Minnesotans For Sustainability©
Sustainable Society: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
The Truth about Hydrogen
John R. Wilson, Ph.D.
September 25, 2003
A Response to Amory Lovins’ “Twenty Hydrogen Myths”
The following paragraphs respond to Amory Lovin’s paper “Twenty Hydrogen Myths”, dated June 20, 2003 and available at < http://www.rmi.org/images/other/E-20HydrogenMyths.pdf >. It is referred to in the following as “Lovins” and should be reviewed in parallel with this paper.
In his recent paper “Twenty Hydrogen Myths”, Dr. Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute addresses some of the important issues regarding the proposed future “hydrogen economy”. He describes some of the discussion that has occurred as “conflicting, confusing and often ill-informed” and claims that some issues have been raised solely as reasons for not developing a “Hydrogen Economy”.
He is right on both counts but his paper adds to the problem by:
This response attempts to correct some of the impressions that have resulted from Dr. Lovins’ “Myths” paper. We will depend to some extent on the useful bibliography provided by Dr. Lovins and his colleagues while adding some references and notes of our own.
We should note here that Dr. Lovins has a financial and emotional interest in seeing hydrogen succeed as a fuel. His Hypercar concept requires hydrogen fuel to meet all of its objectives. Much of the consulting activity of the Rocky Mountain Institute centers on hydrogen.
We should disclose our prejudices, too. The writer has worked with hydrogen intermittently for many years, first in the former coal-gas industry and then in the oil and chemical industries and was involved in the investigation and analysis of several hydrogen-related process developments, fires and explosions. Before that, he learned first-hand about the risks and the difficulties involved in dealing with hydrogen and hydrogen-methane mixtures as fuels by working in the U.K. gas industry just before it transitioned to natural gas. Based on this experience, we consider hydrogen to be a safe and technically viable commodity for industrial use but believe that numerous economic, technical and safety considerations make it non-viable as a replacement motor fuel for public use.
Our papers on hydrogen, including this one, have all been developed at our own expense. TMG now works for its clients on alternate-fuel topics such as coal-based synthetic fuels (including hydrogen), soy-based biodiesel and biomass-to-ethanol technology and assists its clients in making conventional energy vs. alternate energy decisions.
“….unlike electricity, hydrogen…..can be stored in large amounts”. On the contrary, electricity can be stored in large amounts, for example in batteries (the largest being the battery that provides backup power for the entire city of Fairbanks, Alaska – 2,000 m2, 1,300 mt, capacity 40 Megawatts for 7 minutes) or in pumped water storage reservoirs. The largest available storage devices for hydrogen are old-fashioned ambient-pressure gasholders (which leak), pressurized tanks (too small) or metal hydride systems (inefficient; not enough capacity). In principle, underground natural gas storage wells can be used but those that are suitable are all in use, can also leak and must be carefully selected for geological suitability.
“Like electricity, hydrogen is an extremely high-quality form of energy…..”. We don’t know what this means. By our definition, hydrogen comes nowhere near to equaling the qualities of electricity, or even methanol, that we all find so convenient.
“However, hydrogen yields a smaller share of fossil-fuel energy because its chemical bonds are weaker than carbon’s”. We don’t know what this means, either. Hydrocarbon reforming involves a complex combination of water-splitting and (hydro) carbon oxidation with the release of all of the hydrogen in the hydrocarbon and in the water.
“Hydrogen is thus most advantageous when lightness is worth more than compactness, as is often true for mobility fuels”. This may be true in extreme cases like a hypothetical hydrogen-fueled motorized glider, but not for automobiles for which the value of weight reduction is well defined at about $10/lb. of weight saved and has generally been achieved through size reduction and intelligent design using conventional materials, rather than by use of high-cost exotics. In any case, the weight and volume of the containment vessel (e.g., filament-wound aluminum) needed for the much larger volume of hydrogen (even at high pressure) that is needed to provide an adequate range more than offsets the small difference (~80lb) between a typical tank full of gasoline and the energetically equivalent amount of hydrogen. Fuel container size is a critical issue – in the current smaller vehicles used to achieve weight reduction there is already barely enough room for an adequate gasoline tank.
PEM fuel cells are much less efficient than the ~50-70% hydrogen-to-output-electricity figure used by Lovins (as we have only recently discovered). An overall figure of ~35-50% is probably more appropriate for normal use when all accessory and parasitic losses are taken into account. At the same time, the figure that Lovins uses for gasoline engine efficiency is too low for modern gasoline IC engines combined with high-efficiency transmissions; roughly 25% is closer to the real efficiency and this figure is climbing steadily. But this does not completely negate his point that fuel cells used in light-vehicle applications should offer about 50-100% better economy (not the 2-3X claimed by Lovins) than gasoline engines, especially at low load. Diesel engines, on the other hand, are substantially more efficient than gasoline engines, approaching the lower bound of the fuel cell efficiency range (35-50%) and potentially capable of much higher efficiencies. In hybrid-electric applications, they can currently offer higher efficiency with acceptable on-road performance (currently a problem with fuel cell and hybrid vehicles). If high-speed compression-ignition engines can be developed to operate at very high compression ratios and near-instantaneous combustion (offering a close approximation to constant-volume combustion), probably on gaseous fuels (and possibly even hydrogen!), much higher efficiencies are possible.
