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March 07, 2010

Wind2H2 at NREL

By: Aaron Datesman

Having recently written about a grand proposal for wind-to-hydrogen (WTH) renewable energy here, it’s certainly useful to look at what actually exists currently, has undergone testing, and been proven to work. To the best of my knowledge, this demonstration project at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado represents the state-of-the-art in this field. The demonstration system includes 100kW and 10kW wind turbines connected to electrolyzer equipment which converts water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is stored either for subsequent conversion into electricity, or for use in a hydrogen-powered vehicle.

This is quite small in scale - an industrial turbine today might be 3,000kW or larger. The GE proposal linked in the earlier post describes a proposal for a WTH demonstration project in NY State (Tug Hill-Syracuse) at the scale of 500MW. That’s 500,000kW, or 5000 times larger than the NREL system. To exploit the wind resource in North Dakota (at the scale of 100’s of GW, or 100,000,000kW), requiring HVDC, H2 pipeline, or some other means of transmission and distribution, is another factor of 200 larger on top of that.

(By the way, I will post more about the question of HVDC vs. H2 pipeline transmission at another time. I appreciated the discussions about this on previous threads a lot.)

As a rule of thumb, when a factor of just 10 is involved, from an engineering perspective you’re dealing pretty much with something new and different. So even to fund the WTH demonstration project in New York State would be quite audacious. On the other hand, the NREL Wind2H2 project seems to have been funded at the level of only a few million dollars. How much could be done with 1000 times that amount? I think that we should find out.

The report on the Wind2H2 project offers the following information:

Analysis showed . . . . the projected cost of hydrogen falling to $5.83/kg from a baseline of $6.25/kg. Better matching the electrical characteristics of renewable energy sources to the hydrogen-producing-stacks would further improve system efficiency and further lower overall cost.
DOE has a target of reducing the cost of central production of hydrogen from wind-based water electrolysis to $3.10/kg by 2012; by 2017 DOE seeks to reduce this cost to under $2/kg.
Today’s commercial electrolyzer systems are designed for operation from grid supplied AC electricity with little regard for system efficiency. Integrating power electronics, between the RE source and stack, provides opportunity to improve efficiency and to reduce capital cost of the system.

One kg of hydrogen has about the same energy content as one gallon of gasoline. Therefore, the marginal cost (excluding the capital costs of the production equipment) of the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline produced by this method is around $6. This strikes me as rather excellent for a technology in its infancy - in fact, in Europe this would be cheaper than gasoline.

So, all right - if we could make $6 per gallon of gasoline-equivalent fuel from renewable resources without pollution, could we distribute it to where we need it to go? Is a hydrogen pipeline system just a pipe dream?

Well, we already have around 900 miles of hydrogen pipelines in Louisiana and Texas. I think that the pieces exist, and are waiting to be put together.

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at March 7, 2010 10:33 PM

"in Europe this would be cheaper than gasoline"

They have high pigovian taxes on gas, so I'm not sure this a fair comparison. Even during the peak of the 2008 oil quasi-bubble gas prices in the US didn't rise much above $4, and we tax consumption by about the same amount as we subsidize production.

Posted by: buermann at March 8, 2010 12:36 AM

A number of points on this. One ~six dollars a gallon equivalent for hydrogen actually is not bad, because you can squeeze more miles out of the hydrogen that you can from gasoline with the same amount of energy. A hydrogen car is essentially an electric. You can get the equivalent of between 150 and 300+ mpg from an electric car with electricity supplied either by a battery or by a hydrogen power fuel cell. (We are looking at operating the car, so we look at it once hydrogen is in fuel cell or electricity in battery, neglecting the whole lifecycle to concentrate on operation.)

