Thursday, 19 February 2015

Odds and ends

Hydrogen has been an object of some research recently.

It is no magic bullet. Pres. Bush did it a great disservice by presenting it as the answer to the USA's energy problems many years ago. The expectation has stuck, though the aspiration was always highly suspect.

But R&D has continued, and there are numerous developments which suggest that creative approaches to energy requirements can (and already do) result in positive results for the climate.

In case anyone is wondering, I don't have the historic expertise of a Joe Romm, but I do think his prejudices are based on assumptions which no longer apply, in both engineering and sustainability terms. So here it is: the time has come to review the case for hydrogen within the greater energy debate and place it in context.

There are several reasons for doing this, but foremost is the recent announcement that the Tokyo Olympic village will, post Olympics, become a 'Hydrogen Town'. This is (broadly) an extended community whose varied energy needs are met primarily by hydrogen. Japan has already run a similar pilot project, in Fukuoka. There is an extensive plan for a project in Ulsan, Korea.

Alongside these civic developments are important ones in industry - Hyundai and Toyota both have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs, or FCEVs) in production. California (along with many European countries) is developing a hydrogen fuel network - albeit a bit slowly. But before we get carried away, this blog, being focussed on cars, makes relevant points in a nice style, pro and con, about using hydrogen instead of Gasoline (petrol) or batteries.

Don't be misled into thinking I am promoting hydrogen as a 'better solution' than renewable energy as things stand. But it seems clear to me that many promising and imaginative developments already exist which demonstrate the potential of using it into the future.

There are several features of hydrogen which I particularly like. 

First, assuming a renewable energy source to hydrolyse it from water, it is amazingly 'clean' in environmental terms. It has been observed that some people may resist 'hydrogen' because of a historic (and incorrect) association with hydrogen bombs. If this refers to you, please be clear, there is no connection whatsoever. Hydrogen as an energy storage and usage solution is incredibly clean and has no link with nuclear tech.

Second, it is a scaleable solution. Not only can factories produce it, or utility-scale energy companies, but domestic-scale plant is already available; that is, a solar or wind installation which can hydrolyse, store, distribute and manage it for an individual property. It is not cheap (yet), but as an off-grid, isolated community or property solution, it offers autonomy from dependence on an unreliable supply chain.

Third, it is flexible. It can be used to heat homes, power cars, drive trains or power stations, generate electricity or whatever.

Fourth, it is often generated from excess capacity in other systems, whether it is an industrial process or excess generated capacity of renewable resources. In other words, rather than being seen as an alternative to these, it should more properly be viewed as an 'additional bonus', in the sense that energy which has been generated but would otherwise be lost to the system ('dumped') can instead be stored in a readily useable form.

The difficulties I do have with hydrogen is that a great deal is already created and almost all of it is already processed and used, for example, in the UK, by BOC. Increasing hydrogen generation to point where it makes a difference to the global energy mix requires a very large uptake in technologies and opportunity realisation. This concern feeds into a more practical concern about current and future cost of energy, which cannot be ignored since it is on a scale which affects national economies.

The observant reader will note that there are projects in the Far East, Europe, Canada, but not in oil-rich countries like the UAE. The USA is an anomaly in that present needs are being met cheaply, but future energy security is a real issue of concern for planners and long-term strategists. There is certainly a limited will to expend resources in catching up with other countries, though should the technology and solutions prove viable, no doubt the USA will catch up rapidly.

My final though might properly be included much higher up the article, but for commercial reasons I am reluctant to discuss this in detail. The implementation of hydrogen fuel cells into rail infrastructure could be one of the more interesting, viable and sustainable solutions of all, but of this, more (maybe) later.