On to the hydrogen economy with seven-league strides

While politicians and oil companies speak of the need for fresh billion-dollar investments, Amory Lovins points the way to the hydrogen economy with the help of existing means and technology, and within existing investment budgets.

| August 2003 issue

While politicians and oil companies speak of the need for fresh billion-dollar investments, Amory Lovins points the way to the hydrogen economy with the help of existing means and technology, and within existing investment budgets.
The founder and director of the authoritative Rocky Mountain Institute is considered an energy visionary and revolutionary. In June he published a boldly written scientific manifesto Twenty Hydrogen Myths, in which he convincingly dismisses the most common arguments against a fast-paced introduction of the hydrogen economy.
Most of those involved tend to look at the future hydrogen economy from the prevailing viewpoints. Since the Industrial Revolution we have become used to centrally produced energy which is then transported over great distances through large pipes or thick wires. Based on that experience, many people think the hydrogen economy requires a new energy infrastructure that would devour billions. However, the decentralised perspective of the hydrogen economy opens up the possibility of a new way.
The transition strategy summarised below is based on Lovins’ manifesto.

Step 1: Place fuel cells in office buildings
Fuel cells should be placed in office buildings for the decentralised production of electricity. Initially, the price of that electricity will be substantially higher than the electric current now available in our homes. But the fuel cell offers certain industries and companies a number of advantages that will make their acquisition attractive:
– Electricity from a fuel cell offers a solid back-up system for sensitive computer applications (hospitals). This type of system currently runs on expensive – and less reliable – batteries;
– The fuel cell not only supplies electricity, but pure water heated to 70oC that can be used for heating and cooling. This by-product lowers the cost of the fuel cell;
– Increasingly, there are areas in the world – including, for example, major cities in the United States – where the electricity supply is unreliable. For companies in these areas the fuel cell offers an attractive extra guarantee.
As more and more fuel cells are purchased for office buildings and business premises – where two-thirds of all electricity is used – the price will fall and the fuel cell will become an attractive investment for larger groups. There are already manufacturers in Japan and the US that offer fuel cells for use in homes and offices.
The fuel cell is powered by hydrogen. The hydrogen can be produced on the spot with a reformer that converts natural gas (CH4) into hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Existing gas lines could be used to distribute natural gas, making hydrogen production very competitive and no more expensive than, for example, US petrol. Critics point out that the production of hydrogen from natural gas still emits CO2. That’s true, but much less than the current large-scale burning of fossil fuels.

Step 2: Hydrogen tanks at the office
The people working in office buildings where fuel cells are placed would be the ideal candidates to purchase the first fuel cell cars. Toyota and Honda already have test fleets of these new models driving around California, and other automobile manufacturers will follow their lead in the next two years. Owners of fuel cell cars can fill up their tanks with hydrogen at the office as the capacity for the office fuel cell will not be used throughout the workday. An attractive perspective is waiting in the wings for these pioneers. When their car is not running – an average of 95% of the time – the fuel cell can supply electricity to the grid. The car will become a mobile power station that doesn’t just cost money, but provides an income. This development has far-reaching effects. If, for example, all cars in the US were powered with fuel cells, it would create an electricity capacity many times that of the country’s existing grid.
The hydrogen car will quickly become competitive. Toyota has calculated that the efficiency rate from the oil field to turning the wheels of a car with a combustion engine is 14%. The efficiency of the Prius hybrid – that is driven by a combustion engine and an electric motor – is 26%. And a car with a hydrogen fuel cell has an efficiency of 42%.
Storing hydrogen in the car is no longer a huge problem. Hydrogen gas is voluminous and hydrogen cannot easily be liquefied. But the efficiency of the electric motor in combination with the fuel cell makes up for a lot. As regards energy volume, you need a lot less hydrogen to run a fuel cell car than petrol for a combustion engine car. Tanks will initially be bigger, but two trends that feed off one another will quickly eliminate that problem. The pressure the tanks can withstand will rapidly increase due to new composite materials that are also safer than the current steel tanks. In addition, the efficiency of cars will increase thanks to those same materials that are lighter and stronger. And more efficient cars need less propulsion power and therefore won’t need more than a small fuel cell that, in turn, needs less hydrogen. And so developments feed on each other. The concept of the Hypercar was developed at the Rocky Mountain Institute. The Hypercar can travel 42 kilometres on one litre of hydrogen. See also www.hypercar.com.

