A Few Basics About Hydrogen – Part 2

Editor’s note – This is the second of a two-part series of Amory B. Lovins’s Hydrogen Primer. This article is a highly condensed version of “Twenty Hydrogen Myths,” a detailed paper from Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) which aims to address current hydrogen power myths. The full white paper is now available at www.rmi.org

Condensed Version Part 1 can be found here Condensed Version Part 2 follows… RE Insider, June 23, 2003 7. We lack a safe and afford-able way to store hydrogen in cars. Wrong. Such firms as Quantum (partly owned by GM) and Dynetek now sell filament-wound carbon-fiber tanks lined with an aluminized polyester bladder. They are extremely rugged and safe, unscathed in crashes that flatten steel cars and shred gasoline tanks. The car isn’t driving around with highly pressurized pipes, either, because the hydrogen is throttled to the fuel cell’s low pressure before it leaves the tank. That pressure reduction is done inside the carbon shell, eliminating external high-pressure plumbing. Such aerospace-style tanks operating at up to 700 bar and tested above 1,656 bar have been tested by GM in fuel-cell cars and have been legally approved in Germany; U.S. authorities, who’ve licensed 345-bar tanks, are expected to follow suit shortly. The carbon-fiber tanks could be mass-produced for just a few hundred dollars, and can hold 11-19 percent hydrogen by mass, depending on pressure and safety margin. A 345-bar tank is nearly ten times as big as a gasoline tank holding the same energy. But since the fuel cell is 2-3 times more efficient than a gasoline engine, the hydrogen tank is only 3-5 times bigger for the same driving range. Lighter, stronger, more efficient cars and their more compact propulsion systems can largely make up that difference. The result works so well in all respects that further advances in hydrogen storage, or costly work-arounds like liquid hydrogen, simply aren’t necessary. 8. Compressing hydrogen for automotive storage tanks takes too much energy. Wrong. Filling tanks to 345 bar takes electricity equivalent to about 9-12 percent of the hydrogen’s energy content. However, most of that energy can then be recovered aboard the car by reducing the pressure back to what the fuel cell needs (~0.3-3 bar) through a turboexpander. Also, the compressor’s externally rejected heat can be put to use. And compression energy is logarithmic — it takes about the same amount of energy to compress from 10 to 100 bar as from 1 to 10 bar, so using a 700-bar instead of a 345-bar tank adds only one percentage point to the energy requirement. Modern electrolyzers are therefore often designed to produce 30-bar hydrogen, halving the compression energy required for tank filling. The latest electrolyzers can cut it by three-fourths. 9. Hydrogen is too expensive to compete with gasoline. Wrong. Using fuel-cell cars 2.2 times as efficient as gasoline cars, onsite miniature reformers made in quantities of some hundreds — each supporting at least a few hundred fuel-cell vehicles — and using natural gas at $5.69 per gigajoule or $6 per million British thermal units could deliver hydrogen into cars at well below $2 per kilogram. That’s as cheap per mile as U.S. untaxed wholesale gasoline ($0.90 per U.S. gallon or $0.24 per liter). Other countries often pay more for both natural gas and gasoline, so miniature reformers tend to retain their advantage abroad. Only a tiny fraction of hydrogen is made electrolytically, because this method can’t compete with reforming natural gas unless the electricity is very cheap or heavily subsidized, or the electrolysis is done on a very small scale (a neighborhood with up to a few dozen cars). However, mass-produced (around one million units) electrolyzers each serving a few to a few dozen cars could beat taxed U.S. gasoline even using three cent per kilowatt-hour off-peak electricity, so household-to-neighborhood-scale electrolyzers could be a successful niche market if enough units were made. Yet such units, even initially using fossil-fueled electricity that might increase net carbon output per car, would be small enough to create little electrical load or climatic concern. Their market role would be temporary, or they would switch to using electricity from renewable sources. 10. We’d need to lace the country with ubiquitous hydrogen production, distribution, and delivery infrastructure before we could sell the first hydrogen car, but that’s impractical and far too costly — probably hundreds of billions of dollars. Wrong. RMI’s 1999 hydrogen strategy (see “A Strategy for the Hydrogen Transition,” www.rmi.org/images/other/HC-StrategyHCTrans.pdf) shows how to build up hydrogen supply and demand profitably at each step, starting now, by interlinking deployment of fuel cells in buildings and in hydrogen-ready vehicles, so each helps the other happen faster. Such linkage was adopted in November 2001 by the Department of Energy and is part of the business strategy of major auto and energy companies. Extensive analysis by the main analyst for Ford Motor Company’s hydrogen program indicates that a hydrogen fueling infrastructure based on miniature natural gas reformers, including