Comments: Put That in Your Pipeline and....Keep Matches Away

Um, don't forget that we'll also fail because our government essentially belongs to private business conglomerates. There's that.

Posted by Guest at March 3, 2010 10:04 PM

i'm comfortable guessing that a distributed-energy supergrid would be a better buy than a long hydrogen pipeline network. nothing about new long wires precludes mass electrolysis near point of use, if that turns out affordable, and better wiring would be much less lossy.

needs to be said that conservation and efficiency are the cheapest easiest first step w/o which 'repowering america' is prohibitively costly.

Posted by hapa at March 3, 2010 10:04 PM

It's known that cash can make people autonomous. But how to act when one doesn't have money? The only one way is to receive the personal loans and secured loan.

Posted by ClaytonSusanne32 at March 3, 2010 10:17 PM


Good post. I like that attitude. It's one I share, despite my pessimism at our ability to transition to new methods of energy production.

I was curious, do you know much about any of the scaling up issues involved with wind power?

One of my concerns about alternate energy sources is that while they seem attainable now, they may get much less cheap if put into mass production. I know rare earth metals are a major limiting factor for lots of alternatives:

But I know it's also plausible that there exists something which is both sustainable, clean and scalable. I just don't know enough about it to say that one exists for sure. Do you know anything about that? Would the wind projects you hope to see have scale limiting inputs?

Posted by Graeme at March 3, 2010 10:28 PM

"[T]he obligation as a scientist is to go down swinging."

--Good for Professor Nocera. I prefer Aeschylus, to Epicurus too.

"OK, jokes are easy and often great - BUT SERIOUSLY, what’s to stop Obama from giving this speech?"

--Err, short answer, the media. Longer answer, mistah charley ph.d's MICFiC, which includes but isn't limited to the media. Longest answer--just about everything in our whole political system, so why list it all again.

But let's get seriously serious. After two terms as President and having become almost a living legend (remember that one Roosevelt or another as President had been dominating politics for two generations), FDR still couldn't get Americans eager to fight fascism and become The Greatest Generation. Hell, a big chunk of The Greatest Generation LIKED fascism. The truth is, the Greatest Generation had to get tricked into becoming that, and got it done mostly in the dimly lit mind of Tom Brokaw 50 years later, because even if Stinnets' book Day of Decit is wrong (which I'd say it isn't), Dean Acheson in the State Department with the encouragement of the navy and of course FDR maneuvered the Japanese into a desperate position that made war inevitable after it became clear from June 1940 on that the Brits weren't going to work out a deal with Hitler.

That's actual history and has nothing to do with moon landings. But it does have something to do with understanding what will and won't work, and what can and can't be done, within our dysfunctional and corrupt political system. I love and admire FDR, but he was a human being, and he most definitely never let himself get out ahead of the country politically. He was politically cautious and secretive and mistrustful and sometimes vindictive and even devious, because he had many enemies inside and outside his party, and they were powerful and ruthless and he knew it. FDR didn't just give speeches and fireside chats that convinced everyone to do the right thing. Far from it.

Power makes Presidents, and it breaks them. This should not be something that is so hard to understand, but we Americans are kept away from that whole analytical, empirical approach to understanding the operation of social and politial power and its mechanisms. We are illogical about the subject, and often pretty vacuous and stupidly ideological considering the caliber of our thinking on other subjects, so it's apparently quite a struggle to undo the programming. I'd say that's mostly, but not exclusively, because of the media and the schools and the many myths that engulf us.

Neither Obama nor any other President will ever get far ahead of the public on energy and climate change unless some powerful interests press for that to happen. That's how politics works. There has to be some moving force behind it, and a real social force, not just a correct idea or Utopian ideal. That means as a practical matter that either there needs to be an overwhelming popular movement, or some big money behind it. I'm not betting on a popular movement, given what I see in people and the limits of reason, including in me. And I don't see Big Money getting behind the program anytime soon either, because they don't look at the fate of the world. They look at money.

