Hydrogen Economies

The mass media, who have a pretty good record of getting any important news wrong, have been talking up the ‘Hydrogen Economy’ quite a bit. They are mostly referring to the notion of putting powercells in cars, which split water into component hydrogen (and oxygen), then using the hydrogen as a pollution-free fuel to run vehicles.

This is a very sexy idea. It will require a gigantic investment in new infrastructure throughout the world (hydrogen manufacture, refill stations, ubiquitous fuel-cell automobiles), but this gigantic investment is small change compared to really big investments like the Iraq war. (Actually, building a hydrogen-owered world would cost slightly more than the Iraq war.)

It is also a wrong idea. It cannot ever work. This is explained nicely in an interview with Dr. Ulf Bossel, organizer of the Lucerne Fuel Cell Forum, in an interview on The Watt website dating back to 2006. Here is an illuminating excerpt:

With the same amount of electricity, original electricity, be it from wind solar energy, with the same amount of electricity you can drive an electric car three times farther than a hydrogen car. On 100 kWh of electricity you can drive an electric car 120 kilometers while a hydrogen fuel cell car of similar size can do only about 40 km. If we want to have mobility and a sustainable future, we have to go for electric cars and not for hydrogen cars because we electric cars are less costly to operate. It is not the vehicle technology, but a question of energy cost of the fuel. Hydrogen must always be much more expensive than electricity needed to split water by electrolysis etc. That is a very clear picture. I have analyzed the situation to illustrate how much water and electricity is needed for certain hydrogen jobs. If you take the Frankfurt Airport and Frankfurt Airport is perhaps comparable to the airport at Montreal. About 50 jumbo jets leave Frankfurt every day, each charged with 130 tons of kerosene. If you replace kerosene by hydrogen on a one-to-one energy base, each plane needs 50 tons of hydrogen. As a side remark: 50 tons of liquid hydrogen occupy 720 cubic meters of space, while 130 tons of kerosene take only 160 cubic meters. We need totally different airplanes for hydrogen. But that is another story. To fill the 50 jumbo jets one needs 2,500 tons of liquid hydrogen every day. 22,500 cubic meters of water, the water consumption of a city of 100,000, must be split by electrolysis. For this one the continuous electricity output of about eight nuclear power plants is needed. Now, if the entire traffic at Frankfurt Airport was all done with hydrogen, one would need the water consumption of the City of Frankfurt plus about 25 nuclear power plants. Using hydrogen for all public air and road transport in Germany, it would take the power output of about 400 nuclear power plants plus enormous amounts of water. You need nine kilograms of water to make one kilogram of hydrogen. The Rhine river and all other rivers would be dry in the summer because the water is used to make hydrogen. So, we are really approaching limits and we have to talk about these limits before we talk about a hydrogen economy.

Garbage In or Garbage Out?

From a recent article on the Oil Drum on using superkites to propel ocean freighters, I learned (always read the comments!) that the Emma Maerks is the world’s largest cargo ship. You can see what it looks like here.

In a recent voyage, it left China, destination Europe, with a load of 11,000 20ft containers full of:

Martini glasses, sports bags, shower gel, shampoo and bath foam, pinball machines, toothpicks, chopsticks, electric guitars, tool boxes, drum kits, lamp shades, silver and wooden photo frames, wooden trouser hangers, candles, books, laptop computers, singing and dancing gorilla toys, poker tables, bingo sets, lunchboxes, cuddly toys, make-up, dolls, toy motorcycles, christmas decorations, sofas, puzzles, televisions, frozen mussles, computer parts, CD players, fax machines, key rings, jam, noodles, biscuits, pumpkins (frozen), more than 1000 bales of carpet, 117 boxes of girls jeans, 40 boxes of brass, 2000 pairs of mens shoes, 9000 pairs of trainers, three boxes of spectacle frames and more than 1500 frozen cooked chickens.

On the return trip to China it loaded up with:

Plastic scrap, waste paper and card, waste electronic components, repairable electrical goods and scap metal.

If I knew what geo-economic tea leaves looked like or how to read them, I’m sure I would know what this all means. Meanwhile, I just have to rely on hunches.

Outsourcing CO2 Emissions

If I were a modern western industrial nation with a profound desire to decrease my CO2 emissions, I wonder if the most efficient way of doing so wouldn’t be by outsourcing my polluting, energivorous manufacturing to some large Asian powerhouse country.

