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).
In 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:
- High first cost for vehicle
- On-board fuel storage issues (i.e. limited range)
- Safety and liability concerns
- High fueling cost (compared to gasoline)
- Limited fuel stations: chicken and egg problem
- Improvements in the competition (better, cleaner gasoline vehicles).
- 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.