Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Energy of the Future?

Much ado has been made of hydrogen but it really hasn’t captured the public imagination save for a few pilot hydrogen buses in some cities. For visionaries such as Jeremy Rifkin, author of the Hydrogen Economy, and Geoffrey Ballard, founder of Ballard Power Systems, hydrogen is the energy of the future.

“We are in the early stages of an historic change in the way we organize the earth’s energy.” Jeremy Rifkin.

Hydrogen 101
Hydrogen is the lightest gas going and the most abundant in the universe, but it’s not very independent. For the most part, hydrogen exists in and must be extracted from hydrocarbons (such as natural gas) and water. In other words, it needs a little help from its friends - fossil fuels, nuclear or renewable sources. Anyone will do (but we know what one we prefer). They generate the electricity, used in a process called electrolysis, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then stored and used to produce electricity when needed. But…how can it be green if it needs fossil fuels…? Yes, yes, we’ll get to that in a bit.

Fuel Cells
Ballard Power, based in Vancouver, has developed the proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell as an alternative to the internal combustion engine. In the PEM fuel cell, hydrogen and air are brought together on either side of a membrane. Air and hydrogen go mad for each other thanks to some platinum catalyst on the membrane and sparks fly. Literally. Electrons in the hydrogen atoms are stripped off to form an electrical current. Meanwhile, the remaining hydrogen nuclei (no doubt feeling a little lonely) connects with oxygen to make water. The electrical current is what moves the car, but you need a whole mess of fuel cells, a.k.a a fuel-cell block, to ensure that the car keeps up with drivers wearing fedoras. (Remember my degrees are in Communications and Acting. You want science, read some other guy’s blog).

Lord that explanation exhausted me. You tired? Shake your head a bit. It helps. Ok let’s move on….

Hydrogen’s Potential
Oh it’s grand. What a future! Thanks to computers and the way we share info via the Internet, the dawn of the Hydrogen Energy Web is upon us. Maybe, sort of.

According to Rifken: “When millions of end-users connect their fuel cells into local, regional, and national hydrogen energy webs (HEWs), using the same design principles and smart technologies that made possible the World Wide Web, they can begin to share energy – peer to peer – creating a new, decentralized form of energy generation and use.”

Rifken envisions a time when automobiles become “power stations on wheels” – plugging twenty kilowatts into the home, office or grid, and providing the average home, that only needs two to four kilowatts, with all the power it needs. He estimates that even if 25% of car owners used their vehicles as power plants, we could do away with centralized polluting plants.

We could also use hydrogen fuel cells to power up our computers, cell phones, airplanes and other gadgets we’re fond of and rather obsessed about.

Hydrogen in this scenario is considered a currency, making energy available to the entire economy, hence the name ‘hydrogen economy’.

And another thing! According to Rifken, hydrogen powered fuel cells are two and one half times more efficient than internal combustion engines. With the volatility of fuel prices, he feels that hydrogen will start looking more and more attractive.


“The current power infrastructure is as incompatible with the future as horse trails were to automobiles.” - Kurt Yeager, President of the Electric Power Research Institute.

Infrastructure - There’s a snag to this grand vision of course. There’s always a snag. Our current infrastructure does not support it. It’s possible to get there – well, hypothetically at this point. If it does, it could take quite a few decades to get there.

Currently there are costly issues concerning storage and transportation when it comes to hydrogen. Fossil fuels and far more cost efficient than hydrogen. Until the costs of fossil fuels, which are heavily subsidized, become staggering high, developments in hydrogen will continue to slowly plod along.

It is estimated that the hydrogen economy could take up to 50 years to mature. To people like Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers, we can’t wait that long. The fastest growing alternatives to fossil fuels are energy efficiency and wind power. To people like Flannery, we must focus attention on these areas to kick our dependency on fossil fuels as soon as possible. We are running out of time.

While Rifken claims that hydrogen is the answer to the storage problem of renewable energy, it is argued that energy from renewable sources can be stored using other methods. This is important because developing a hydrogen infrastructure requires heavy long-term investment, something that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of most industry and government (unless we’re talking nuclear).

Not a Primary Source of Power - Currently, the most cost effective way to extract hydrogen is from natural gas through a process called ‘steam reforming’. Hydrogen currently has a carbon footprint. Of course, if electricity from renewable sources were to solely extract hydrogen, that footprint would disappear. But we’re not there yet, not when renewable energy is still a small fraction of our energy mix.

Ballard is gun ho about using nuclear as a primary source. According to Allison Macfarlane, resident expert on nuclear power and weapons at the Georgia Institute of Technology, nuclear power would have to increase ten times from where it is today in order to make any significant dent in reducing carbon dioxide. This means building 3200 new mid-sized nuclear plants world wide. The costs alone to build such facilities would be staggering, as would the radioactive waste (that remains active for hundreds of thousands of years) as well as potential for nuclear weapons proliferation. Not the most viable solution, unless you work for the government of Ontario.

Another Environmental Concern – Hydrogen has a nasty habit of slowly leaking from containment vessels. Once significant amounts are released in the atmosphere there is a concern that they would connect with ultraviolet radiation to form free radicals which, that’s right, chip away at the ozone layer. However, this leakage may be lower than originally determined and the problem might be solved in the time it will take a hydrogen economy to be up and running if it ever does.

In the Meantime… Some are undaunted by hydrogen’s drawbacks.

  • In October 2002, the European Union announced its long-term plan to transition into a hydrogen economy.
  • Major automakers have spent $2 billion US on developing hydrogen cars, buses and trucks with mass production slated for 2009.
  • Encorp, a US company, has developed software which can make possible the sophisticated dispatch and control mechanisms to route energy traffic during peak and non-peak periods.
  • Price Waterhouse Coopers released a study claiming that the hydrogen economy could generate $1.7 trillion US in new Canadian business by 2020.

All hydrogen, energy efficiency and renewable energy need is a true market playing field – something that is extremely difficult when fossil fuels and nuclear are heavily subsidized.

Source: Fueling the Future. Articles from Fueling the Future:

“The Dawn of the Hydrogen Economy,” by Jeremy Rifkin
“Hydrocity, the Universal Currency,” by Geoffrey Ballard
Is Nuclear Energy the Answer?” by Allison MacFarlane

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