Several manufacturers of battery-powered cars are about to announce significant technical breakthroughs, hopefully to be followed by economic gains. Lithium ion battery-powered light passenger vehicles will soon offer ranges of up to 300 miles, a vast improvement over earlier efforts such as the General Motors EV-1. Li-Ion batteries offer rapid recharge capability and long lifetimes. Increased use will undoubtedly reduce their initial cost, now prohibitively high, and operating costs should be low unless utility costs rise unexpectedly. As in the case of the power used to produce electrolytic hydrogen, power to charge batteries must be generated in coal, oil or gas-fired power stations, typically at 30-35% thermodynamic efficiency, and some power is lost during the charge cycle as heat or parasitic losses. But at least battery charging does not involve the conversion of one energy carrier into another. We will shortly be publishing a number of detailed, thorough well-to-wheel analyses of the various automotive power options, including this one.
The major problem with hydrogen fuel cell use lies not with the fuel cell per se but with the efficiency loss associated with converting one energy form (e.g., natural gas or an alternative fossil energy source) via electricity into another (hydrogen). The energy “cost” of this is often not fully accounted for in Lovins’ estimates. The “well-to-wheels” efficiencies of the two systems (hybrid and fuel cell), if all factors are correctly accounted for, are not that far apart. Lovins routinely separates, in his paper, the efficiency of use of hydrogen in fuel cells from the energy losses associated with the manufacture, transportation, distribution and delivery of hydrogen. As a substitute for conventional energy generation in a distributed power scenario, fuel cells are attractive, at least on paper and if you can afford to produce and transport the fuel for them.
We also question much of the underpinning of the “hydrogen economy”, although this concern is not directed at Lovins or RMI. We believe that there is substantial doubt that carbon emissions are the cause of global warming (GW). Much of the warming effect attributed to carbon dioxide is in our view due to a natural increase in solar irradiance accompanied by a related increase in atmospheric water vapor levels. The latter is more effective as a GW forcing agent than carbon dioxide (we estimate its GWP = 1.75 compared to 1.0 for CO2) and is present in the atmosphere in far greater quantities. We therefore believe that water vapor, rather than CO2 is the dominant forcing agent in global warming (with a little help from the sun and perhaps from other greenhouse gases) and that the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels is a secondary effect. Since one of the major reasons for moving to hydrogen fuel is the reduction of carbon emissions, this observation brings into question a large part of the entire underlying rationale for hydrogen.
Anyone who has actually worked with hydrogen on a commercial scale would not claim, as Lovins does, that “The….technical obstacles to a hydrogen economy – storage, safety and the cost of hydrogen and its distribution infrastructure – have already been sufficiently resolved to support rapid deployment….”. To do so is irresponsible. More specifically:
1. Storage is far from resolved – in fact it is one of the biggest barriers to successful implementation of hydrogen-powered transportation. Current storage systems have numerous shortcomings – among them, excessive weight and size for a given task, inadequate capacity or availability, and a lack of safety in collisions and fires.
2. Safety has yet to be addressed, at least in terms of codes and standards, as evidenced by the many initial meetings on the topic that are scheduled around the country for later this year (2003). In the transportation industry, safety and the related topic of product liability is of enormous importance. The level of reliability required to make a complex hydrogen fuel cell system and its associated vehicle deliver 100% safety will be high indeed. The same will apply to hydrogen pipelines, distribution and delivery systems and especially the small-scale reformer-based gas-station hydrogen generating plants that Lovins believes are feasible and desirable (they are neither, but more of that later).
3. The cost of hydrogen in the real world remains to be determined but, notwithstanding the optimistic estimates presented by Lovins, DOE and the would-be hydrogen manufacturers for this market, we have shown that it will be more expensive on a per-mile basis in a given vehicle configuration and weight than is gasoline.
Finally, distribution infrastructure
issues are anything but resolved.
Prof. Lovins is incorrect in implying that no major technological breakthroughs are needed in fuel cells, other than those aimed at cost reduction. Major work is still required on reliability and durability (current warranties must be lengthened by up to an order of magnitude to be acceptable in a marketplace used to 50-100,000 mile vehicle warranties). Membrane life is a major unknown. Avoidance of membrane fouling requires ultra-clean air which, in turn, currently requires ultra-filtration and consequent parasitic losses. Catalyst loadings must be reduced and perhaps precious metals in the catalysts replaced with less costly alternatives while catalyst life is increased. If hydrogen is to succeed both technically and economically, significant cost-reducing breakthroughs are required in manufacturing (especially in the distributed, rather than centralized, manufacturing model preferred by Lovins), equipment for compression to pressures above 5 ksi, pumping, pipeline hardware, local distribution systems, delivery systems (for liquid and gaseous hydrogen) and numerous other areas. A massive effort will be required to reduce the energy consumed in manufacturing and transporting hydrogen. Unfortunately, the gas starts off with the disadvantage of having to be made from a primary energy source that could be used more efficiently if conversion could be avoided.