The upshot of all this is that Obama can really only read Aeschylus too. What would happen if he were to say, "screw it, the stakes are too high, we're going to commit a trillion dollars to this anyway!" Well, that would be great, but he would be destroyed in the media within a couple of days. His polls would crash. Much of the party, which is self-interested and corrupt but thinks highly of itself, would immediately betray him. He would become a massive lame duck. He might get impeached. Problems would delay and then prevent the program from going anywhere. If for some reason the country decided to ignore what they have been brainwashed to think and decided he was right, he could have a cerebral hemorrhage or get shot if all that weren't enough, but all that generally is enough, so why worry about the moon landings. A President can be reduced to political impotence while his butt is still planted firmly in his chair in the Oval Office. Good Presidents avoid that with intelligence, skill, and cunning.

Expecting the President to take the lead on something like this without some powerful interests having his back this is less rational, based on our history, than waiting for the messiah or the Rapture. Seriously. That doesn't mean you have to like Obama, but don't wait up at night for that speech.

We need a new political system, with a unicameral legislature that is based on proportional representation, so that the party out of power is confined to being the opposition and can't kill all democratic initiatives. Right now Matt Yglesias is correct in his observation that we have a screwed up system where the opposition party has the power to prevent the party in power from succeeding AND an incentive to do so. We also need to dismantle the National Security State so that it can't keep rigging the game. We probably will need to limit the power of the federal judiciary so that it can't declare laws unconstitutional, which it will start doing again like crazy when it needs to. We need to create public media that give people access to some basic truth. We need to take the Federal Reserve out of the business of running the economy so that we can put government in the business of helping people and make economic policy about helping people. We need to teach people that living always was and should be a predominantly local matter and make community part of it again. We just need to do so much it's staggering; it's going to be an even bigger challenge than a sane energy and climate policy.

If it happens, there will probably be a lot of pain first. We're probably screwed. But you know what, it's a person's obligation to go down swinging too. Not just scientists.

Posted by N E at March 3, 2010 11:04 PM

amid environmental and population constraints

The best, most effective, and highest-leverage technology for energy conservation is birth control.

Posted by joel hanes at March 4, 2010 03:05 AM

There are other ways to use electrical power generated far from the grid. Ammonia is produced fully automatically using just electrical power, water, and atmospheric nitrogen. It is directly valuable to farmers, and may be used in the immediate vicinity of the typical rural wind turbine. Hydrogen would be useful for operating farm equipment, and to transport farm products to market, so pipelines wouldn't be needed.

That doesn't help you charge your Prius. How about wind turbines with no moving parts? Alvin Marks's patent #4,433,248 (1984) uses a fog of charged water droplets as the working fluid. Gigawatts could be extracted silently, safely, and cheaply from wind blowing between skyscrapers or under bridges.

Posted by Nathan Myers at March 4, 2010 03:54 AM

I don't know, maybe I have to take it back about N E ? On the one hand I thought he hit the nail on the head (in Aaron's first post) but now he's pounding his many, many, many points to death (a problem that I recognize in myself because I'm told I have it).

My compliments to A Tiny Revolution and Aaron Datesman, who more often then not hit almost every nail on the head. I can't pretend to understand everything Aaron said (in either of his two posts so far) but I love the sound of them both and I certainly wish it were not a matter of "going down swinging." (It bothers me a little that professor Daniel Nocera doesn't think we can "make it." Is that just the "smart" thing to say?)

"No" to nuclear power - is clear enough for me.

"Yes" to hydrogen technology - sounds great!

"Yes or No" to the Bloom Box and other avenues? (What are the other avenues?) Thank you, thank you, Tiny Revolution and Aaron Datesman.

Posted by Grandpa Ken at March 4, 2010 08:23 AM

GK -- Sometimes NE's typing skills outstrip his editing skills, but vale la pena.

Posted by drip at March 4, 2010 08:38 AM

Thanks much for this.

It's a shame that you can post the Nocera lecture on line.

If he wants to "go down swinging" (and I admire and deeply appreciate the sentiment) he should make every effort to get his ideas as broadly circulated as possible-and help others to do so.

