The hydrogen economy and renewables

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl President and Vice President Illinois Renewable Energy Association It is becoming increasingly clear that the world needs to develop new and clean energy systems. Deteriorating environmental conditions, global warming and peaking oil and natural gas supplies suggest our nearly exclusive reliance on fossil fuels is misplaced and should be drawing to a close. This exclusive reliance on fossil fuels is global. It stems from incentives, tax breaks, rules and ignored social, economic and environmental costs, which create the appearance that fossil fuels are the most cost-effective source of energy. Numerous other energy sources exist. However, the first step is using energy much more efficiently than we now do. As a nation, we are the least energy-efficient economy in the industrialized world. Our inefficient use of energy creates substantial opportunities to save energy and money and create jobs while curtailing global warming. Some well-documented examples of using energy more efficiently include the benefits of district heating, combined heat and power systems, micro turbines, geothermal systems, energy-efficient buildings and hybrid cars. A 40-mile-per-gallon fuel economy standard could save 25 times more oil by 2020 than an aggressive fuel cell program. An Illinois energy expert recently indicated that as natural gas is depressurized to be distributed to consumers, energy released as waste from the process was equivalent to the energy being produced by the entire fleet of nuclear power plants operating in northern Illinois. The potential exists to capture waste heat from all the combustion processes now utilized in our society. For example, a steam generating power plant only captures one-third of the energy released from burning coal to produce electricity. A solid state thermal device under development can turn that waste heat energy into electricity at a maximum rate of 70 percent efficiency. The same device attached to the tailpipe of a car can displace all the auxiliary electrical energy needs of a car, allowing more energy to be delivered to the power shaft. One minute of sunlight striking the earth yields more energy than the annual production from all of our technologies. As solar cells gain in efficiency and are increasingly integrated into the construction of buildings, they could be widely cost competitive with coal by 2010. Hydrogen is emerging as a promising source of energy. It can also be one of the cleanest alternatives available. Coal, nuclear, ethanol, and natural gas are often promoted as sources of hydrogen. Advocates of renewable energy are concerned that a nearly exclusive focus on them as the basis of a hydrogen economy may not get us where we need to go. Investment decisions made today determine our energy future for years to come. Coal will only intensify the global warming problem unless carbon is sequestered. Nuclear was not cost effective the first time around, so it’s legitimate to ponder whether it will be in its new configuration. Ethanol, while carbon neutral, could eventually force a decision of whether to use corn for fuel or food. Natural gas, while less carbon intensive, appears to be peaking in North America. None of these concerns rules out exploring these paths to a hydrogen economy, but serve to highlight the need to examine the role renewable energy sources can play. Biomass is another promising source of hydrogen. A full range of biomass sources should be investigated for their hydrogen-producing potential. Methane from sewage treatment plants can be burned as a fuel or processed for use in a fuel cell. Wood chips available in abundance in urban settings after a storm could be processed as a hydrogen source. Dozens of crops hold potential as well. At one time, sugar beets were considered an ideal crop for energy purposes. Hydrogen can be released from water via electrolysis. If the hydrogen is generated during times of low electrical demand, it could be pressurized and stored in tanks for later use to power a vehicle or a building. It should be possible to capture hydrogen from storm flows such as those sent into the deep tunnel underlying Chicago. As wind farms proliferate, it might prove helpful to utilize some of the electricity during times of low demand to generate hydrogen and store it for later use. Concentrating solar panels providing high heat levels hold promise of releasing hydrogen directly from water and would be more efficient than using electric current for the same purpose. Water is a common ingredient in the production or release of hydrogen. The consumptive use of increasingly scarce fresh water supplies may eventually set limits on hydrogen production in some areas. In combination with grid electrical use, localized hydrogen energy sources could power small fleets of fuel cell cars or cars modified to burn hydrogen in internal combustion engines. Many hydrogen experts suggest fuel cell-powered cars will not be a major factor before 2015. The expanded production and increasing efficiency of hybrid cars could also delay a transition to fuel cells. Amory Lovins, however, suggests fuel cell and hydrogen use could increase more rapidly and lead to substantial savings of gasoline consumption. If the entire world vehicle fleet were powered by fuel cells, and the vehicles attained the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon, the existing world production of 50 million tons of hydrogen per year would be sufficient to displace two-thirds of the current world consumption of gasoline and delay the need for a massive increase in hydrogen production. Some countries such as Germany, England, Norway and Iceland are determined to replace fossil fuels with hydrogen from renewable energy sources. Germany is a world leader in renewable energy; BMW powers an internal combustion engine with hydrogen. England’s transition to hydrogen will begin with offshore wind farms producing hydrogen. These will be followed by solar farms in northern Africa shipping hydrogen as a mixture with natural gas in existing pipelines and eventually importing liquified hydrogen from Iceland and Canada. In Norway, the intent is to produce hydrogen from their abundant hydro facilities as well as woody biomass. Iceland has initiated a gradual transition to powering its transportation system with hydrogen utilizing its low cost electrical supplies to release hydrogen from water. Their gradual transition should allow them to recognize any significant environmental and technological problems before having financially locked themselves into a specific technology. Our position is that we in the United States need both renewable energy and hydrogen to develop a sustainable energy system to maintain a viable economy, increase energy security, curtail global warming, and cut down on local air pollution. It would seem appropriate in Illinois to generate 25 percent of all new hydrogen sources from renewable energy by the year 2025. We think the world situation demands it, and our children deserve it. Even in peacetime, we were spending $60 billion a year to ensure that the oil would flow from the Middle East. If global warming continues as predicted and Illinois is no longer suitable to growing corn, what have we gained by ignoring the renewable energy option for the hydrogen economy? This column is based on a presentation made to the Illinois Coalition for its 2H2 project. It will appear in their report.

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