In the case of autos, Dr. Lovins must know of the many failed efforts that have been made to develop a cost-competitive ultralight, mass-manufacturable auto body (the writer managed such a program involving stampable composites in 1976-9). Notwithstanding the undoubtedly good design work at Ultracar, translating such designs into real manufacturable products that meet a wide range of engineering, cost and safety criteria and also attract the necessary large market has proven extremely difficult.
With respect to the future size of the required hydrogen industry, the current North American hydrogen industry produces about 10 million metric tons/year of hydrogen (not 15 million as Lovins estimates). To replace all of the current gasoline consumption (about 9 million barrels per day) would require about 130 million metric tons of hydrogen annually, a figure that depends on assumptions about use efficiency – a very substantial increase and not just “several fold bigger”, especially in view of the completely different manufacturing technologies that are likely to be needed.
For methane, including the shift reaction: CH4 + 2H2O à CO2 + 4H2
For carbon, representing coal: 2C + 4H2O à 2CO2 + 4H2
Note that carbon/coal produces about twice the amount of CO2, which must then be sequestered if CO2 atmospheric emissions are a concern (but see our earlier comments about global warming). At present, only about 2% of hydrogen production comes from the electrolysis of water. Current U.S production is about 9 million metric tons/year with Canada accounting for another 1 million tons. Lovins’ estimate of ~15 million tons is high, apparently because of double counting.
2. Lovins is correct in saying that “the industrial infrastructure for hydrogen production already exists”. However, there are only some 460 miles of pipeline in the U.S., all fully dedicated to industrial users of hydrogen in Texas and Louisiana. A comprehensive infrastructure associated with centralized hydrogen production would require many thousand miles of new pipeline (natural gas pipelines are fully committed and are likely to remain that way; in any case, none were designed for hydrogen service – for a further discussion, see “myth” #5).
3. Professor Lovins does not like overhead electrical transmission lines but, notwithstanding the recent blackout in Midwestern and Northeastern states, they have served us very well and will continue to do so. As he rightly points out, these lines experience transmission energy losses (these can be as much as 5% and are a function of line length and construction as well as the transmission voltage), but he has his numbers wrong in the comparison with hydrogen. There is no real-world experience with pumping high-pressure hydrogen (≥5,000 psi/350 bar) through long-distance pipelines but Eliasson and Bossel (see Lovins, Ref. #5) have shown convincingly that the energy losses will be substantial. Moving hydrogen at lower pressures requires a very large pipeline to move very large volumes because the energy content of hydrogen gas (or liquid) per unit volume is so low (as Lovins points out, the only time that the very low density of hydrogen may be an advantage is in space travel, and even then, as we know from experience with the space shuttle, the size of the liquid hydrogen tank presents significant design challenges).
4. Lovins is probably correct in saying that distributed, rather than centralized production and (of course) use of hydrogen will have to characterize any future “hydrogen economy”, but this is precisely the problem – small scale production means that economies of scale are lost (however well the “reformers and electrolyzers work at small scale”) and that the probabilities, and associated dangers, of equipment failure are greatly increased. Furthermore, the energy source has to be connected to the distributed reformers or electrolyzers, although this should present no more of a challenge than distributing and delivering gasoline does today. A centralized or regionally distributed system (see the comments on Myth #9) offers much greater safety. A problem with any system involving large-scale hydrogen production, whether national or regional is the lack of really large-scale storage. Suitable underground storage such as proven gas-tight former natural gas wells or even salt caverns is not usually available where it is needed.
5. Off-peak power may be less costly, but is likely to become much more costly as the U.S. and Canada invest in a much-needed renewal of their power generation and distribution systems. Electrical power has or will become far too costly for hydrogen production.
2. Hydrogen is not inherently safe because it “rapidly disperses up and away from its source”, particularly if this happens in a closed or poorly ventilated building. It easily leaks from equipment using it, especially at elevated pressure, but may not ignite at the point of egress. Any equipment using hydrogen must be equipped with hydrogen and fire detection sensors strategically located above the equipment, as must the building in which it is located.
3. As anyone who has been involved in large-scale hydrogen fires or has used an oxy-hydrogen blowtorch will testify, the flame is intensely hot on contact (although, as Lovins says, it is not intensely radiant) and causes a lot of damage very quickly. Notwithstanding all of the theory about lower explosive limits, in practice hydrogen both ignites and explodes easily. Hydrogen explosions, especially if the gas is at high pressure, are massively powerful (although in practice major hydrogen explosions often involve other energy sources such as gaseous hydrocarbons that are mixed with the hydrogen). The subsequent large-scale fires are often intense and very difficult to fight because the flame cannot easily be seen except in cases where hydrocarbon is present.