Posted by John Halle at March 4, 2010 10:20 AM

oops: should be "can't".

Talk about typing skills.

Posted by John Halle at March 4, 2010 10:22 AM

@hapa - I'm pretty sure your guess about long wires being less lossy is not correct. There are some slides about H2 pipeline vs. HVDC network in the presentation linked to in the post. But, on a more basic level, consider: if electricity is so easy to transport, why aren't generating stations located at the mouths of coal mines?

@Graeme - it's an intelligent point that we're limited by supplies of minerals. For instance, when Nocera was initially funded on the work he describes, one of his first actions was to make his students throw out all of the expensive and rare materials they were using in their experiments. They now investigate more available materials. About scaling up for wind, I think the materials availability issues are mostly on the fuel cell side. I could provide a longer answer.

@NE - I think we agree, which is why I wrote that "We'll fail because we've lost the talent for politics" &c. But, let me ask you - isn't General Electric a pillar of the MICFiC? And don't they own a media company?

@Nathan - Interesting, but they're aren't so many people in ND to use the resource which is available. I'm curious to read the patent. But the proposal linked in the post is something which the country could begin today, if the will were there.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 4, 2010 11:03 AM

Hydrogen production is still a net-energy loser. Converting wind power to hydrogen will make our energy problems worse, not better. Same with biofuels. The most easily scalable, and also most easily storable renewable energy comes from concentrated solar power. Energy consumption is a big pie however, and we'll need wind, solar, concentrated solar, tidal, conservation, green building etc. to make it. Hydrogen and bio fuels not so much. "Collapse" by Mike Ruppert makes some very salient points about realistic time frames for renewable energy scaling and production.

Posted by Gordon Browning at March 4, 2010 01:58 PM

@Gordon - Agree that biofuels are serious nonsense, but otherwise your critique is terrifically wrong. The issue with the tremendous wind energy resource in North Dakota is that it's in North Dakota, where there's nobody to use it. There would be wind farms there now if the energy could be transported someplace useful.

It's clear this is so because there is tremendous wind development in (of all places) Texas - although the resource there is inferior to what there is in ND, it's located close to cities with high energy demand.

There's a belief (supported, I think, by utility company advertising about "power delivered at the speed of light" and other nonsense) that the electrical grid carries huge quantities of power instantaneously over vast distances with negligible loss. This is absolutely not true. It's shocking actually how much really is lost.

Hence the hydrogen pipeline from the resource (in ND) to the users distributed hundreds and hundreds of miles away.

To be specific, because I like some of the rest of what you wrote, the first two sentences of your post are absolutely ill-informed. If there's not some means of transporting the energy from ND elsewhere, the resource will not be tapped at all.

Perhaps you are confusing methods to convert natural gas to hydrogen to fuel non-polluting automobiles, which are reported on rather prominently, with this means to tap a renewable resource which otherwise will remain unused. Hydrogen-powered automobiles are a net energy-loser, absolutely, though the idea is not ridiculous in all ways.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 4, 2010 02:50 PM

sorry grandpa ken, my brain puked.

Aaron Datesman--i'd say we agree on much, and definitely goals. Those are fine, fine posts.

GE certainly is a titan in mistah charley's MICFiC and is certainly a media owner, but my brain hasn't recovered from that purge--why do you ask?

Posted by N E at March 4, 2010 03:24 PM

"There's a belief (supported, I think, by utility company advertising about "power delivered at the speed of light" and other nonsense) that the electrical grid carries huge quantities of power instantaneously over vast distances with negligible loss. This is absolutely not true. It's shocking actually how much really is lost."

My understanding has always been that aluminum high voltage lines lose about 10% of their power over long distances through resistance (heat) loss. Is this incorrect? Not that this is insubstantial, but I wouldn't call it shocking.

Posted by steve the artguy at March 4, 2010 03:51 PM

What would happen if he were to say, "screw it, the stakes are too high, we're going to commit a trillion dollars to this anyway!"

Well, what happened when Bush did it? His party sort of eventually got really unpopular, I suppose, but he has yet to be impeached.

