Renewable Hydrogen — The Right Future?

ASES and the renewables community examine renewable hydrogen’s potential benefits — and weigh growing concerns.Should the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) and other renewable energy advocates promote the development of hydrogen generated from renewable energy sources?

May 17, 2004 – RE Insider – ASES and the renewables community examine renewable hydrogen’s potential benefits — and weigh growing concerns. Should the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) and other renewable energy advocates promote the development of hydrogen generated from renewable energy sources? It’s an issue commanding attention at all levels of the energy industry, and one having many complex considerations. Advocates tout hydrogen’s incredible abundance, lack of polluting emissions and ability to enable the storage of renewable energy from intermittent sources, like solar or wind power. Others argue that current technologies for generating hydrogen from renewable energy are prohibitively expensive and wasteful of energy. A balanced examination of the facts suggests that renewable energy advocates must support the development of renewable hydrogen in the near-term. Long-term, the answer is less clear. Renewable hydrogen actually is but one of several promising renewable energy carriers on the horizon. None, however, has been perfected. Despite challenges such as its storage and conversion, hydrogen remains a promising carrier and storage medium. Yet most federal dollars remain devoted to hydrogen based on coal and nuclear R&D. The outstanding potential of renewable hydrogen justifies significant funding to quickly advance the technology and overcome barriers. Here we examine the prospects for an energy economy based on renewable hydrogen. We focus on findings of recent industry reports and expert testimony in Congress and at a major scientific and industry forum on renewable hydrogen, sponsored by ASES last spring. ASES Forum Opens Discussion ASES took a leading role in promoting renewable hydrogen in 2002, when then-ASES Chair Mike Nicklas attended a National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap Workshop presented by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Nicklas was enraged by the small role he saw for renewables in the administration’s hydrogen roadmap. He soon focused on the need for a forum gathering renewable energy experts and organizations to ensure that renewables play a significant role in the research for hydrogen-production sources. Thus, the Renewable Hydrogen Forum was born. Nicklas asked me, retired, as both a member of the ASES board and alumnus of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), to chair the effort, though he remained the driving force. The forum took place in April 2003 in Washington, D.C., and included presentations by dozens of renewable energy authorities. The forum, attended by about 50 participants, emphasized the potential of renewable hydrogen, its benefits and needed development. In his introduction, Nicklas set the tone: “Although the benefits of the hydrogen economy are still years away, our biggest challenges from a sustainability standpoint are here today.” Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, in his keynote speech warned of the consequences of a status quo approach and urged a rapid transition to a renewable hydrogen energy economy. David Freeman — a strong supporter of renewable hydrogen in his past roles with a U.S. Senate committee, Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Los Angeles Power — provided invaluable insights throughout the forum. The Renewable Hydrogen Forum comprised six focus areas: Near-Term Supply Technologies. Forum speakers predicted that photovoltaics, wind, biomass and concentrating solar power will be competitive with traditional energy sources in the future, while wind already is cost-competitive. Renewable sources can serve all major potential transportation modes Near-Term Delivery Systems. Experts examined the benefits and problems associated with central and dispersed systems, considering sites for electricity or hydrogen generation, or both. Renewables can be used to generate electricity in any combination of central or distributed sites. For hydrogen generation, the considerable costs of transporting and storing hydrogen make the site choice a key question. Renewable Hydrogen Future. Speakers identified certain future-oriented technologies, particularly thermochemical and biomass approaches. Future Research Needs. David Garman, assistant secretary of DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), described the agency’s renewable hydrogen efforts. Stan Bull, head of the R&D program at NREL, emphasized some remote renewable hydrogen prospects-including potential technology efficiencies exceeding 60 percent. Economics. Four speakers discussed critical cost issues associated with renewable hydrogen production, emphasizing the costs of electrolysis, transmission and storage. Wind stands out as the low-cost leader, especially when compared to natural gas and coal, which require carbon sequestration to be a credible option. Threats of Fossil Hydrogen. Two final speakers