4. We agree that the Hindenburg story is irrelevant. Both airships and hydrogen technologies have made considerable progress since 1937.
5. As NBC Television learned the hard way, staged demonstrations of vehicle fires seldom relate to real-world experience. No one experiences much heating from an oxy-hydrogen blowtorch flame, even a big one, but hydrogen explosions at even 3,000 psi (200 bar) have been lethal and have done immense damage (e.g., that at the Esso (now Exxon) refinery in Linden, NJ in 1970).
1. Any conversion of energy from one form to another is, indeed, costly although it is not true that such conversions “always consume more useful energy than they yield”. In addition, most of our current energy resources require no conversion – just a little chemical modification and fractionation for oil and usually only moisture and sulfur removal for natural gas. This means modest well-to-tank energy consumption (10-30% of that in the original source) as Lovins correctly points out, but no conversion energy costs of the kind applicable to hydrogen.
4. Delivering hydrogen to users would consume most of the energy it contains.
2. Eliasson and Bossel discuss liquid hydrogen in part because that is the hydrogen fuel preferred by at least two major U.S. or European auto manufacturers.
3. The Swiss authors quite correctly point out the greatly increased safety hazard that results from the decentralization of hydrogen production (by natural gas reforming). Distributed manufacture means distributed danger and also (as Lovins suggests) the added cost of distributed carbon sequestration.
4. Aside from the fact that “hydrogen appliances” is a really bad and confusing term (all other appliances that we can think of use energy rather than deliver or make it), RMI’s “suggested hydrogen transition strategy” (see Lovins, Ref 52 and page 13) makes little sense. The very idea of small-scale, badly-maintained (as they inevitably will be) high-pressure reformers, electrolyzers and storage systems, let alone vehicles, in highly populated areas just boggles the mind. However, the concept that hydrogen should not be transported over long distances but, instead, made as it is needed, clearly has merit if a system can be developed for doing this safely. We prefer a model which transports coal-derived methanol for either direct use in fuel cells or for reforming into hydrogen.
We are less persuaded by the
argument for a low-carbon energy supply than is Dr. Lovins. We suggest that he
examines very closely the supposed connection between carbon dioxide and global
warming; it does not bear too much scrutiny. However, there may be other
reasons to reduce our production of CO2 – the well-being of the
oceans, which is apparently where most of it goes, for example.
5. Hydrogen can’t be distributed in existing pipelines, requiring costly new ones.
2. While a number of old and small-bore oil and natural gas collection systems have had their lives extended by the use of pull-through liners, this is unlikely to be economically feasible for the conversion of say 48” natural gas lines designed for use at 1,000 psi to hydrogen service. Add to this the cost of hardware conversion and of new compressors.
Lovins should know that so-called
“Hythane” mixtures can also lose hydrogen by selective diffusion (as the former
coal gas industry knew very well many years ago – but that was generally viewed
as OK since the loss of hydrogen raised the heating value of the gas).
6. We don’t have practical ways to run cars on gaseous hydrogen, so cars must continue to use liquid fuels.
1. We have only a few minor quibbles with this section of Dr. Lovins’ paper. In general, we are in full agreement. Notwithstanding our negative view of the hydrogen vehicle in general, the major challenge is not the car or the fuel cell that it contains, it is the manufacture and delivery of the fuel. Once we can deliver the hydrogen to the car at the right price, the rest is relatively straightforward or already done with the exception of major cost reduction. The challenge is to get the hydrogen to the vehicle safely at a cost that will be acceptable in a marketplace that, in the U.S., has yet to accept $2/gallon gasoline. Hydrogen, based on our current projections, will cost much more (see response #9, below). The high cost of hydrogen may be more acceptable to the European market, which is used to higher gasoline prices (although there, hydrogen will no doubt be taxed in a way that makes it less attractive!)
2. Dr. Lovins is optimistic about the ability of the fuel cell or automotive industries to reduce the cost of hydrogen fuel cells. Our information is that the projected cost of automotive fuel cells in volume production is a factor of ten more than would typically be acceptable for this application, based on current auto price expectations, which suggests that there is a very long way to go. The auto industry has always been surprisingly adept at cost reduction, but this challenge, if correctly stated, may be more than they can handle or reasonably expect any supplier to commit to.
3. We are pleased to note that Dr. Lovins agrees with us in rejecting the idea of on-board reforming of gasoline for fuel cell autos. We agree – it was never a good idea, given the complexity of the system required and the consequent probability of failure and safety problems. On the other hand, we disagree on the potential of methanol. We agree that converting natural gas to methanol, transporting it to the point of use and then converting it to hydrogen for use, is unacceptable on many counts, one of which is that there is insufficient natural gas to allow this barring the use of imported LNG (or of methanol made offshore from natural gas). On the other hand, if hydrogen makes sense as a fuel (to repeat, we do not believe that it does for transportation use) then coal à methanol (for transportation to the reformer) à hydrogen makes a lot of sense both economically and technically.