Honestly, that trillion we're spending on our wars would have been better spent on literally anything, including just shoveling it into incinerators.

And yet anything which costs a trillion dollars but DOESN'T kill people is subject to a hell of a lot more scrutiny then Iraq or Afghanistan ever were. This really bothers and frightens me.

Posted by Christopher at March 4, 2010 04:05 PM

@NE - I ask because the "wind-to-hydrogen" link brings up a PowerPoint presentation on the topic of the blog post.....presented by General Electric.

If the US Government did commit to this idea with several trillion dollars, much of that money would be shoveled directly into the gaping, greedy maw of General Electric. Also Bechtel, Halliburton, Schlumberger, and many other charter members of the MICFiC.

So I'm confused by your assertion that it could never happen because the MICFiC would oppose it. Seems to me this would be a good way to co-opt the stranglehold the MICFiC holds on our politics to positive ends - by throwing money at them.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 4, 2010 05:07 PM


Bingo. But socially irrational and irrational to powerful interests are different things. The Pentagon wanted Saddam gone for the same reason they don't want Iran to have nukes: they wanted to prevent serious threats to their control of that region, which remains the key to the economic stability of the world. Plus, Iraq has more than 100 billion barrels of proven reserves, most of which are the very cheapest to extract in the world. That means enormous future profits will be earned by the energy titans even in comparison to the few trillion dollars the war has cost US taxpayers (who are mostly NOT US energy corporations or defense contractors).

Posted by N E at March 4, 2010 05:26 PM

"if electricity is so easy to transport, why aren't generating stations located at the mouths of coal mines"

Because of the high upfront cost of building the transmission lines, compared to the free unlimited use of the taxpayers' roads?

Just glancing at wikipedia, the line loss from HVDC lines are 3% per 1,000 km. The upfront loss from electrolysis is ~30%, plus whatever you lose when you convert the hydrogen back into electricity at the end of the line, which I would expect to be similar. I don't see how that could possibly be superior to just straight electric transmission. Maybe it's the cheapest way to deal with intermittency issues on top of transport, but the last time I looked at that I remember getting the distinct impression that the most efficient solution anybody'd thought of was compressed gas storage.

I would be more convinced by a good spreadsheet that had all the numbers I'm missing than a powerpoint slide with unlabeled axes.

Posted by buermann at March 4, 2010 05:59 PM


Sorry, that explains it. I forgot to click there.

I didn't mean to suggest that sort of big push for wind or other green energy won't ever happen because the MICFiC opposes it. My view is more that, unless we change other things, it probably won't ever happen UNLESS the MICFiC or a big part thereof gets behind the program. So imo you are onto a key point.

The problem is that keeping powerful interests alligned with social interests is pretty damn hard. They go their own way fast. GE is certainly aggressive about looking out for GE.

Posted by N E at March 4, 2010 06:14 PM

Hmmm.....I could learn a lot from the comments here.

@Steve - I found losses of about 7% of total energy generated, just looking briefly. BUT understand that most transmission does not occur over long distances, since our transmission grid at this time is not built in that manner. A useful loss number would specify dB/km, but I can't seem to find that number easily. I will look or ask somebody and write another post about it.

Also: the transmission grid is an AC system, so there are capacitive losses which should not be neglected. This requires a bit of physics to understand, I guess, so it's not surprising that a quick Google search is not very revealing on this topic.

@buerman - Regarding the coal mines argument, it requires some analysis. Sure the roads are free (compared to the cost of building a transmission network), but then you have to pay to transport the coal by truck (or train, or barge). I really do think the reason they move the coal to the generating station is because of line losses.

Note also that HVDC is not what we have, it's a new technology which isn't widely implemented. The GE proposal compares H2 pipeline to HVDC - neither one exists.

Your point that pipeline transport of fuel addresses the intermittency issue is correct. It's one of the primary selling points of the proposal, and a big strike against HVDC.

I don't know much about compressed gas, but from a basic physics standpoint I agree that a compressed gas system should be very, very efficient. However, I can't imagine how a compressed gas system could be implemented via a pipeline hundreds of miles long. If you're aware of a proposal to do this, please let me know. I would be interested to read it.