There would be multiple benefits to such a strategy:

  • The CO2 produced by the manufacturing processes to make ‘my’ stuff would no longer be counted as ‘my’ CO2
  • The CO2 produced by transporting the manufactured stuff to markets within my borders would no longer be counted as ‘my’ CO2.
  • If anyone bitched about how much CO2 I still produced, I could say I was as concerned as the next country by the problem, but hey! what’s the point of upheaving my own economy if that big Asian powerhouse that’s making all ‘my’ stuff isn’t regulated, too (hehe).
  • Obviously, our stuff would be dirt cheap cause it’s made by cheap emerging economy labor, so we can get more of it.
  • And in the end, because property is 9/10th of the (anglo-saxon) law, I get to keep the stuff!

Wow! Anyone else think that this a great geopolitical approach to attacking climate change?

National power sector emissions (tons of CO2):

From the Carbon Monitoring for Action (Carma) website, the list of worst polluting countries by their power stations (in tons of CO2):

  • US – 2,530 million
  • China – 2,430 million
  • Russia – 600 million
  • India – 529 million
  • Japan – 363 million
  • Germany – 323 million
  • Australia – 205 million
  • South Africa – 201 million
  • UK – 192 million
  • South Korea – 168 million

(Source: Carma/CGD)

Not Bad, For a Billboard

A South African power company has been using this billboard to educate citizens about the brave new world we are now living in. Fortunately, here in France we don’t have to worry about this sort of thing. At least that’s what friends tell me.

Sweet Energy Perspectives 1

Back in the late 80′s, early 90′s, when I was living happily ever after in Newport RI, US of A, I published a newsletter on my faithful MacPlus called the New Hydronics News. The NHN dealt with America’s appalling approach to energy use in the very specific domain of residential and commercial confort control, aka HVAC, aka heating/cooling systems.

I had 2 reasonable motivations for creating that monthly journal. One was that I was considered by some to be the ‘guru of heating in America’, and sustaining that honorific required that I publish (to better perish later). The other was that I was considered by most everyone else living in the amber waves of grain to be the devil incarnate, a greenie pinko commie, and thus, un-American in every way. Every month for 4 years, I challenged the heating community for its in-your-face, narcissistic profligacy that so characterized the US of A during the Reagan/Bush I years (and shows few signs of winding down at present), until one day, some guys in a pickup truck yelled out out me, “Hey pinko, if you don’t like it here, why don’t you move to, uh, mmm… France!” Which I think is what I did.

I remember in one issue of NHN, around the time of GBush I’s war on Iraq, I quoted Meyer, Travis McGee’s best friend in John MacDonald’s wonderful series of thrillers, when he said something like

The US has 6% of the world’s population and uses 30% of the world’s oil, plywood, white paint, peanut butter, rubber bands and suntan lotion. We want the rest of the world to love us, to emulate us. What happens if the wish comes true? Will 100% of the world’s population need 500% of the ressources we Americans use now? Has anyone besides me thought this through?

This he said in 1965 or thereabouts. When I quoted this 25 years later, the message was still as futile amongst the grass-roots of l’Amérique profonde.

Fast forward almost 20 years and no one outside the US of A doubts the wisdom of these words (even Australia is coming around). Incredibly, within the States, there are still so many people who can’t get their head around all this. Twenty years ago, GBush I famously said as he cheerleaded Iraq war I: ‘the American lifestyle is not on the table’.

With this as backdrop, and as we speed into the peak-oil era, where the only real comfort is the deeply human thought that catastrophe is only catastrophe if I’m still alive to see it, I want to start writing again about living in the world as though these things really matter.

I’ll conclude this first post with a citation from Berkeley Professor Tad Patzek, who writes about biofuel issues (thank you Oil Drum). He analyzes how much of the earth’s surface would be required to generate the energy requirements to drive a car 23000 km (15000 miles) a year with diverse energy options presently being considered by non-deniers.

1 m2 of medium-quality oil fields needs 620 m2 of corn fields to replace gasoline with corn ethanol and pay for the free energy costs of the ethanol production. [Putting this in perspective...], one can drive our example car for one year from ~30 m2 of oil fields, 90 m2 of photovoltaic cells, 1100 m2 of wind turbines, and ~18000 m2 of corn fields.

Has anyone thought this through?