Methanol does not have a higher
lifecycle cost than hydrogen if all costs applicable to hydrogen are
included. Furthermore, Dr. Lovins forgets that we have been using methanol,
diluted with varying amounts of ethanol or water, for many years in the form of methylated spirits (a fuel and cleaner now typically containing only about 5%
methanol, the remainder ethanol), windshield washer fluid (35-45% methanol),
wood spirits (100%), racing motor fuel (100%) and so on. It is toxic, but so
are gasoline and ethanol. The MTBE fiasco that Lovins refers to was caused by
the Environmental Protection Agency’s requirement that MTBE be used to replace
the former tetraethyl lead before there had been an adequate evaluation of its
downside risks. The costs were borne not by the transportation industry but by
the energy industry (including the methanol producers)….and certainly not by the
7. We lack a safe and affordable way to store hydrogen in cars.
5. We agree that the manufacturing methods and performance of high-pressure containment vessels has made very significant progress in recent years. However, they are very expensive in an industry that has historically, and for the right reasons, been concerned about very small cost increments. A carbon fiber tank that can be manufactured “for just a few hundred dollars” and that is ten times the size of an equivalent gas tank (Lovins, p.17) is a very different proposition than a polyethylene gasoline tank with a ~$20 installed cost – especially in a vehicle that offers (per Lovins’ own figures) only modest on-road performance and is already projected to command a premium price. Under-skin space is already at a premium in small vehicles (unless the use of a fuel cell can somehow create more but so far we have seen no evidence of that) so a fuel tank that is 10X the normal size can represent an impossible design challenge.
6. The primary concern about composite tanks of any kind is their poor resistance to penetration by sharp objects in a collision. We have recently heard much about fires in police-owned Ford Crown Victoria automobiles that appear to have been caused by sharp objects carried in the trunk penetrating the thin back wall of the trunk and the then the equally thin gas tank behind it. We are concerned about the possible results of a penetration failure of composite (e.g., filament-wound aluminum) tanks carrying hydrogen at nearly 700 bar (~10 kpsi). Such failures will occur, of course. Auto accidents almost always result in at least one unexpected outcome and, of course, the auto industry has essentially zero experience with accidents involving cars that use stressed structural composites in either body structure or fuel tank, other than through computer simulations.
Although Lovins dismisses liquid hydrogen
rather quickly (a conclusion with which we agree because of the large amount of
energy required to liquefy the gas, a very inefficient process), BMW and General
Motors seems to think otherwise and have recently been emphasizing liquid
8. Compressing hydrogen for automotive storage tanks takes too much energy.
2. We are not aware of any commercially available, low-cost, small hydrogen compressors that will even reach 5 kpsi (~350 bar), let alone 10 kpsi (~700 bar), or offer integrated intercoolers. If the demand develops – meaning if the market buys hydrogen-fueled cars in sufficient numbers – such compressors will be developed although the cost will be high (see also Lovins, Ref. 5).
Canada’s National Research Council
has recently claimed to have developed an electrolytic hydrogen generator that
operates at 5 kpsi. In agreement with Lovins, this may be the way of the
future, although however the compression is achieved the energy required has to
be paid for somewhere – in this case in reduced cell efficiencies. Again,
compression can ‘cost’ 15-20% of total energy.
9. Hydrogen is too expensive to compete with gasoline.
1. This section of Lovins’ “Twenty Myths” paper lacks sufficient detail, so we were unable to check his claims that hydrogen can be competitive with the wholesale price of gasoline. We were unable to confirm that with our own detailed analysis. As we have pointed out previously, Lovins reaches many of his conclusions by (a) assuming the existence of hydrogen-generating equipment that may or may not be developed in the future; (b) assigning an operating cost and capital cost to that equipment, typically based on the most optimistic possible assumptions of operating efficiency; (c) ignoring many other costs (such as controlled-composition water for electrolyzers, costs of power conversion or voltage-reduction, costs of handling oxygen by-product, costs of sequestering carbon dioxide (assuming that this is selected), catalyst costs and so on. As we have previously noted, Lovins et al also make optimistic assumptions about in-vehicle fuel cell efficiencies.
2. We will register here once more the concern that we have over the reliability and hence safety of a distributed hydrogen manufacturing “network”. Industrial-scale reformers are generally reliable in part because of their very large scale (even so, minor explosions are common). There are at this point no commercially-available small-scale reformers and performance or reliability projections can not be based on significant operating experience. Small-scale chemical “factories” of this kind (which are reminiscent of Mao Tse-Tung’s revolutionary but highly unsuccessful “blast furnaces in every back yard” directives of the late 1950s) have historically been notoriously unreliable unless rigorously maintained (and people being people, and maintenance labor costs being high, they will not be). Electrolyzers might be more reliable but the hydrogen would be unacceptably costly.
