The hydrogen option

Last week, visitors to the Illinois Renewable Energy Fair obtained an overview of Iceland’s intent to make the transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen to power their transportation system. While the United States’ approach to using hydrogen fuel is likely to differ, there is much we can learn from Iceland’s pioneering efforts.

Although President Bush committed more than $1 billion to develop a hydrogen-fueled car, energy advocates believe a more substantial program is needed. They call for a $100 billion, 10-year Apollo project to reduce the price and improve the performance of fuel cells for vehicular use and to develop the refueling infrastructure. The goal is to have one-third of our cars hydrogen powered and 15 percent of our nation’s gas stations capable of pumping hydrogen by 2013.

It has been estimated that over the next 20 years the global economy will need to invest more than $1 trillion building an energy infrastructure to meet future energy demand. If that investment favors conventional energy sources, it will serve as a major delay in making a smooth transition toward a renewables and hydrogen- based energy system.

A goal of securing 20 percent of our energy needs from renewable energy and hydrogen fuels by 2020 is a minimal target for advocates of the energy transition.

In a paper published by the Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory Lovins suggests another less costly route toward a smooth transition to a hydrogen economy. He advocates a $4 billion, 10 year program for developing a hydrogen infrastructure and lowering the cost of fuel cells. His approach would start by installing existing fuel cell technologies into buildings, creating a mass market for fuel cells, and lowering their costs. Since buildings account for two-thirds of our electrical demand, they represent a substantial market for fuel cells.

Buildings targeted for fuel cell installations would be selected from areas where the existing electrical grid was nearing the end of its useful life, already filled to or near capacity, and in need of an expensive upgrading. Some costs avoided by delaying upgrading the grid could be credited to the cost of installing fuel cell service.

Building occupants would benefit from the high quality and reliability of the power. Society would benefit from the increased security of their energy supplies and major reductions in global and local air pollution.

Buildings would be equipped to extract hydrogen from either natural gas or water. Hydrogen would be used in fuel cells to provide heat and electricity to the building. Excess hydrogen could be produced and sold to power fuel-celled vehicles leased by employees who work in the buildings.

The vehicles would be designed on the principles embodied in the HyperCar, a light weight, aerodynamic, super-efficient vehicle trademarked by the Rocky Mountain Institute. The power required to move the vehicle is substantially less than that required to power a conventional vehicle. Needing less power would help to lower the cost of the car’s fuel cell. Dramatic lowering of fuel cell costs could also result from mass production.

Even though energy is required to release hydrogen from natural gas or water, the efficiency of fuel cells is so great that the entire process is more efficient than if natural gas were burned directly as a fuel.

As the capacity to extract hydrogen expands, excess hydrogen could be used to power fleets of fuel-celled vehicles.

Fuel cells used to power cars could serve as 20 kW electrical generators. During times of heavy electrical demand, they could sell electricity back to the grid helping defray their higher costs. Since the average car spends 96 percent of its useful life parked and not in service, down time could be constructively used. If today’s fleet of cars were powered by fuel cells, the generating capacity of the cars would be four times greater than current grid capacity.

As building and vehicle use of hydrogen increase, bulk production of hydrogen would be warranted. If natural gas served as the source of hydrogen, C02 could be captured and pumped back down into gas wells for long- term storage. This is already being done in oil fields; CO2 is pumped into declining wells to increase oil recovery.

Large hydro dams could be used to electrolyze water. The released hydrogen could be shipped via pipelines to large markets. At last year’s energy fair, a paper was presented describing how hydrogen released from water by electrolysis using electricity produced from windmills in North Dakota could be shipped to Chicago for use. The large hydro plant in northern Quebec on the Churchill River was built with hydrogen production in mind. It already ships electricity to our northeastern states. Some of that electricity could be used to produce hydrogen, which could then be shipped to European markets. Other large hydro facilities could also find it more profitable to produce hydrogen rather than electricity for bulk markets

The purpose of this column is to point out that a hydrogen economy may be much closer than generally believed and could come about in a substantially less costly way than is commonly portrayed. We believe a transition to renewable energy and hydrogen is of critical importance to our economy, environment and national security. Such a transition will require significant public support if it is to be realized.

For more information on Lovins’ approach to a hydrogen economy, check the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Web site:

Source: Amory B. Lovins, “A Strategy for the Hydrogen Transition,” 10th Annual U.S. Hydrogen Meeting, April, 1999.

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