the conclusion that, done in the right way, hydrogen has the potential to help move our society much closer to the ideal ‘zero carbon world’. Here is some of that evidence.

Before the detail, though, I should point out that there is no real disagreement with Romm’s arguments – he knows what he’s talking about – especially in respect to FCVs and FCEVs. And some of his criticisms may need to be fleshed out in more detail later, otherwise this piece could be endless. On the other side of the coin, as with electric hybrid technology, things have moved on a pace, and at least some of the problems are already close to resolution. Hyundai has the new ix35 FCEV, with a range of 360 miles. Nissan has new fuel cell stack technology, as do Hitachi, who are working on CHES storage (Carbon Hydride) amongst other things. There’s a new Honda on the way, too.

The biggest obstruction to generic hydrogen use is the problem of distribution. So let’s get rid of it. Instead of hydrolysing at a distance, follow the Toshiba model (below), and produce locally. As well as being a by-product of some existing factory processes, hydrogen can be produced direct at the site of a wind-farm (which also means the maximal use of the energy generated, in the sense that there is no distribution loss from the transformer to the end-use). A small (but commercially viable) local wind farm will be practicable in plenty of places (though not all – for example in Africa, where the long-term mean annual wind speeds in the centre of the continent just won’t do the job), where anything from 1-50MW capacity local farms will produce electricity almost as cost-effectively as on the really big ‘Texas-scale’ farms. For the majority of the time, the energy from these goes direct to a local ‘island’ or national grid infrastructure for direct use. But there are always times when supply exceeds demand. What to do with the excess? Store it as hydrogen.

Using a suitable piece of engineering, it is simple enough to then transfer the gas, suitably pressurised, into rail tenders purpose built for this. The tenders can then be towed down the line to a rail head or terminal where they can be simply linked up to the rolling stock. This means the expense and consumption implied in Romm’s model is reduced to a sufficiently low level that the relative inefficiencies are compensated for.

This is one area where I think hydrogen has real potential for solving some of the problems Joe and others bring up, in the rail network. Though it is underfunded and still not fully realised, some good work has been going on for years, and several projects are running around the world. Hydrail has a useful links page and some summaries of what is happening here. Or, you could look at this article from Future Rail magazine.

In Japan (where else?), several companies have been working on Hydrogen for a variety of purposes. Toshiba have an ongoing demonstration project in Kitakyushu, in which hydrogen as a by-product of steel production in a nearby factory services homes, fuel stations and local businesses. There’s a promotional demo here, which includes a grumpy kid and a cute puppy, so don’t switch it on if you’re easily nauseated. There’s a lot missing from the demo video, so let’s not pretend that all the answers are there now. But there’s more…

Here’s a pdf of a presentation on the work done recently at Ulsan and Insheon in Korea, with heavy involvement from Hyundai. It’s useful for some real numbers, demonstrations of distribution plans, and the absence of kids and puppies. In upstate New York, GE has a new domestic energy hydrogen research facility working to roll out products by 2017.

Which leads me to the ‘obvious’ link up. If it is possible and effective to generate at a wind farm, store in tenders, and link to the transport (rail) system, could we do the same for personal transportation? I see no reason why not. This is how it might work.

A hydrogen management system is installed (much as an oil tank or gas tank is put in already) outside the home. Solar panels (where wind is not practical) on the garage roof, or the house roof, generate electricity which can be switched on demand to the household system, battery backup systems, the hydrolysis ‘machine’, and, if relevant, the grid. The hydrogen ‘terminal’ contains loadable fuel cell units which can be transferred to a car/auto, a stove, or whatever. Plastic gas pipes can feed into the house, where a combined heating and ventilation system can be operated. There may even be a hose point to feed a car’s storage, so when you get home in the evening, you can fill it up in three minutes. All of the technology to deliver this (with some modification) already exists – nothing new has to be invented. Safety levels are now very high – probably better than domestic propane systems, at a guess – and the renewable energy generated is used where it is needed, when it is needed, without so much wastage or loss.

The novelty here, such as it is, lies in three elements – one, the synthesis of energy needs for the average person – home, heat, transport – two, the transferability of the energy storage medium between uses, and three, the removal or reduction of pretty much all of that list of reasons why it didn’t used to work, in particular the problems of distribution and infrastructure. And so the average Jo or Joe can maintain a modern lifestyle (whilst being energy efficient, of course), independence, and achieve some payback on energy saved, gas saved, utility and domestic costs.