Finally, it is unlikely that the discovery
or production of natural gas will be greatly stimulated by an uncertain $6/MMBTU
a) Hydrogen pure enough for fuel cells would cost ~$15-22/kg.
It seems to us, just by using generally
accepted rules of thumb about the (dis-)economies of (small) scale, that a “toy”
reformer producing only 46 kg/d (556 m3 at ambient T and P) is very
unlikely to be able to generate 99.99%-grade hydrogen at anywhere near the
wholesale cost of gasoline, notwithstanding the 100% greater efficiency (we are
willing to be generous!) of the fuel cell vehicle. We need more information to
check this out and Lovins provides none.
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.
A compromise which we have suggested
elsewhere would involve larger methanol reformers (using coal-based methanol as
a feedstock) located safely outside of all populated areas. Distribution of
manufactured hydrogen to local or regional retail outlets could then be by means
of tube truck or (preferably) small-bore pipeline, although this approach still
raises serious questions about safety and energy cost. Our top choice would be
use of the methanol in direct-methanol fuel cells but the efficiency of these is
still relatively low and must be improved before they can find uses beyond cell
phones and laptop computers for which efficiency is not a critical issue.
11. Manufacturing enough hydrogen to run a car fleet is a gargantuan and hugely expensive task.
4. Nothing sells without a market. Although Toyota has just announced orders for 10,000 of its 2004 Prius hybrid, it is not yet certain that any of these alternate-fuel or alternate-technology vehicles will sell in commercial volumes, even in Europe where such small-engined, lower-performance cars are better tolerated. Unless they can be made attractive to the majority of potential buyers or (unlikely in the U.S.) legislated into existence in some way, there will only be what is usually referred to as a “enthusiast” market for them – just as there has been to date for the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight and the GM EV1.
5. Lovins must decide which side he wishes to join in the discussion of distributed vs. centralized hydrogen production. We agree that the existing centralized hydrogen industry could expand its capacity (although there may be hydrogen purity issues), albeit not as easily as Lovins estimates because of his use of unattainable efficiency assumptions in his “calculation”. But a “point of use” hydrogen manufacturing capability at retail locations, which Lovins apparently prefers, would be less efficient, less reliable, and less safe and would take far longer to put in place.
6. We should be clear that, even allowing for the greater efficiency of the fuel cell, the additional hydrogen required to replace the gasoline that is used by the current auto fleet is very substantial and would require a massive investment of capital, especially if the “distributed reformer” model were pursued. Lovins finds the increase only moderate, but that is by comparison with an already quite large industrial hydrogen industry. Starting from scratch, which is essentially what Lovins proposes, requires the development of an entirely new set of industries.
Using by-product oxygen from electrolyzer
operations is also not as simple as Lovins seems to suggest. Oxygen is a
low-value commodity that must be used close to its point of manufacture. But,
as we have suggested elsewhere, there are certainly uses - such as clean coal or
oil gasification - that are appropriate if they can be located close by.
12. Since renewables are currently too costly, hydrogen would have to be made from fossil fuels or nuclear energy.
2. Wind power has been available for many years but, even with major incentives, especially in California, has made little real progress (only some 31 Gigawatts in place world-wide after over forty years of promotion. That global figure, 90% of which is in the U.S. or Europe, is just one-thirtieth of total U.S. capacity). We like its cleanliness but doubt its viability, particularly since it cannot be implemented without major “aesthetic pollution”. It also is dependent on the wind and hence, like the sailing ships of old, can easily become becalmed. Wind farms are meeting stiff resistance from numerous well-funded groups because they are viewed as both ugly and noisy. Power from wind farms is, in principle, inexpensive, but is unlikely to become available in sufficient quantities to make a difference in a hydrogen world. Europe, especially Denmark, seems to be making more progress than the U.S., but few Americans are persuaded of the need for alternate energy and certainly do not want the inconvenience. Similar objections can be raised against solar photovoltaic power. This technology has been “almost ready for prime time” for at least thirty years to the writer’s personal knowledge, but is still not a significant factor. For both wind and solar, success has always been just around the corner. It still is.
3. As Lovins points out, most hydrogen is now made from natural gas, which is in rapidly declining supply. Neither new discoveries nor production have kept pace with consumption for several years and, notwithstanding the optimism of some in the industry, are not likely to. Domestic natural gas has reached the peak of its Hubbert Curve. You cannot discover gas that is not there or justify producing gas that costs too much to recover. It is highly irresponsible to dismiss the current shortage as easily fixed or to suggest that future hydrogen production should also involve natural gas. Instead, existing supplies of natural gas should be gradually dedicated to the domestic market and industrial users gradually switched to coal-based syngas for which zero emissions technologies now exist. Once sufficient syngas capacity is available, and if hydrogen proves to be successful (by now, our readers will know that we do not believe that it should be or will be for personal transportation use), syngas or coal-based hydrogen can be used for retail transportation applications.
a) A hydrogen economy would require the construction of many new coal and nuclear power stations (or perhaps nuclear fusion stations).