Also, I agree that the viewgraphs I linked to are a sales pitch and are not technically compelling. There is a demonstration wind-to-hydrogen project operating at NREL, which I will investigate and write about.

Sincere thanks for the comments.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 4, 2010 06:35 PM

Sorry for the confusion, I don't think I implied that we're using HVDC lines in the existing grid, but that the transport of the fuel is heavily subsidized, whereas building the grid out to the mine is not. But for that matter:
"Transmission and distribution losses are related to how heavily the system is loaded. U.S.-wide transmission and distribution losses were about 5% in 1970, and grew to 9.5% in 2001, due to heavier utilization and more frequent congestion."

That's still a hell of a lot better than the upfront losses from electrolysis.

"However, I can't imagine how a compressed gas system could be implemented via a pipeline hundreds of miles long"

Huh? Compressed gas energy storage would be close to the source - say the nearest emptied natural gas reservoir - to store excess capacity from intermittent sources during peak hours and sent down the wires off-peak. There would be no pipeline, and only a fraction of the net energy produced from the renewable source would go through whatever process you pick to inefficiently store it, be it hydrogen gas or batteries or heat or pumped storage or compressed air or whathaveyou.

Posted by buermann at March 4, 2010 07:13 PM

Thank you for this. I am in 100% agreement with your notion that our biggest failure is to think big.

Which is sort of ironic considering how big our problems are--transition out of the age of petroleum, anyone? Dousing the overwhelming majory of fire for 50 years?

Posted by techno at March 4, 2010 07:20 PM


What's on your short list of good reads on energy issues for non-engineers? (It doesn't quite have to be Alternative Energy Sources for Dummies, but no differential equations please.)

Ever read The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken?

Posted by N E at March 4, 2010 07:22 PM

Aaron, I was assuming you were referring to the only large-scale demonstrated method of hydrogen production--using natural gas as a feedstock. In purely theoretical terms, hydrogen storage of wind generated power could account for a portion of our energy needs. Unfortunately, this storage system has not been demonstrated, and will not be available in time to curtail a major energy shortage in the very near future.

Posted by Gordon Browning at March 4, 2010 08:17 PM

Hydrolysis extraction of hydrogen from water is efficient now:

The key turned out to be cobalt as a catalyst.

Power transmission losses of 3% every 600 miles seems pretty good, but you also have to upconvert and rectify, and then convert back to AC on the other end. That said, a hydrogen pipeline would probably be hard to keep from leaking 3% in 600 miles, and you the conversion from and to water costs something.

I wonder if liquified air wouldn't be an effective energy storage medium. It's dense and stable, and you only need an ample supply of air to provide the heat to boil it to drive a turbine.

Posted by Nathan Myers at March 4, 2010 08:54 PM

Nathan, GE's numbers for the pipeline loss was 2%, I don't think there was any distance unit, but would expect it's on the same order. The DOE numbers quoted above of 9.5% transmission loss in the existing grid(s) presumably includes upconversion and rectification.

Posted by buermann at March 4, 2010 11:19 PM

@buermann - Sorry, I misunderstood your suggestion about compressed gas storage. Hey, if that would work, it would be great! But the assumption that there exist suitable geological formations in appropriate locations is a big one. For instance, about a year ago I attended a seminar on carbon sequestration. The speaker discussed a pilot project in this area which is currently ongoing at an ADM facility in downstate Illinois.

Of course, his presentation about his work gave the idea a very positive sheen, but he was frank about a limitation - there aren't that many suitable geologic reservoirs, and the capacity of those which exist and have been identified is actually rather small. My point is not about carbon capture, but about geology - there's no guarantee that the geological formation you need to store the compressed air actually exists. And if it does exist, how much does it leak?

Also, I'm not so sure the 30% loss for electrolysis is a huge killer. Thermal to electric conversion (burning coal or gas) loses 2W of thermal energy for every 1W of electrical power - that's a 66% loss. And the efficiency of solar cells is in the range of 10%.