sustaining their natural gas supply, will cost about $600 per car less than sustaining the existing gasoline fueling infrastructure, thus saving about $1 trillion worldwide over the next forty years. In absolute terms, a filling-station-sized gas reformer, compressor, and delivery equipment would cost about $2-4 billion to install in an adequate fraction (10-20 percent) of the nation’s nearly 180,000 filling stations. Even a small (twenty cars per day) reformer would cost only about a tenth as much as a modern gasoline filling station costs (about $1.5 million, not counting the roughly threefold larger investment to produce and deliver the gasoline to its tanks — a far more capital-intensive enterprise than for natural gas). Although more work is needed to pin down the numbers exactly, other analysts are also starting to conclude that switching from oil to hydrogen could be not costly but profitable. For example, Mary Tolan, who leads Accenture’s $2-billion energy practice, estimates that a one-time $280-billion investment in hydrogen and the natural gas capacity to make it could save a roughly comparable oil-industry investment, plus $200 billion in oil imports every year by 2020. 11. Manufacturing enough hydrogen to run a car fleet is a gargantuan and hugely expensive task. Wrong. Current worldwide production of industrial hydrogen, about fifty million tons per year, if it fueled a global quintupled-efficiency1 car fleet, would displace two-thirds of today’s entire worldwide consumption of gasoline. About a third of that hydrogen production is currently being used to make gasoline and diesel fuel. If that U.S. refinery usage were diverted into direct fueling of quintupled-efficiency vehicles, like Hypercar, Inc.’s Revolution (www.hypercar.com) concept SUV, it could replace one-fourth of U.S. gasoline — equivalent to twice as much as is made from Persian Gulf oil. 12. Since renewables are currently too costly, hydrogen would have to be made from fossil fuels or nuclear energy. Hydrogen would indeed be made in the short run, as it is now, mainly from natural gas, but when the hydrogen is used in fuel cells, total carbon emissions per mile would be cut by about half using ordinary cars (equipped with fuel cells) or about eighty-plus percent using quintupled-efficiency vehicles. That’s a lot better than likely reductions without hydrogen, and is a sound interim step while zero-carbon hydrogen sources are being deployed. Remember that long-term, large-scale choices for making hydrogen are not limited to costly renewables-or-nuclear-electrolysis vs. carbon-releasing natural-gas reforming. Reformers can use a wide range of biomass feedstocks which, if sustainably grown, don’t harm the climate. With either biomass or fossil-fuel feedstocks, reformers can also sequester carbon (already being tested in the North Sea, and looking promising). If sequestration doesn’t work, the Victorian carbon-black process for making hydrogen, with zero carbon emissions into the air, is also 50+ percent efficient, offering a good backstop technology. 12a. A hydrogen economy would require the construction of many new coal and nuclear power stations. This fear of many environmentalists is unfounded. New nuclear plants would deliver electricity at about 2-3 times the cost of new windpower, 5-10 times that of new gas-fired cogeneration in industry and buildings, and 10-30+ times that of efficient use, so they won’t be built with private capital, with or without a hydrogen transition. The 207 “distributed benefits” recently described in Small Is Profitable (www.smallisprofitable.org) further increase nuclear power’s disadvantage, often by as much as tenfold. Electricity from any source is rarely competitive with natural gas for producing hydrogen. Just the operating cost of existing nuclear plants is barely competitive with that of other traditional power plants or with the full cost of gas-fired cogenerated electricity or windpower — even less so when hydrogen or electricity delivery costs are included. New nuclear plants are forever uneconomic. Indeed, hydrogen fuel cells will join their toughest competitors. The hydrogen future, long touted by nuclear enthusiasts as the savior of their failed technology, is just another nail in its coffin. 12b. A hydrogen economy would retard the adoption of renewable energy by competing for R&D budget, being misspent, and taking away future markets. This concern is partly prompted by allegations — probably unprovable either way — that the Department of Energy may have diverted funds that Congress voted for renewable R&D into fossil-fuel hydrogen programs. Such diversion would be illegal and unwise. Unfortunately, such a reallocation is proposed in the President’s 2004 budget. Both many renewables and many hydrogen programs are worthwhile and important for national prosperity and security, so we should do both, not sacrifice one for the other. Fortunately, hydrogen creates important new economic opportunities and advantages for many renewable energy sources, so a well-designed hydrogen economy should speed up renewables’ wide adoption. 