2. Conventional coal fired power-generating facilities also seem inappropriate since they are inherently “dirty” unless converted to clean-coal technology. However, coal + water à hydrogen technologies are attractive since they can be operated with total carbon sequestration. They do, however, require water which is itself becoming a rare commodity in some parts of the U.S. West and Southwest.
b) A hydrogen economy would retard the adoption of renewable energy by competing for R&D budget, being misspent and taking away future markets.
2. Lovins refers to “cheap” hydrogen storage. None of the options that he refers to are “cheap” by any measure. Nor, for the most part, are they readily available, despite the fact that there are real-world examples of underground storage that have been used for years. Not all underground formations are suitable for hydrogen storage, even if they did work well for coal gas at a time when a little selective hydrogen loss was considered acceptable because it slowly increased the BTU of the stored gas (rather like maturing a vintage wine!). Pipeline storage of hydrogen is clearly not applicable in Lovins’ distributed-production model but would be (just as it is for natural gas) in the centralized-production case.
3. Regardless of the views of environmentalists, hydrogen in commercial quantities is clearly not going to be made from renewable energy sources for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, we believe that any initial steps that use natural gas to make transportation hydrogen would be a major misstep. The only route that makes sense is clean coal-to-hydrogen, coal-to-methanol-to-hydrogen or coal-to-syngas-to-hydrogen technology.
c) Switching from gasoline to hydrogen will worsen climate change unless we do a large amount of carbon sequestration.
d) Making hydrogen from natural gas would quickly deplete our natural gas reserves.
We will defer any discussion of Lovins’
notions about how switching to natural gas would improve the use efficiency of
the latter in some roundabout way. That result depends on actual fleet-average
fuel cell efficiencies, market acceptance of fuel cell vehicles vs. other types,
and the actual efficiencies achieved by (and acceptance of) competing
alternatives. Any discussion at this time can only be hypothetical and probably
13. Incumbent industries (e.g., oil and car companies) actually oppose hydrogen as a competitive threat, so their hydrogen development efforts are mere window-dressing.
2. Unfortunately, Lovins then spoils his case by statements such as “hydrogen is a premium energy carrier” (not true by any measure – e.g., it takes too great a volume of hydrogen to carry too little energy) and by implying that the oil industry is interested because hydrogen will be manufactured from “more profitable” natural gas. It will not if no gas is available. Neither is hydrogen anywhere close to being manufactured from renewable energy sources in anything like sufficient amounts. We have already discussed the concept of making hydrogen close to the customer (a very high-risk concept) and, since the economics of doing so depend closely on the number of units that can be made, all hydrogen cost projections must be considered suspect. At this stage in the development of any new industry, economic discussions that project pricing with apparent high precision must be considered very suspect. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that any commodity that can be used efficiently is more attractive than one that is not.
Finally, we agree with Lovins on the
future of hydrogen from coal – if a sufficiently large market develops
for hydrogen (which, as we have said, we doubt). The only concern is that water
will have to be the source of most of the hydrogen and water, like natural gas,
is a commodity in increasingly short supply.
14. A large-scale hydrogen economy would harm the earth’s climate, water balance or atmospheric chemistry.
a) Using hydrogen would release or consume too much water.
3. Consumption of water is another matter. Considerable amounts of water (for electrolysis) or steam (for reforming) are used in manufacturing hydrogen because water supplies at least half of the hydrogen produced by the reforming process. In some areas, this added demand for water could be a major concern. However, use of desalinated water or even recycled and treated industrial process water might be suitable – and necessary - in some cases to avoid aquifer depletion of curtailment of domestic supplies.
b) Using hydrogen would consume too much oxygen.
c) Using hydrogen would dry out the Earth by leaking hydrogen to outer space.
d) Using hydrogen would harm the ozone layer or the climate by leaking too much water-forming and chemically reactive molecular hydrogen into the upper atmosphere.
Contrary to Lovins’ statement that papers raising concerns such as these set
back the cause of the hydrogen economy, we view them, however wrong they may be,
as stimulating essential and long-overdue debate on the hydrogen economy and
providing much-needed checks and balances on the “rush to judgment” that has
characterized the entire hydrogen effort to date.
15. There are more attractive ways to provide sustainable mobility than adopting hydrogen.
Lovins seems never to have come to grips with
the real world.
a) We should run cars on natural gas, not hydrogen.
b) We should convert existing cars to carry both gasoline and hydrogen, burning both in their existing internal-combustion engines, to create an early hydrogen market and reduce urban air pollution.
c) We should improve batteries and increase the required electricity storage capacity (battery-electric driving range) of hybrid cars.
