Hydrogen: A key component in our energy future

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Around 2002, we were involved in a short-lived effort to create a hydrogen highway from Chicago to Rockford. Thorsteinn Sigfusson gave a presentation at the Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair about Iceland’s highly publicized effort to create a hydrogen economy. We visited Iceland and saw their hydrogen refueling station and the three German-made buses that served Reykjavik, the capital. We offered Illinois Renewable Energy Association members a tour of Iceland, but it generated little interest. A critic from Minnesota pointed out that Iceland was building a huge hydro plant that would flood a rich natural area filled with bird populations. He saw the hydrogen campaign as a means to obscure the devastation that was occurring by building the hydro plant.

Iceland went through a major economic crisis and political changes since our visit. Some progress has been made with the hydrogen economy with more hydrogen buses, some hydrogen cars and a whale-watching boat powered by hydrogen. But now, more effort is going into powering cars with electricity.

With low natural gas prices in the U.S., we assumed interest in hydrogen might be growing, as it serves as a fuel source for fuel cells. They can increase efficiency by providing both heat and electricity, and dramatically reduce pollution, as their only byproduct is a small amount of water.

According to Jennifer Gangi, program director for Fuel Cells 2000, not many stationary installations are in Illinois. Plug Power has supplied the Central Groceries storage facility in Joliet with 230 fuel cell-powered forklifts. Several AT&T units at undisclosed sites use Relion fuel cells for backup power.

Not much is happening with residential applications of fuel cells in the United States. Clean Edge Power is selling units to wealthy customers, primarily in California. Some U.S. firms are selling units to small-scale commerical operations for backup power for telecommunications operations. A few apartment buildings are being powered by units, and some communities are considering installing them for municipal applications.

There is greater interest in residential systems in Germany, Japan and U.K. Japan is initiating an effort to install 40,000 residential units from a variety of firms. Germany will expand its network of hydrogen refueling stations from 15 to 50 by 2015 to service its expanding fleet of fuel cell electric vehicles. Germany plans to use its excess electricity from wind farms to electrolyze water into hydrogen to provide an alternative transportation fuel to reduce their oil dependence from unstable regions of the world, since 84 percent of their oil consumption is in the transportation sector. They also anticipate that the use of hydrogen will help them meet the objective of a 60 percent reduction in carbon dioxide by 2050.

All energy futures have associated environmental problems. If natural gas from fracking serves as the source of hydrogen, then dealing with the resulting air pollution and water pollution must be taken into account. The least environmentally damaging way to meet future energy needs is to redesign our economy by downsizing its existing form and rebuilding it around sustainability goals.

From the May 8-14, 2013, issue

One thought on “Hydrogen: A key component in our energy future

  • May 8, 2013 at 11:50 am

    Can you do a comparison between storing electricity in a battery vs. electrolyzing water into hydrogen (to later convert back to electricity with a fuel cell)?

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