Return of the hydrogen future

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

Prior to the early Illinois Renewable Energy Association Fairs–which included presentations on the hydrogen economy–we were linked with an effort to bring the Hydrogen Highway to northern Illinois. At the second Fair Thorstein Sigfusson described Iceland’s efforts to become the world’s first hydrogen economy. We later toured some energy installations there including geothermal and hydro facilities, their first hydrogen fueling station and the three hydrogen-powered buses which traveled the streets of Reykjavik.

It was an appealing vision as it relied on renewable energy sources to produce hydrogen and appeared to offer a pathway to a clean energy future. The vision was tarnished as much of the low-cost electricity was used to expand their aluminum smelting facilities for global markets. A large hydroelectric plant was installed in a formerly pristine area to increase the production of electricity. It is doubtful they will reach their original goal of being a hydrogen economy by 2040.

In Germany Siemens has developed an electrolyser to release hydrogen from water which can operate with the variable production of large-scale wind generators. They see hydrogen as the only storage option that can reach the scale large enough to meet their needs. Germany now wastes 20 percent of the production from its wind farms because its lacks the grid capacity to shift the output to where it is needed.

In a 2014 presentation Pat Murphy, also a presenter at an earlier Fair, indicated he looked forward to the arrival of Toyota’s upgraded model of its hybrid electric vehicle. Of the 10 million hybrids in the marketplace, 7 million were made by Toyota. He sees the hybrid as a relatively clean option for meeting auto transportation needs of the Midwest.

At this year’s Fair, Chris Schneider, the Hybrid Guru, shared Toyota’s short-term vision of continued reliance on their highly successful hybrid and their long-term vision of an auto fleet based on hydrogen fuel cell technology. Hyundai and Honda are also introducing fuel cell vehicles.

However, electric vehicle advocates are dismissive of a transition to fuel cell vehicles. They point to the high cost of building the infrastructure needed to refuel the cars in contrast to the low cost of expanding the grid to serve electrical vehicles. Another concern is that the likely source of the hydrogen is natural gas. Releasing hydrogen from the gas also involves the release of carbon dioxide. If the carbon is not sequestered it will contribute to climate change

In addition to competition from fuel cells, the well-publicized effort of Elon Musk in creating an electricity based transportation system is also facing competition from China’s BYD efforts in electrified transportation. Both Tesla and BYD make electric vehicles and batteries to power them; BYD is the world’s leading battery manufacturer.

According to Mazor’s Edge BYD makes a full range of electric vehicles, including cars, buses, trucks and off-road vehicles. They have introduced an electric bus using an iron-phosphate battery that retains 70 percent of its capacity after 10,000 recharge cycles. Some of their buses being made in California are operating in major cities along the west coast. The firm initiated a small transportation program in Chicago with Uber using their E6 crossover model which gets about 186 miles on a single charge, expected to reach 250 by 2016.

While the competition for the green car market has intensified, the outcome remains uncertain. But the expectation of an ever-expanding car based global transportation system is likely to undermine the environmental benefits of cleaner cars. Whatever the outcome, hydrogen will play a role in the energy future.

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