The problem is that hydrogen or electricity is not your only cost. You need batteries to store electricity for fuel cells to generate it. An electric car battery pack costs about 600 dollar per kWh. This is a weak spot in electric cars. The smallest back that can realistically give you a decent range is around 29 kWh which costs about 17,000. Electric cars with current battery pack prices are more expensive than conventional cars. The Tesla which has a 52 kWh battery pack retails replacement packs for $30,000. So Does that mean hydrogen cars look good in comparison.

The problem here is that an electric car is very thrify with energy, getting a lot of miles to a kWh. But it has to occasionally draw very high power, in the TESLA 185 KW or more. Current cost of hydrogen fuels cells are 3,000 per KW. In mass production, the DOE projects they could come down to 225 per KW (though I'm always suspicious of this type of projection) Even at that price a fuel cell to run the Tesla would be over $41,000! So fuel cells are more expensive than batteries. Further while you can cut range and still have usable electric car (especially if you add a gasoline engine for occasional use) you can cut peak power by all that much. Generally you don't want peak power of much less than 150 KW for an electric car that will travel highways and climb hills. So still, at best price 33,0000 compared to 14,000 for a minimal battery electric car. And again comparing a project cost of fuel cells to the price of batteries today. So being more than fair to hydrogen. After all, the cost of battery backs was project at 300 per kWh a decade ago. So DOE future cost estimates not always perfect. Don't blame them for this. I prefer to predict the past, much easier than predicting the future.

One last side note: yes there are pipelines now that can carry hydrogen. They were originally used to carry producer gas, a mix of CO and hydrogen, (unless these are new). But again, hydrogen pumped at the same pressure as natural gas will contain a lot less energy per cubic foot. It costs money and energy to compress hydrogen beyond that. In either case pipeline costs for hydrogen will be greater per unit of energy delivered.

Posted by: Gar Lipow at March 8, 2010 04:09 AM

"You need batteries to store electricity for fuel cells to generate it."

I'm confused by this statement. A fuel cell vehicle only needs to use batteries for regenerative breaks, etc., used in turn to boost acceleration. The cell is powering the motor, not recharging a battery pack.

Posted by: buermann at March 8, 2010 04:56 AM

Well, I suppose eventually the price of oil will get high enough to make green options like this commercially attractive to Big Energy, but in the meantime Big Energy is already planning to build some multi-billion dollar giant refineries in the middle of the plains to make use of the Canadian tar sands. (Relax, they say it is environmentally sound.)

Posted by: N E at March 8, 2010 08:04 AM

Aaron, and everybody, I'm loving this conversation and like to think I'm learning a lot. I hope it goes on and on... I hope no one is jeopardizing their day job.

Posted by: Grandpa Ken at March 8, 2010 09:52 AM

Aaron, and everybody, I'm loving this conversation

Me too. It's maybe 9,000 times more interesting than most blogs (including this blog when I'm posting things).

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at March 8, 2010 05:24 PM

Instead of talking about cars, at first, we should be talking about tractor-trailer truck rigs. They have much more rational cost structures. Probably existing diesel engines could burn it almost as-is, less efficiently but with less up-front cost than a fuel cell. Furthermore, they can spend a useful amount of time near primary hydrogen sources, reducing transport costs and skipping the wait for LH2 pipelines. (Not so much North Dakota, of course, but there's wind in lots of places, and sunshine; what matters is wide open spaces to collect it in.)

The big problem with pipelines and transmission grids both is that they have to be built, and first they need rights-of-way, and all that other public process stuff, so it takes a long time to get them.

Posted by: Nathan Myers at March 8, 2010 10:27 PM

>"You need batteries to store electricity for fuel cells to generate it."

You are confused by this because I made a typo. You need batteries to store electricity OR fuel cells to generate it.

