by Donella Meadows
— May 5, 1999 —
For 25 years energy guru Amory Lovins has been seeing farther and farther into the energy future. He has been labeled a dreamer, but by now he’s accumulated enough of a record to qualify as an oracle. At a recent meeting of the National Hydrogen Association he (with colleague Brett Williams of Rocky Mountain Institute) put together some new pieces of the energy puzzle to picture an exciting economy, not far out of reach, based on hydrogen.
To understand it, you have to follow the trail Lovins has already blazed. He started by pointing out the tremendous opportunity in our current, inefficient energy technologies. Eliminating energy waste, he insisted, is just as useful as striking a new oil well or building a new power plant, and it is cheaper and easier and kinder to the environment.
Having established the value of negabarrels and negawatts Lovins moved on to rethink the automobile, coming up with what he calls the Hypercar, “safe as a Volvo, peppy as a Porsche,” running 100 or 200 miles per gallon. No single trick accounts for the stunning efficiency, rather Lovins cascades dozens of design ideas that enhance each other. He makes the ideas public, so car companies will compete to bring them first to market. So far Toyota and Honda are at the head of the pack.
Reducing the gas consumption of the car fleet by a factor of four or eight would do a lot to clean up the air, slow global warming, and reduce dependence on the Middle East. But oil is still messy and finite. It would be better, many people have realized, to run our cars on hydrogen.
You can make hydrogen from water by splitting off the O from H2O or from natural gas (methane) by splitting off the C from CH4. The energy to do that could come from wind or solar generators. Hydrogen could store and transport these intermittent renewable energy sources. Make it in the desert from photovoltaic arrays. Make it at the natural gas wellhead and shove the resulting CO2 back down the well to force up more gas and to bury the greenhouse effect. Transport the hydrogen in pipelines like natural gas. Lovins points out that large quantities of hydrogen are already moved around for industrial purposes and that it is safer than gasoline.
The best part of this scheme is, when you use the hydrogen to run your car, out of your tailpipe comes nothing but water vapor.
Lovins wants to use the hydrogen not in mini-explosions that drive an internal combustion engine, but in a nice quiet fuel cell that drives an electric motor. A fuel cell is essentially a battery; it generates electricity through a controlled chemical reaction. You recharge this battery by loading in hydrogen.
Many folks have dreamed of fuel cell cars. Fuel cells exist; they are the mainstay of space vehicles, but they are, as Lovins says, “hand-assembled by PhDs” and therefore expensive. It would take a massive scale-up to develop production economies that ordinary mortals could afford. Furthermore, it’s hard to start up a network of hydrogen refueling stations.
So here are Lovins’s new pieces of the puzzle. First, Hypercars. If we’re not talking about our present over-heavy, draggy brontomobiles, we need way less power, therefore a smaller, cheaper fuel cell. Second, cascade some mutually enhancing ideas. Car people tend to think only about cars; energy planners tend to think mainly about houses, industry, or the grid. Lovins thought about the whole system and realized it would be easiest to start with stationary energy needs — workplaces, houses — and then expand hydrogen into the transportation system.
So picture this. When you get up in the morning, the electricity you use comes from your basement fuel cell, about the size of an air conditioner. The heat it generates gives you hot water for your shower. The hydrogen it consumes could come from a pipeline, from a neighborhood or rooftop solar array, or from a natural-gas fired “hydrogen appliance” also in your basement.
You hop into your Hypercar and go off to work. Only your tires make noise; only water remains in the air behind you. When you pull into your parking space at work, you snap two connectors onto your car. One reloads your fuel cell from the industrial-size hydrogen-appliance at your workplace. The other is an electric line that takes power all day from your fuel cell and calculates how much you’re owed for the electricity.
As Lovins says: “While you sit at your desk, your power-plant-on-wheels is sending 20+ kilowatts of premium-quality electricity back to the grid…. Thus your second-largest, but previously idle, household asset is now repaying a significant fraction of its own lease fee. If a modest fraction of drivers took advantage of this deal …, most or all existing coal and nuclear power plants could … be displaced. Ultimately the U.S. Hypercar fleet could have four or more times the generating capacity of the national grid.”
Says Lovins: “This approach offers several strategic advantages. It uses idle off-peak capacity in the natural-gas and electricity distribution systems that have already been installed and paid for. It is build-as-you-need and pay-as-you-go, requiring investment only in step with incremental demand. It is one or two orders of magnitude cheaper than building a dedicated, centralized hydrogen production and delivery system from scratch…. And vibrant competition between gas- and electricity-derived hydrogen, … will exert downward pressure on the prices of hardware and hydrogen.”
No, you can’t buy a house-sized fuel cell, yet, or a hydrogen generator, or a Hypercar, though prototypes do exist. Yes, right now the technologies are expensive. But factor in the avoided costs of air pollution, global warming, defense of the Middle East, central power plants, and long-distance electric wires and they don’t look so bad. Right, this system still doesn’t solve the problem of traffic jams and parking places. Lovins has some ideas about that too.
(If you’d like more technicalities, see www.rmi.org or www.hypercar.com.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999