Hydrogen: Running energy policy on hype

(Jun. 12, 2003) Californian Sam Leach knew that hydrogen was a winner. Near the time of the first Middle East Oil crisis in the early 1970s, Leach convinced gullible American investors to give him US$1-million on the strength of his claim that he had built a car that used ordinary water as a fuel. His “invention” used electrolysis assisted by his secret catalyst. He claimed to be able to decompose water into oxygen and hydrogen, and then use the hydrogen as a fuel to run the engine and generate more electricity than he started with. The claims turned out to be false, but by then Leach and the money had moved on.

Since Leach’s time, hydrogen technology has advanced – it provides power on the Space Shuttle – but the dream of hydrogen as an economical consumer fuel is as remote as ever.

Ballard Power Systems Inc., the Canadian West Coast darling of the hydrogen world, had teamed up with Coleman, the venerable U.S. camping products company, to produce a portable hydrogen fuel cell generator called Airgen, suited for residential and commercial consumers. Coleman lost heart and earlier this week another American firm, MGE UPS Systems, took its place.

Coleman unplugged from the space age after checking into the cost. Listed at $8,181 for a generator rated at 1 kilowatt, the Ballard Airgen costs 10 to 20 times as much as small conventional gasoline-powered portable generators. Solar power, in the form of photovoltaic systems, is substantially cheaper.

Considering only the cost of fuel per kilowatt-hour produced – that is, ignoring the cost of purchasing the Airgen device, plus its installation, insurance, maintenance, equipment to handle the pressure from industrial-grade high-pressure cylinders, and rental costs for fuel cylinders – the price is $13.26 per kilowatt-hour. Ordinary households, without industrial grade systems to safely store high-pressure cylinders, would see higher costs still for a low-pressure alternative. By comparison, conventional portable generators typically burn fuel at a rate in the order of 10¢ to 15¢ per kilowatt-hour, and grid power is available to households across Canada at rates from 6¢ to 11¢ per kilowatt-hour.

Fuel cells are new technologies where rapidly developing know-how can be expected to drive down equipment costs over the next decade or so. Hydrogen, on the other hand, has been produced industrially for over 100 years. Today, it is primarily made from natural gas or by using electricity, mostly through on-site processors designed for just-in-time delivery to avoid the need for expensive storage. Big breakthroughs in bottled hydrogen costs, a very, very mature product, are not likely.

Although it is an essential industrial feedstock, hydrogen, even if it would be produced cheaply, makes a poor fuel. Hydrogen is corrosive to metals. The amount of energy in a cubic meter of hydrogen is lower than that in other gaseous fuels. To store usable amounts of hydrogen, enormous pressures and specialized containers are required. On top of that, hydrogen is explosive.

Hydrogen, like electricity, is not an energy source but a fuel form. Both can carry energy from some ultimate source to some other usage. Converting energy from one form to another necessarily results in efficiency losses, which imposes a particularly heavy burden when hydrogen is produced from electricity, which is in turn produced from another ultimate source.

In theory, cheap, clean electricity could be used to make hydrogen if we didn’t have anything better to do with the electricity. In practice, the best thing to do with cheap, clean power is to displace the expensive, dirty power North Americans now rely on.

Notwithstanding the costs and other practical barriers that have limited hydrogen’s development for 100 years, hydrogen hype hit the political big leagues when President George W. Bush announced C$1.6-billion in his Freedom Fuel initiative in his State of the Union address last January. Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate pledged another C$1.5-billion, this time for a dedicated hydrogen-producing nuclear reactor in Idaho. Given the track record of U.S. government nuclear power production projects, many of which failed to produce much usable energy at all, the cost of hydrogen from this latest initiative may hit new highs.

Canada’s Federal Environment Minister David Anderson, appearing before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, said that the government will announce details of its Kyoto implementation plan in the next weeks. He’s expected to earmark at least $80-million for hydrogen-powered fuel cell industry.

As Sam Leach used to tell us, hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. Now we hear the same line from Ballard and our politicians. Someone should tell them that electrons are even more common than hydrogen atoms, yet nobody expects the availability of electrons to lead to limitless quantities of inexpensive power.

Tom Adams, Jun. 12, 2003


Readers respond

Published in the National Post, Thursday, June 19, 2003

At last! An informed and coherent commentary dispelling the myths of hydrogen as an alternate energy source and/or the pollution-free fuel of the future (Hydrogen: Running Energy Policy on Hype, Tom Adams, June 12). Will such facts dissuade the federal government from throwing “at least $80 million” at the hydrogen fuel cell industry as part of its Chrétien-legacy implementation plan? Probably not. – David Cottle, Niagara Falls, Ont.

Mr. Adams makes several technically true but misleading claims. He correctly points out that hydrogen is not an “energy source but a fuel form.” Electricity is required to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen can then be used to store energy until a later time. And he’s correct there is energy loss as electricity is converted to hydrogen and back.

What I take issue with is his implication that individual homes would need industrial grade systems to store hydrogen. This isn’t true anymore than saying we each need to process our own crude oil for gas. Honda and Toyota are doing research into fuel-cell vehicles. These new cars would be dramatically different to your mechanic, but most of us would still drive down the street to the Quik-E-Mart to fill up at a pump.

Mr. Adams also claims “the amount of energy in a cubic metre of hydrogen is lower than that in other gaseous fuels.” If you’re planning on burning hydrogen in the same way you might burn natural gas, then you’re going to waste a lot of hydrogen. That’s why we use fuel cells. They recombine the hydrogen and oxygen to make water reclaiming much of the electricity in the process.

Hydrogen is an energy storage medium only. It is preferable to run the electricity, however it’s generated, directly to you. However, cars need mobile and refillable fuel sources. Eventually oil and gas will run low and change will be forced on us. Better to make the change on our terms. – Douglas Wise, Washington, D.C.

Tom Adams responds:
How would you like gasoline at $30 per litre? That is what the industrial price of bottled hydrogen in Toronto – what Mr. Wise is proposing – works out to for the same amount of energy in a liter of gasoline, taking into account the efficiency advantage of the Ballard Airgen fuel cell device relative to a normal car engine.

This article reprinted in May/June 03 issue of Maricopa Green Party Newsletter.

National Post

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