>nstead of talking about cars, at first, we should be talking about tractor-trailer truck rigs

Nope. A fuel cell to run a big rig would be in the 100s of thousands. Dragging along hydrogen and burining it a turbine, major t hermodynamic loss. Better solution: Upgrade our freight train system. Double track, electrify, put in more freight yards,more switch yards. Upgrade facilities. Eliminate bottlenecks. Make the currently slow unreliable freight rails system fast and dependable. Move 85% of our ton-miles to trains, with trucks just carrying freight to and from freight yards and down lightly travel routes. Quite possible. See Alan Drake's stuff on this:

Refined in a report by the new millenium institute which I'll let you google.

Posted by: Gar Lipow at March 9, 2010 02:09 AM

Railways have been deliberately neglected in the U.S. -- oil companies quite rightly saw them as dangerous rivals in major cities and Congress has never seen them as personal profit centers. They will likely be the answer for freight, but personal travel. And building high-speed rail complexes all over the U.S. could possibly single-handedly pull us (or any country) out of the Second Depression.

One should point out that the subsidies on gasoline in the U.S. are not the only aspect of its distorted cost. All health effects of gasoline consumption are shifted to the poor. What would the cost of gasoline be if we factored in the “unexplained” rise of cancer rates near new roadways, the simply insane rates of asthma near bus depots (which, gosh darnit, always seem to end up in black neighborhoods), and so on? We are, of course, ignoring the cost of price manipulation via military occupation and mass murder, as well as local environmental costs. We are non-sarcastically ignoring global warming since, frankly, I don’t know how to figure in the effect of the end of humanity into a price. The price of gasoline is a creature of market distortion, not production costs.

As such, the comparison of hydrogen fuel cells to gasoline is not so cut-and-dried. It’s like comparing the costs of entertaining onesself with movies, shakespearean plays and video games with the costs of entertaining onesself with heroin addiction. The main benefit of doing those other things instead of using heroin is that you’re not fucking doing heroin.

I am pleased to see such intelligent yet potentially positive ideas on this blog (not that I don’t eat up the negative with a shovel).

Back to lurking.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at March 9, 2010 09:39 AM

I see today that Ted Nugent is encouraging us all to be clean and sober and watch Glen Beck. I didn't realize that combination was even possible.

Posted by: N E at March 9, 2010 04:47 PM

There's nothing wrong with trains, as such, and there are big improvements to be made in powering trains. But they're not useful as a staging arena for changes that will be taken up in cars. Trucking is just enough like and unlike personal transportation to make it usable as a place to build out tech that may then be used in cars.

Obviously fuel cells are presently too expensive to use for trucks; they are way moreso for cars. Internal combustion is an inefficient way to use hydrogen, but it's cheap to retrofit (replace only fuel and exhaust systems) and can use the same infrastructure that the fuel cell cars (and trucks) would.

Efficiency is nice when you can get it, but when the original feedstock of energy isn't coal and oil, it only affects cost, not sea level and the survival of ecosystems. You have to do something first. If you wait for hydrogen pipelines, pervasive HVDC grids, and third-rail locomotives before you can start, you never start.

Prices of wind and (particularly) solar power extraction are likely to come down much faster than fuel cells. Raw energetic efficiency is routinely traded for cost efficiency. Turbines burning solar-produced hydrogen to drive electric motors may turn out to work better than fuel cells driving the same motors. Either future would be acceptable.

Posted by: Nathan Myers at March 9, 2010 05:07 PM

Natural gas is cheaper than diesel fuel per BTU and has been for decades. Even when natural gas shoots up in price, so does oil. Yet you don't see truckers switching to natural gas. That is because to haul freight with natural gas, you need a tank almost as big as your freight container. The extra weight of the natural gas tank would probably eat up any emissions or fuel savings and you probably end need around the same dollars worth of natural gas to travel a ton mile as diesel oil. Plus more capital costs for that giant tank. An alternative would be freezing and compressing it into liquid natural gas. But though an LNG tank to fuel a truck would not take up as much room, it would still tank up more room than a diesel tank. And maintaining LNG tanks of that size has its own energy and capital costs. There are a few LNG trucks around as niche items. But they are not that much cleaner than diesel and don't save money compared to it.

