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Solar Powered Hydrogen Fuel – The Rebellion

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Hydrogen Fuel has a Dark Side, but Solar Power Could be The Rebellion
Hydrogen Fuel has a Dark Side, but Solar Power Could be The Rebellion

Hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles have one very important thing in common: they’re both emissions-free sort of.

While it’s true that hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles do not generate any emissions in themselves, their upstream emissions cannot be ignored. Really, it all depends on where the power grid gets its electricity from. After all, if an electric vehicle, such as the Nissan Leaf, is rated at 29 kWh/100 mi (kilowatt-hours per 100 miles), then that 29 kWh needs to come from somewhere. Drive a Nissan Leaf in Washington DC, for example, which is 98% coal-powered, and you’d be better off driving a Scion iQ if you want to decrease carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. On the other hand, drive the same Nissan Leaf in Vermont, which is 94% renewable powered, and CO2 emissions barely register.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, such as the upcoming Toyota FCV, suffer from the same problem. I still have to crunch the numbers, but it stands to reason that both current sources of hydrogen fuel are emissions-generators. Generate hydrogen fuel via electrolysis, and you run into exactly the same upstream CO2 emissions as battery electric vehicles. Generate hydrogen fuel via natural gas reformation, then there’s another whole emissions-nightmare, from reformation to fracking. Clearly, for a clean hydrogen fuel cell future, we need something better.

Solar powered electrolysis might be cleanest, but it’s also ridiculously inefficient. Might the synthetic leaf prove to be an efficient and emissions-free alternative for hydrogen fuel production? Researchers are working to make this a viable future fuel source, and the Department of Energy (DOE) has just approved a $20 million round of funding to make it happen. The DOE goal, ultimately, is to produce hydrogen fuel with minimal CO2 emissions, and at a price around $4 gallon of gasoline equivalent. With the coming of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the coming infrastructure needs to be both abundant and low-emissions. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Video (Someone took down the video but the article still there) below of what is happening in California at municipal wastewater treatment plants using fuel cell technology to produce 3 value streams of electricity, hydrogen and heat all from a human waste! This is pretty impressive in my opinion for hydro-refueling infrastructure.

    “New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world’s first”

    http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/orange_county&id=8310315

    “It is here today and it is deployable today,” said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project.
    (Same system from another article)This DFC-H2 installation can generate about 135 kilograms of hydrogen per day which generally meets the daily requirements of many industrial hydrogen users.  Once commercially available, the production cost of the hydrogen from DFC plants is expected to be competitively priced within a range of $5 to $7 per kilogram or even lower with increased production volumes.  On-site hydrogen generation from DFC plants avoids the costs and pollutants associated with transportation while enhancing the reliability of supply.
    Impressive to say the least… So a fill up of 4(kg) x $7 = $28 vs. what we spend today???  Talk about creating good jobs and helping the environment?  Wow!!!

  2. Chimel You’re right, electrolysis in itself is inefficient, but adding solar panels that are just 20% efficient makes it even more so.

    As far as natural gas reformation goes, my only beef with that is where we’re getting the natural gas FROM. Fracking is nowhere near environmentally responsible.

    Still, there’s plenty of innovation out there if we can get past what’s “easy” and “profitable” at the moment.

  3. That’s why most EV owners also own solar panels and Tesla’s sister company (brother, actually 😉 leases solar panels and used EV batteries to Tesla owners so you don’t rely on polluting and warming non-renewables, which would totally defeat the purpose. Tesla has had this no-compromise vision from the start.

    It’s misleading to say that solar electrolysis is inefficient, it’s any form of electrolysis that is so, insisting on its solar component is wrong. Still, renewables provide a lot of totally or relatively free energy, so efficiency may be less important if there is no cost penalty, and we should also put a high value on using clean energy to produce clean fuel. For me, it makes perfect sense. It also looks like a great way to use the otherwise wasted electricity production from renewables. For instance, Texas and Ontario dump a lot of electricity from wind farms at night, because there’s more of it than is consumed (they need to keep the non-renewables power station running in parallel,) they don’t  have electricity or energy storage facilities, and the antiquated grid does not allow easy transfer of electricity where it’s needed. Same for solar, if you want photovoltaics to be a sizable source of electricity year round, you need to triple your PV acreage for winter, when days are shorter and the Sun low on the horizon. Comes summer, that same acreage usually provides more electricity than you can use or store. It could be used to run processes such as hydrogen production, desalination, distillation to purify water (or make bourbon!)

    Photovoltaics is also just one form of solar energy, there are other forms that may be more efficient at producing hydrogen, maybe photosynthesis and some algae genetically engineered to breathe out hydrogen, or which produces hydrogen when decomposing (most vegetal and animal matter already naturally produces hydrogen and sulfur compounds, the infamous rotten eggs smell.) There may be other renewable fuels to provide clean hydrogen, like manure: Biomethane digesters produce methane, which is mostly hydrogen, that’s why natural gas is fracked to provide hydrogen to bind nitrogen as an agricultural fertilizer It is possible to genetically engineer a bacteria that would produce hydrogen instead of methane. We barely have scraped the surface of what is possible and efficient, so I would not condemn these technologies or their future evolution just yet, we should rather encourage and support more research in these areas.

    Anyway, it looks like we are going toward a multiple choice of fuels, hydrogen may not be suitable to all cars because of the bulky tank, but it works fine already on urban buses (a big polluter), so its usage could easily propagates to trucks and other large vehicles. The non-renewables lobbies will probably try to push LPG there first, though. Maybe not, maybe hydrogen will become mainstream before LPG and not even let LPG any room in the market, because the non-renewables industry does not seem interested into a bright financial future or into helping humanity switch to the post-petroleum era, they are doing absolutely nothing constructive, just defending coal and petroleum. Same for the electricity utilities, very few are involved in renewables, it’s usually people of conviction that create such projects,, the utilities just subcontract them, but don’t seem to lead the field.

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