Step 3: Hydrogen for sale everywhere
If more and more office buildings serve as basic fuelling stations for increasing numbers of fuel cell cars, it will become an attractive proposition for business people to make use of the same small-scale reformers located in the office buildings at other locations – e.g. petrol stations – to offer hydrogen to the growing fleet of fuel cell cars. Selling hydrogen will be attractive to these entrepreneurs because the sale will yield more than the traditional sale of petrol, as profits for petrol station owners are very limited due to stiff competition.

Step 4: Sustainable hydrogen production
As hydrogen spreads quickly through society in its capacity as the new energy carrier, the sustainable production of electricity will also increase. Solar panels will appear, first on the roofs of office buildings, then on increasing numbers of homes. This sustainable electricity will eventually make it possible to produce hydrogen sustainably using water electrolysis.
Electrolysis is still expensive – considerably more so than the production of hydrogen from natural gas using a reformer. But thanks to the quickly increasing efficiency of solar panels, the price difference will become ever smaller and ultimately disappear. Electricity produced using windmills is already competitive. However, solar panels lend themselves even better to the local, decentralised production of electricity that well matches the local production of hydrogen, which is increasing with the help of natural gas reformers. Ultimately, the natural gas reformer will be replaced by an electrolysis device the size of an electric kettle which everyone can use at home to produce hydrogen for their car and for the fuel cell that supplies their house with warmth and electricity. The decentralised production of hydrogen will ultimately create huge savings on the cost of maintenance and infrastructure installation.

 

Solution News Source

On to the hydrogen economy with seven-league strides

While politicians and oil companies speak of the need for fresh billion-dollar investments, Amory Lovins points the way to the hydrogen economy with the help of existing means and technology, and within existing investment budgets.

| August 2003 issue

While politicians and oil companies speak of the need for fresh billion-dollar investments, Amory Lovins points the way to the hydrogen economy with the help of existing means and technology, and within existing investment budgets.
The founder and director of the authoritative Rocky Mountain Institute is considered an energy visionary and revolutionary. In June he published a boldly written scientific manifesto Twenty Hydrogen Myths, in which he convincingly dismisses the most common arguments against a fast-paced introduction of the hydrogen economy.
Most of those involved tend to look at the future hydrogen economy from the prevailing viewpoints. Since the Industrial Revolution we have become used to centrally produced energy which is then transported over great distances through large pipes or thick wires. Based on that experience, many people think the hydrogen economy requires a new energy infrastructure that would devour billions. However, the decentralised perspective of the hydrogen economy opens up the possibility of a new way.
The transition strategy summarised below is based on Lovins’ manifesto.

Step 1: Place fuel cells in office buildings
Fuel cells should be placed in office buildings for the decentralised production of electricity. Initially, the price of that electricity will be substantially higher than the electric current now available in our homes. But the fuel cell offers certain industries and companies a number of advantages that will make their acquisition attractive:
– Electricity from a fuel cell offers a solid back-up system for sensitive computer applications (hospitals). This type of system currently runs on expensive – and less reliable – batteries;
– The fuel cell not only supplies electricity, but pure water heated to 70oC that can be used for heating and cooling. This by-product lowers the cost of the fuel cell;
– Increasingly, there are areas in the world – including, for example, major cities in the United States – where the electricity supply is unreliable. For companies in these areas the fuel cell offers an attractive extra guarantee.
As more and more fuel cells are purchased for office buildings and business premises – where two-thirds of all electricity is used – the price will fall and the fuel cell will become an attractive investment for larger groups. There are already manufacturers in Japan and the US that offer fuel cells for use in homes and offices.
The fuel cell is powered by hydrogen. The hydrogen can be produced on the spot with a reformer that converts natural gas (CH4) into hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Existing gas lines could be used to distribute natural gas, making hydrogen production very competitive and no more expensive than, for example, US petrol. Critics point out that the production of hydrogen from natural gas still emits CO2. That’s true, but much less than the current large-scale burning of fossil fuels.