OK, well hydrogen is lighter than NG, but is it has even less energy per cubic foot. Every problem with uncompressed natural gas is worse with hydrogen. Every problem with LNG is worse with liquid hydrogen. It takes even more pressure to to compress and more energy to freeze at lower temperatures. We may someday get hydrogen cars. We will never have hydrogen trucks except as novelty items.

Meanwhile, when it comes to freight we already have rail and right of way. To upgrade rail to the point where it is fast and reliable will require a very tiny amount o addtional track and facilities. Mostly it will involve upgrading existing lines, double tracking electrifying, adding freight yards and switch yards, and cleaning up bottlenecks. Mostly this will use existing rights of way. The fastest way we could switch a portion of our ground transport to renewable electricity is to move 85% of long haul truck miles to electric freight trains.

In terms of cars. Getting off oil for cars is a long process. Probably the fastest way to nibble around the edges is to improve and electrify buses (via overhead trolley lines or magnetic induction strip) so that they can be powered by wind and sun. In terms of electrifying automobiles: battery technology is way ahead of fuel cell technology. We could provide decent electric cars for 40,000 dollars each and put into place car sharing to lower the cost per family. We can provide what amounts to glorified golf carts for 12,000 to 17,000 each, they could serve a lot of purposes. For a lot of families without mass transit access glorified golf cars, plus a share in a decent electric car might let them get off oil for transport. Not for everyone, but electric ground transport for everyone is a matter of decades. But if we can cut other fossil fuel use, then we eliminate oiled powered cars a bit more slowly.

As to justifying hydrogen costs with avoided social costs: I'd say fine except batteries avoid the same social costs and are a lot cheaper. Still expensive, but not expensive compared to hydrogen And when it comes to breakthroughs, battery breakthroughs are a lot closer than fuel cell breakthroughs.

And for freight, trains are a hell of a lot cheaper than either. In terms of reducing oil use for transportation, one of the fastest and cheapest things we can do is switch 85% of long-haul trucking miles to electric freight trains. We could make a full switch is six to ten years. No way we could switch 85% of long haul trucking miles to hydrogen in that time frame. Remember to run trucks on hydrogen you still either need hydrogen pipelines, or large numbers of hydrogen generators, and electric lines to get electricity to those generators. You don't the kind of change we are looking for without infrastructure change. A lot of genuinely idealistic business people have tried to leverage these kinds of changes. Some of them have made a profit in niche markets, but none have made the changes they hope for. That is because this kind of change require infrastructure transformation, and infrastructure transformation is not done by markets.

I think in the long run hydrogen may make sense for electricity storage, and maybe for large ships. (some arguments against the latter though). I don't think it will ever make sense for ground transport.

I know it is really a hard truth to hear that the physical transformation can't be made just by well-meaning grassroots efforts. I hope the political transformation can, but you are not going to get solar or wind, or storage without some kind of very expensive infrastructure - something we could pay for by reducing the number of people we kill and torture in other countries, and who knows maybe even funding a little less tasering and drug warring in our own nation. Hydrogen trucks won't work because it involves either hauling large tanks of hydrogen or compressing and freezing hydrogen, or storing it in expensive metal hydrides. We have the technology. What we don't have is the political will to build infrastructure we already know how to build. And that is not good news. Magic techno fixes, if they were possible would be a lot easier to achieve than having to change our politics to the point where we can deploy the technology we already have even though that deploy would threaten a lot of powerful interests. But techno fixes that specifically don't threaten the powers the be are really hard to come by. It is easy to come up with technology that can do the same work as fossil fuels. It is not easy to come up with technology as concentrated and that requires as little additional public infrastructure. (Mind you we are not even keeping up with our oil infrastructure, roads and bridges and such.) There are lots of solutions, and a lot of them are early 20th century techology. The obstacle is that require public rather than private actions, which is no-no in our current ideology. (though not on this blog which has not even sipped the koolaid.)