Which leaves three unanswerable issues from the list. The initial cost, which is determined by the cost of technology and demand volume. Improvements in other technologies, which are happening all the time, but can be seen as complementary or alternative solutions which will work better in some cases. And, finally, the achievable cost-effectiveness of the whole package. Which I can’t answer. Because it depends on comparative energy costs, ratio of energy usage, which will vary depending on lifestyles, and other factors which as things stand are incommensurable.

It may not be the final word, but it really is starting to look, to me, like the day of Hydrogen is on the way, if not as the ‘magic bullet’, then at least as another in the mix of energy solutions which will help get us out of this mess.


  1. OK, I do so want this to work. Combined with Gillis's article about Germany's Energiewende in the NYTimes today, Sun and Wind Alter Global Landscape, Leaving Utilities Behind, and a few other bits and pieces, I'm beginning to think some progress is being made.

    However, there is a cynical effort from a variety of quarters to prevent any thought being given to the more obvious forms of waste. I do think one of the necessary "wedges" will have to be more awareness of waste and a move away from marketing wizardry that has us on a treadmill of consumption.

    So why is stonewalling progress the only way to make a profit? The dishonest campaign to cling to big fossil is dangerous and it's hard not to think it is disingenuous as well.

  2. That's a very useful resource, thank you.
    The point I was trying to address is that, under the right conditions, Hydrogen can be considered a part of the clean energy mix, and recent developments are moving it's practicality and cost effectiveness in the right direction. One of Joe's big issues is with H as a transport solution, because of the high distribution cost, and my proposal is that this can be overcome with a bit of imagination. His other issue is that using renewable energy directly, or to charge batteries, is more efficient that using it to hydrolyse and store energy as H: I think this needs re-thinking, quite seriously, especially since the two are not mutually exclusive, if the process takes place at times of excess supply (eg to the grid) over demand.
    The Ulsan project, for example, expects to reduce domestic heating costs compared to LNG by 26%.

  3. "So why is stonewalling progress the only way to make a profit? The dishonest campaign to cling to big fossil is dangerous and it's hard not to think it is disingenuous as well."

    Well, if you have made your fortune by selling fossil fuels at prices that externalize the cost of climate change, and you have much of that fortune invested in fossil fuels that are still in the ground, stonewalling attempts to internalize climate change costs in the price of your product is the only way to make a profit.

  4. Up to about 1996 I was a hydrogen enthusiast.

    Using a suitable piece of engineering, it is simple enough to then transfer the gas, suitably pressurised, into rail tenders purpose built for this.

    ... a hose point to feed a car’s storage, so when you get home in the evening, you can fill it up in three minutes.

    These two excepts together are the core of Brown's piece. What pressure?

  5. Hi GRLC,

    The research continues. There are a number of options for pressure depending on the tech used. A recent Purdue study using Ammonium Hydrides in fuel cells worked at 200psi. More traditional systems work at 5,000psi. Other CHES work permits low pressures, too. There are also differences between PETMFC or SOFC technologies.
    I haven't checked yet, but there is sure to be a stat somewhere on the pressures used in the Fukuoka hydrogen fuel station, which might function as a benchmark.

  6. There's a useful summary of the current state of things from the University of Birmingham, one of the leaders in this research: http://www.grovefuelcell.com/pdf/papers/29_hillmansen.pdf

    Doesn't give pressures. Trouble I am finding is that there are a large number of resources covering different areas, and it's hard to remember where I saw which piece of information.

  7. "The biggest obstruction to generic hydrogen use is the problem of distribution"

    The biggest obstacle to hydrogen fuel is its high cost. I realize you would like for the dream to be true, but it's not. Let me give you a tidbit of information: most large oil and petrochemical companies have full time teams researching and costing how to make cost effective hydrogen. Why? Because they want to make money. So far they are batting zero. How far do they go? They went as far as looking at nuclear power to generate electricity and steam they can use. To them using wind is a child's play. Thus far nothing works.

    The good news is that we are running out of oil, so their research will probably ratchet up.

  8. There does seem to be a historical bias, probably for good reason, against hydrogen. What caught my attention was the integrated system, not the specifics about automobiles and fuel. Not being able to digest the technical side, I just pick up what I can and try to keep an open mind. I find it confusing, but think perhaps the situation with hydrogen may have changed, and be worth revisiting.