Step 2: Hydrogen tanks at the office
The people working in office buildings where fuel cells are placed would be the ideal candidates to purchase the first fuel cell cars. Toyota and Honda already have test fleets of these new models driving around California, and other automobile manufacturers will follow their lead in the next two years. Owners of fuel cell cars can fill up their tanks with hydrogen at the office as the capacity for the office fuel cell will not be used throughout the workday. An attractive perspective is waiting in the wings for these pioneers. When their car is not running – an average of 95% of the time – the fuel cell can supply electricity to the grid. The car will become a mobile power station that doesn’t just cost money, but provides an income. This development has far-reaching effects. If, for example, all cars in the US were powered with fuel cells, it would create an electricity capacity many times that of the country’s existing grid.
The hydrogen car will quickly become competitive. Toyota has calculated that the efficiency rate from the oil field to turning the wheels of a car with a combustion engine is 14%. The efficiency of the Prius hybrid – that is driven by a combustion engine and an electric motor – is 26%. And a car with a hydrogen fuel cell has an efficiency of 42%.
Storing hydrogen in the car is no longer a huge problem. Hydrogen gas is voluminous and hydrogen cannot easily be liquefied. But the efficiency of the electric motor in combination with the fuel cell makes up for a lot. As regards energy volume, you need a lot less hydrogen to run a fuel cell car than petrol for a combustion engine car. Tanks will initially be bigger, but two trends that feed off one another will quickly eliminate that problem. The pressure the tanks can withstand will rapidly increase due to new composite materials that are also safer than the current steel tanks. In addition, the efficiency of cars will increase thanks to those same materials that are lighter and stronger. And more efficient cars need less propulsion power and therefore won’t need more than a small fuel cell that, in turn, needs less hydrogen. And so developments feed on each other. The concept of the Hypercar was developed at the Rocky Mountain Institute. The Hypercar can travel 42 kilometres on one litre of hydrogen. See also www.hypercar.com.

Step 3: Hydrogen for sale everywhere
If more and more office buildings serve as basic fuelling stations for increasing numbers of fuel cell cars, it will become an attractive proposition for business people to make use of the same small-scale reformers located in the office buildings at other locations – e.g. petrol stations – to offer hydrogen to the growing fleet of fuel cell cars. Selling hydrogen will be attractive to these entrepreneurs because the sale will yield more than the traditional sale of petrol, as profits for petrol station owners are very limited due to stiff competition.

Step 4: Sustainable hydrogen production
As hydrogen spreads quickly through society in its capacity as the new energy carrier, the sustainable production of electricity will also increase. Solar panels will appear, first on the roofs of office buildings, then on increasing numbers of homes. This sustainable electricity will eventually make it possible to produce hydrogen sustainably using water electrolysis.
Electrolysis is still expensive – considerably more so than the production of hydrogen from natural gas using a reformer. But thanks to the quickly increasing efficiency of solar panels, the price difference will become ever smaller and ultimately disappear. Electricity produced using windmills is already competitive. However, solar panels lend themselves even better to the local, decentralised production of electricity that well matches the local production of hydrogen, which is increasing with the help of natural gas reformers. Ultimately, the natural gas reformer will be replaced by an electrolysis device the size of an electric kettle which everyone can use at home to produce hydrogen for their car and for the fuel cell that supplies their house with warmth and electricity. The decentralised production of hydrogen will ultimately create huge savings on the cost of maintenance and infrastructure installation.

 

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