Posted by: Gar Lipow at March 9, 2010 07:00 PM

Where can I get more information about Texas electricity?

Posted by: Lower Texas Electric Rate  at March 10, 2010 02:35 AM

We don’t need fuel cells for cars so the downsides of fuel cells are of no moment there. Cars are shorter-ranged than trucks and refueling stations for electric vehicles would be even easier to maintain and build than gasoline stations. Batteries are the answer here.

Public transportation infrastructure improvement would develop huge numbers of local jobs and relieve distressed neighborhoods nationwide. Improved public transportation would ease the switch from gas to electricity in automobiles. No real downsides here either.

If we are using trains, we again don’t need fuel cells. Fuel cells are needed to get electricity derived from a local source (e.g., wind power) very, very far away. The point of a fuel cell is to convert it to electricity someplace else. Thus, if a truck was pure electric, you would take the fuel cell to an electric “refilling station,” juice up the station’s batteries, and the truck would then drain the station’s batteries. The only reason to bother with fuel cells is to move electricity from one stationary position to another stationary position (from which the electricity is further distrubuted to a variety of targets).

So, hydrogen cells are of no moment save for when they bridge a gap that batteries can’t cover. If batteries cover everything, hydrogen is completely irrelevant. Under no circumstances should anyone seriously consider piping hydrogen anyplace.

I know it is really a hard truth to hear that the physical transformation can't be made just by well-meaning grassroots efforts.

Not for me. I’ve been saying this for years. This is a blessing. When you claim that saving the environment is primarially something that the common man must do (and maliciously ignore industry and government), you shift the burdern completely onto the poor and middle-class. It is obvious, however, that the real burden lies on the government, which is not only apathetic, but openly hostile to more cost- and environmentally-efficient technologies if they would do anything to undermine oil and coal. Our cross-country trucking system isn’t the result of innovation; it is a direct result of rent-collecting, legislator-buying energy companies influencing Congress to gut railways, just as they gutted light-rail and trolleys in metropolitan areas.

The reason why switching from trucks to trains is so efficient is because we only have trucking because of this de facto subsidy. It’s like switching from your off-hand to your favored hand -- it is an advantage because you were deliberately at a disadvantage a moment before.

All enviromental and energy issues -- all of them -- are a national issue. They are not local issues. You cannot go out and start a local automobile company. You can’t start a local freight station. Hell, you’d better believe that the powers that be will fight tooth and nail to stop you from improving local public transportation infrastructure. * This is a national, government problem and all of the haranguing of the common citizen to be environmentally conscious is a snide guilt trip meant to keep them thinking locally, not nationally. If you want to act globally, you act politically.

(*In Portland, OR, opponents to light rail cut the light rail budget just so it would be less efficient and more costly to improve in the long run, reducing the ability of businesses to get access to more employees. They increased the burden of taxpayers in order to spite the victory of their political opponents. This is the kind of sheer, petty evil you face when creating an infrastructure that helps more people in a town than any other infrastructure you can create.)

Posted by: No One of Consequence at March 10, 2010 04:26 PM

Excellent point. I’m glad you shared great information.
keep going on.

Posted by: Electricity Texas at March 10, 2010 08:54 PM

@NOoC - OK, if this is true

"Under no circumstances should anyone seriously consider piping hydrogen anyplace."

how should we consider storing energy generated by renewable sources?

Perhaps you just mean this regarding transport. (That wasn't the point of the post, actually, but it got hijacked in that direction.....) I'm quite sure there are good reasons to consider piping hydrogen around as part of the overall electrical grid.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at March 10, 2010 11:32 PM

I just mean transport. I don't want to suggest that we have "hydrogen fuel stations" set up all over the place. As a supplement to an electrical grid, hydrogen pumping makes sense. To get lots of electricity from one large state to another -- not so much.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at March 10, 2010 11:40 PM