Sunday, September 17, 2006

Making the Wind-Hydro-Hydrogen Link

John Gartner's blog Autopia on Wired makes some great points about how the future of fuel-cell cars is linked to the production and availability of hydrogen. He references an editorial by GM chief engineer Matthew Fronk, who explains that we'll need a "hydrogen infrastructure" to support re-energizing the fuel cells.

Gartner points out that, given the remote locations of most wind projects -- and the expense and difficulty of running transmission lines to each site -- a co-located hydrogen production facility could help defray the cost of wind (or hydro) generation. It would also provide a local resource for hydrogen, which could help make fuel cell economics more attractive, too.

Fronk goes on to say that both hydroelectric turbines and wind turbines make natural partners for hydrogen production efforts -- when attached to electrolyzers, both technologies can use excess capacity to create hydrogen. He even recommends redeveloping Rochester, New York, which has hydropower and wind turbines nearby, as a "Hydrogen Village."

It may take initiatives like the one GM's Fronk envisions to make fuel cells a commercial reality. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, most hydrogen now produced in the United States occurs through a "steam reforming" process that converts methane into hydrogen gas. Unfortunately, DOE says the process also creates "large quantities of carbon dioxide" -- not much of a help if you're battling global warming.

That's why the electrolysis potential in hydro and wind are so important to the fuel cell's future -- when you separate hydrogen from a water atom through electrolysis, you create nothing but oxygen as a by-product.

DOE is also researching ways to use high-temperature advanced nuclear reactors to produce hydrogen. The department describes the potential for this technology as "immature" and not yet "economically and commercially feasible," although industry sources are optimistic that nuclear power plants could provide the backbone for the "hydrogen economy," either through reactor-based technologies or electrolyzers that run on off-peak power from the plants.

Still, opponents are already lining up against the very idea of linking nuclear energy and hydrogen production. The anti-nuke group Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) issued a fact sheet in 2003 arguing that tying hydrogen production to nuclear power would lead us to a hydrogen-production technology compatible with the country's nuclear power plants, but not necessarily one that would be the best technological or financial choice.

NIRS also notes that the nuclear-hydrogen model would centralize hydrogen production at large generating plants, creating transportation and delivery challenges. That's an important point, and one that could have a big impact on how the "hydrogen infrastructure" develops.

As this technology matures, it'll be interesting to see whether the convenience of being "near the source" or the traditional economies-of-scale large generating plants have always offered drives the fuel-cell future.

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At 7/05/2008 6:00 PM, Blogger MurMac said...

Saturday, July 05, 2008
Wind surge poses a risk to salmon and reveals flaws in BPA's power-regulating system -
Wind surge poses a risk to salmon and reveals flaws in BPA's power-regulating system - "Wind surge poses a risk to salmon and reveals flaws in BPA's power-regulating system
With Columbia Gorge turbines pumping out extra electricity, the agency had to quickly adjust its hydro generation"

This was a story in the Saturday, July 05, 2008 Oregonian Newspaper by Gail Kinsey Hill, a staff writer. The gist of the story was that the greatly increased capacity of the wind turbines along the Columbia Gorge through which the Mighty Columbia River flows came close to causing a big problem on the BPA power generating dams. In order to deal with the surplus of electricity, the dams had to stop generating power and spill water over the dam thus potentially causing a problem with migrating salmon. My question is why the excess capacity of either the windmills or the dams could not be converted to hydrogen and stored for later use. Lacking an infrastructure to deliver hydrogen to other places where it could be used, it could be stored on site and used later to power generators or produce electricity when needed using fuel cells.

As a side note, as the old economy of the river based on aluminum smelting is in decline, a significant part of the BPA output is used by Google in it's semi-secret server farm in The Dalles on the banks of the Columbia. Despite Google's efforts to conserve, lots of power is used to run the servers and to cool the plant. Read about this in this Willamette Week article.

A blog about generating hydrogen with excess capacity can be reached by clicking here. Can anyone explain to my why this will not work?


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