8. Battery technology is improving slowly (too slowly!) but is still not where it should be for an optimal EV design or for battery hybrid vehicles (all hybrids currently use battery power storage). Since, in our view, the diesel hybrid with battery or capacitor or a battery vehicle with long-range capability makes the most sense for transportation for the indefinite future, we hope that battery development evolves rapidly in the direction of higher power densities and much lower costs.
d) If we have super efficient vehicles, we should just run them on gasoline engines or engine-hybrids and not worry about fuel cells.
2. Once again, we should remember that fuel cell vehicles, especially those that also have radical designs such as the Hypercar ‘Revolution’, are not likely to be accepted quickly in the automobile marketplace, except by the fanatic few. Hybrids, now that we are past the first-generation Prius and Insight and Civic proof-of-concept vehicles (all look very acceptable in 2004 format) will sell far better. Acceptance of these – a sort of “half way house” vehicle – may make any future hydrogen-fueled vehicles much more acceptable. In any case, it will be many years before the necessary hydrogen infrastructure is in place. Hybrids are an unavoidable intermediate solution – provided (and this applies to all alternate-fuel vehicles) that a sufficiently large “audience” can be persuaded to buy them.
Interestingly, Lovins seems much more
interested in saving oil than he is in saving natural gas, perhaps because his
“vision” of the hydrogen economy requires natural gas in large quantities. If
we had to choose between only the two, we would rather place our bets on oil.
But coal, combined with zero-emissions technologies, is a much better bet.
16. Because the U.S. car fleet takes roughly 14 years to turn over, little can be done to change car technology in the short term.
17. A viable hydrogen transition would take 30-50 years or more to complete, and hardly anything worthwhile could be done sooner than 20 years.
18. The hydrogen transition requires a big (say $100-$300 billion) Federal crash program on the lines of the Apollo Program or the Manhattan Project.
4. We also agree that a coherent message on hydrogen (or hybrids) would be helpful, but it must be truthful. The current “PR” about hydrogen, much of it coming from RMI, simply sweeps a lot of very real problems such as safety and infrastructure costs and delays under the rug and leaves the impression that the hydrogen economy will be here soon. It will not, for many reasons, not the least of which is that there are not yet any safety codes or standards in place. The auto industry is at least realistic about what it faces; RMI is not.
We believe that it would be wise to
encourage less safety-sensitive applications of hydrogen initially. At TMG, we
believe that coal-based hydrogen (or syngas, or methanol, but preferably the
former, via methanol) will find many applications in building heating and
cooling, but we would prefer to see proven reliable systems for the production
and use of hydrogen (in more ways than Lovins’ preferred “distributed reformer”
methodology) in place before they are used in buildings housing large numbers of
people or in automobiles. This concern, as we have said, is based on our
experience with complex pilot plants not unlike a small-scale reformer and with
hydrogen in a number of applications.
19. A crash program to switch to hydrogen is the only realistic way to get off oil.
2. A switch to biomass and/or hydrogen may eventually happen but, in our view, much later than Lovins thinks. There is simply too much to do, too much resistance to making the necessary changes and not enough market for the resulting products.
We look forward to debunking RMI’s
forthcoming, "Out of the Oil Box”. It will happen eventually, but not for a very
long time – nor should it happen any sooner.
20. The Bush Administration’s hydrogen program is just a smokescreen to stall adoption of the hybrid-electric and other efficient car designs available now, and wraps fossil and nuclear energy in a green disguise.
2. Aside from that, we agree with the Wall Street Journal that the funding of these programs are “neither smart nor honest”, if only because the President and his decision-makers seem to be have been very poorly informed about the downside aspects of the “hydrogen economy” and the advantages of alternative automotive power technologies. Given the limited funding available in the face of what is now projected to be a $525 billion deficit for FY 2004, we think that the money could be better directed. It is doubtful that the U.S. will have the patience to hang in with hydrogen for what will be a very long - and probably unsuccessful – haul.
John R. Wilson is a chemical and materials engineer. A former expert on liquid metals, Dr. Wilson served a total of twelve years in academia in the UK and Canada, then worked on product and process development in the energy industry for several years with Esso (now Exxon) R&D Co., Shell Canada’s Tar Sands group and Shell Oil’s Shell Development Co.) before moving to Detroit to manage a New Business Development program for the Bendix Corporation. Bendix later become part of Allied Corporation, where John became VP-Research for Allied Canada. He left Allied to join Lord Corporation (Erie, PA) in 1985 as VP-R&D and then moved on to set up his own consulting company, now called TMG/The Management Group, in 1987. The company is a professional services organization that specializes in funding and managing research, technology and commercial development with special emphasis on developments in alternate energy, energy-related environmental, specialty materials and transportation. TMG can be contacted in the Detroit area at 313-434-5110 or in Windsor at 519-966-0545. (email: firstname.lastname@example.org; web site www.tmgtech.com).
Ó 2003, TMG/The Management Group
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