12c. Making hydrogen from natural gas would quickly deplete our gas reserves. At least five percent of U.S. natural gas is currently used to make industrial hydrogen. Natural gas is more abundant and widely distributed than oil. Making enough hydrogen to run an entire U.S. fleet of quintupled-efficiency light vehicles would take only about one-fifth of current U.S. gas production. But gas use wouldn’t actually increase by nearly that much if at all. In fact, the sort of integrated hydrogen transition that RMI recommends and GM (among others) assumes may even decrease net U.S. consumption of natural gas by saving more gas in displaced power plants, furnaces, boilers, and refinery hydrogen production than is made into hydrogen. In other words, a well-designed hydrogen transition may well reduce U.S. consumption of oil and natural gas simultaneously. 13. A viable hydrogen transition would take 30-50 years or more to complete, and hardly anything worthwhile could be done within the next 20 years. Quintupled-efficiency vehicles, under development since 1991, could in principle ramp up production as soon as 2007 with aggressive investment and licensing to manufacturers. Such vehicles could make the hydrogen transition very rapid. Although very long transition times have been reported as inevitable according to unnamed experts, many other experts feel the transition could take off quickly. Accelerated-scrappage feebates could turn over most of the U.S. car fleet in less than a decade if desired. The scores of hydrogen refueling stations in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. could grow rapidly: Deutsche Shell has said hydrogen could be dispensed from all its German stations within two years if desired. 14. The hydrogen transition requires a big (say, $100-300 billion) federal crash program, similar to the Apollo Program or the Manhattan Project. Many political leaders and activists cite such large, round numbers to symbolize the level of investment and commitment they consider appropriate. However, it’s not clear that a federal crash program is the right model when there’s plenty of skill and motivation in the private sector to introduce hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles rapidly — if they can compete fairly. This is difficult when, for example, the latest tax law makes up to $100,000 spent on a Hummer (bought ostensibly for business purposes) deductable in new tax breaks, federal funds for automotive innovation virtually exclude innovation-rich small businesses, global and state initiatives to make carbon costs visible are opposed by the federal government (disadvantaging U.S. businesses), and feebates aren’t yet on the agenda. Coherent private- and public-sector policy could go a long way toward a rapid and profitable hydrogen transition. There are signs of smarter policy emerging in the Department of Energy’s recent restructuring to integrate hydrogen, vehicle, building, and utility programs. On the other hand, a senior DOE official, when told in January 2002 that the just-announced FreedomCAR program hoped to develop over the next 10-20 years a car that had already been designed (by Hypercar, Inc.) in 2000, replied, “Well, then, we’d better not try to help you, because we’d just slow you down.” That might be true, but if we want a vibrantly competitive rather than a failed automotive industry, we’d better make it as untrue as possible. The total cost of a hydrogen transition is probably a lot more than the $1.7 billion proposed by President Bush over the next five years, but is probably far less than $100 billion. It may not be much bigger than the billions of dollars that the private sector has already committed to pieces of the puzzle — if the money is intelligently spent on an integrated buildings-and-vehicles transition that bootstraps its investment from its own revenue and earns an attractive return at each stage. And evidence is emerging that this future will be more profitable, not only for customers and the earth, but even for oil companies. For the full article at RMI in PDF format click the link below. Amory B. Lovins is cofounder and CEO of RMI About the Author Amory Lovins, a MacArthur Fellow and consultant physicist, has advised the energy and other industries for nearly three decades as well as the Departments of Energy and Defense. Published in 28 books and hundreds of papers, his work in about 50 countries — often with L. Hunter Lovins, with whom he cofounded Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in 1982 — has been recognized by the “Alternative Nobel,” Onassis, Nissan, Shingo, and Mitchell Prizes, the Happold Medal, eight honorary doctorates, and the Heinz, Lindbergh, Hero for the Planet, and World Technology Awards. He advises industries and governments worldwide, and has briefed 16 heads of state. He serves as CEO of RMI (www.rmi.org), an independent, market-oriented, nonprofit applied research center. Much of its work is synthesized in Natural Capitalism (www.natcap.org). RMI spun off E SOURCE (www.esource.com) in 1992 and Hypercar, Inc. (www.hypercar.com), which he chairs, in 1999. Mr. Lovins can be reached at Rocky Mountain Institute, 1739 Snowmass Creek Road, Snowmass CO 81654-9199, USA, 970 927 3129, fax -4178, ablovins@rmi.org.
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