emphasized the health and environmental consequences of nonrenewable hydrogen, including the production of greenhouse gases. Each session ended with a panel discussion, which contributed to the Renewable Hydrogen Forum Report’s conclusions and recommendations. Support, Concerns Build Since the Renewable Hydrogen Forum last spring, we have seen increasing industry concern surrounding the prospects for a renewable hydrogen energy economy. In this month’s issue of SolarToday in the “Readers’ Forum,” p. 46, Ronald West and Frank Kreith detail the inefficiencies of using electricity to generate hydrogen to then generate electricity. The associated cost is even more disturbing. But neither they nor any other credible source offers a better alternative. Electric cars would seem to be a good possibility, but available batteries are expensive and perform poorly — and R&D has largely ceased. Synthetic biomass-based liquid fuels have their backers. But, as Brown emphasized at the forum, growing agricultural shortages may threaten biomass prospects. In considering the appropriateness of the renewable energy community’s support of a hydrogen alternative, one also must consider the resolute commitment to renewable hydrogen by the automotive industry, fuel cell developers and NREL. In addition, Europe and Japan are aggressively pursuing renewable hydrogen development. But concern about hydrogen’s many challenges is growing. As this month’s issue was going to press, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science Committee on March 3 held a hearing on the adequacy and appropriateness of the federal hydrogen research program. Testimony focused on two recent reports from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and American Physical Society (APS), with responses by Assistant Secretary Garman and his predecessor, former Assistant Secretary of EERE Joseph Romm. Perhaps most importantly, participants were unanimous in asserting that hybrid cars must play a role. The battery development that could result from that hybrid car introduction may enable an electric, rather than hydrogen, vehicle transportation future. In his introductory comments at the March 3 hearing, Science Committee Chair Sherwood Boehlert stressed his belief that carbon sequestration is critical to a hydrogen economy. He noted, “Both [the NAE and APS] reports note that other work on energy efficiency and renewable energy is necessary for a hydrogen economy to be clean and affordable — and both reports are right. So I think it’s unfortunate that the administration proposes to pay for hydrogen research by cutting the rest of Secretary Garman’s programs.” Boehlert’s displeasure regarding the poor funding of energy-efficiency and renewable energy programs confirms the long-held concerns of ASES’ Mike Nicklas. That concern was amplified by the other presenters at the Science Committee hearing, as well as those at the Renewable Hydrogen Forum. The NAE and APS studies, the March 3 Science Committee testimony, and Renewable Hydrogen Forum recommendations concur: Increased R&D funding for renewable energy is critical. Broad R&D Is Critical The National Academy report notes that tremendous progress has been made in reducing the cost of electricity generated from renewable-source hydrogen energy. Touching on the concern expressed by West and Kreith, however, it warns that creating hydrogen from renewable energy through the intermediate step of making electricity requires further breakthroughs in order to be competitive. According to the NAE report, “Basically, these [technology pathways] add costs and energy losses that are particularly significant when the hydrogen competes as a commodity transportation fuel, leading the committee to believe most current approaches — except possibly that of wind energy — need to be redirected.” The NAE report added that the necessary cost reductions “can be achieved only by targeted fundamental and exploratory research on hydrogen production by photobiological, photochemical and thin-film solar processes.” Most renewable energy advocates, including ASES, support this view. In general, they abhor inefficiencies, while endorsing the use of low-cost alternatives such as wind for hydrogen production. Most importantly, renewables advocates see numerous opportunities for efficient hydrogen production that have failed to receive the attention they deserve. So, should the renewables community promote renewable hydrogen development? Clearly, this nation must pursue a much-expanded renewable hydrogen effort. Recognizing that a different renewable energy technology may prove superior, we must also continue to support development of all renewable energy sources. Ronal W. Larson, Ph.D., is an ASES board member and secretary of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society, an ASES chapter. He is a retired Georgia Tech professor and former principal scientist at SERI (now NREL). Contact Larson at 303.526.9629 or Article courtesy of Solar Today, published by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES). This article, along with others on hydrogen, is published in this month’s edition of Solar Today (see the link below).
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