@NE - I wish I had a good answer, but nothing comes to mind. Some of what I know I get from reading the IEEE society journals (Spectrum and P&ES), although I don't read them closely. Another source I really like is These are basically press releases, but when I see something interesting I then look up the relevant research in the scientific literature (PNAS, Science, Nature). Nocera, for instance, published an excellent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2006.

@Gordon - I think you're correct that this storage system has not been demonstrated, except that when you look at a picture of the space shuttle on the launch pad, you're looking at a big tank of liquid hydrogen. This suggests to me that the application of a big hunk of research dollars could demonstrate the system described. So, why not?

@Nathan - thanks for bringing the comment thread full circle with the post, by linking to an article by Prof. Nocera.

@No one in particular - there's actually an interesting national security aspect to the wind-to-hydrogen proposal which could be used to sell it: an energy network based around hydrogen pipelines and fuel cells isn't vulnerable to disruption by coronal mass ejection or electromagnetic pulse.

I should get back to my job now. Thanks for the comments all - I learned a lot.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 5, 2010 09:41 AM

"the assumption that there exist suitable geological formations in appropriate locations is a big one"

Using those fields as permanent sequesters for CO2 never made any sense to me. They'd run out of room, and then they'd have to worry about leaks. Neither problem arises if they're used for pumped storage.

"I'm not so sure the 30% loss for electrolysis is a huge killer. Thermal to electric conversion (burning coal or gas) loses 2W of thermal energy for every 1W of electrical power - that's a 66% loss. And the efficiency of solar cells is in the range of 10%."

You're comparing a storage/transmission solution to production here, I'm not really sure why. Wind converts some of the wind to electricity, I doubt it's any more efficient than solar cells, but the price per watt is comparable to coal. Until, that is, you store that electricity as hydrogen and have to build 30% more windmills to reach the same output you would have if you'd just sent it down the wire.

Posted by buermann at March 5, 2010 11:55 AM

Well, OK, so who really needs a job anyway?

@buermann, if you live in Chicago, we should have a beer. I would enjoy learning from you.

I bring up the losses to point out that there are losses everywhere in any conceivable energy system. My guess is "30% losses" sounds scary to anybody without a technical background, in case such a person is still reading down this far. But if you understand how losses enter in at all levels, you understand that 30% losses from electrolysis doesn't make the idea infeasible. It just indicates (as you suggest) that it's smart to consider other approaches too (HVDC).

I agree with you if what you suggest is possible, but it probably isn't. We could certainly build 100GW of wind in North Dakota and HVDC lines to carry the power to Chicago with acceptable levels of loss, no question. (Though I don't like HVDC much, for reasons which involve another post.)

But - can you integrate the 100GW of wind power together into a network to connect to the HVDC distribution? The wind blows here sometimes, there sometimes, sometimes not at all, etc. The mainstream thinking is that no, you cannot. I have read some about this and talked about it with a very brilliant friend who works in this field, and cautiously agree.

So, if you can't integrate the network, you have to convert the energy to some form in which it can be stored and transported. A hydrogen pipeline is feasible - it wouldn't work very well by accumulated metrics of loss, but it would work. And its operation would improve as we invested money to develop the technology.

On the other hand, there is some dissident thinking in the IEEE journals which suggests that a distributed wind network will become more stable and more predictable as it grows larger. Since nobody has built one, so far nobody knows. What's certain is that the issue is, in fact, quite complicated. We should spend that $8bn on some really smart nerds, build some big infrastructure, and figure this stuff out.

Then, even if it is possible to integrate the entire wind network with the HVDC distribution system, you still haven't solved the intermittency problem. Perhaps you electrolyze near point of use instead. Perhaps something else.

Bottom line: by no means is HVDC the clear winner over hydrogen conversion and transport via pipeline. I'm sorry to make you drag this out of me via the comment thread. It's a large topic with a lot of intricacies.

And also, I may be wrong. If the comment thread closes and you're still interested in educating me, my e-mail address is aaron at

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 5, 2010 01:02 PM