    Now I'm going to be a busybody and create links for Fergus's most recent (and hope I don't flub it):

    University of Birmingham summary


  9. Snarky remarks do not add to the conversation, but you might find this amusing relevant on the subject of horse manure and the problems it created; Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a brief corker of an article, as is her wont.

    We are not talking about going backwards, but forwards. The stubborn resistance to progress with clean energy does not speak well of the hearts and minds of those promoting big fossil. I wonder if most of them know how much money and skill has been poured into persuading them not to think or be curious. And they call themselves "skeptics".

    Now, can we return to the potential for local use of hydrogen as a way to store and use energy from clean sources?

  10. Susan, there's no "historical bias against hydrogen". Those of us who make a living trying to solve these problems happen to love hydrogen. However, hydrogen is very hard to make AND contain safely. The hydrogen molecule just happens to be very tiny and very good at slipping through cracks.

    These issues, as far as you are concerned are reflected in the cost per energy unit delivered. And as it turns out the stuff isn't marketable to the general public at a reasonable price once we scale up the volumes. Those who write that hydrogen is viable are writing what I call cotton candy science fiction. That's the unfortunate fact.

  11. "For the majority of the time, the energy from these goes direct to a local ‘island’ or national grid infrastructure for direct use. But there are always times when supply exceeds demand. What to do with the excess? Store it as hydrogen."

    This is sort of akin to developing a very expensive automated sponge delivery system to sop up spilled drinks on the Titanic. Our renewable energy supply exceeds demand not because we have too much supply, but rather because we have very little demand, compared to what we are going to need.

    Right now, our renewables help to run our hair dryers and lights - and contribute about 1-3% of that small need. But electricity is going to have to also replace fossil fuels for transportation. And we are going to have to heat our homes with electricity, supply our industrial processes, etc. That represents a far, far larger demand than our current use.

    And we do not have a smart grid yet, so the idea of "excess" juice on a local scale will be less of an issue in future. Indeed, I can not see how we can avoid becoming very expert at efficiently moving lots of electricity great distances, as well as distributing smaller amounts very quickly.

    On the other hand, we will have renewable tech that works quite nicely at night - wind, hydro, tidal. It may or may not be cost-effective to try to harvest their unneeded nocturnal outputs - nocturnal power demands are lower than daytime. (It might make more sense to simply over-build daytime infrastructure and turn some of it off at night.) If it does make economic sense to harvest excess nocturnal electricity, then hydrogen will need to compete with medium and large-scale storage tech - piping water uphill, flywheels, perhaps compressed air - tech that doesn't require a national distribution network and the manufacture of hundreds of millions of fuel cells or ICE's.

    Hydrogen has romance, though. It might be the cat's meow for rural self-independent living - heat your home, run your stove and generator, power your car and tractor with one fuel.

  12. Well, sorry, Rodrigo has quite a point about horse carts. They have way higher adoption potential than hydrogen dream tech. Don't forget the poorer world! Plus, horse manure is great storable energy plus fertilizer. E.g. in rural China they have household biogas systems (but mostly fed with pig manure). Now that's synergistic! And with today's high tech road cleaning machines the horse emissions are surely manageable.

    Plus, at the local level, a well-trained horse beats any high tech automatic driving and navigation system.

    (I've seen it work in trans-Transsylvania: A narrow dirt road, two horse carts with drinking and chatting drivers approaching each other at high speed, scaringly, but the horses maneuvering by. My drunken driver's horse found home without further interaction after the inital commando "Let's go home, Mary!".
    Alas, Romanian automobile fetishists corrupted by German ADAC are doing their best to get horse carts banned from the roads.)

  13. I think you are missing something here, Ginge. We can make hay while the sun shines, but we have to put somewhere else than in a horse, or the horses will go hungry in winter.

    It doesn't really matter how much demand for renewable energy there is or will be (I agree that ultimately, it will be most of it, or all of it if we eschew nuclear altogether.) But however much demand there is will not be perfectly aligned with supply. So we have to be able to put some of that energy into storage.

    Efficiency of storage and retrieval is important, and energy investment in the storage system is important too. It's all pretty complicated.

    But to wave aside the problems of intermittency doesn't solve them.

    Everybody wants simple answers. But if there were simple answers there wouldn't be a problem...

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