Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Welcome to Charge: the future of energy

by Daniel Sweeney, Ph.D

In as much as I am still busily engaged in preparing my monumental hydrogen report, hydrogen and the possibility of a hydrogen economy are much on my mind. Here’s what I’ve been thinking.

The hydrogen economy, such as it is, is not shaping up like previous energy transitions, and I find that ominous.

The world at large and the United States in particular have been through a number of energy transitions in the past—enough so that it’s possible to discern a pattern, at least over the course of the last couple of centuries. Earlier transitions, I must say, are harder to read. Windpower, for instance, was discovered thousands of years ago, and for thousands of more years was used for nothing but to fill the sails of ships and boats. Water mills are only a couple of thousand years old, but they languished all through antiquity, only becoming widespread in the Middle Ages. Internal combustion engines begin with the age of firearms (the gun barrel is a cylinder and the bullet is a nonreciprocating piston), but for four hundred years they were confined to guns.

Then, circa 1800, it all began to change. If we look at energy transitions since the beginning of the nineteenth century we have to marvel at how rapidly they have occurred. In 1810 there was a literal handful of steam engines in the U.S. Ten years later hundreds of steamboats plied the North American river system the Hudson to the Mississippi. In 1880 Edison set up his first DC electrical generating plant. Fifteen years later there were thousands of them all over the country, in fact there were over twenty electrical generating companies in Chicago alone.

If one wants a more recent example, let’s look at the electrical utilities in the nineteen seventies. Following the first oil crisis, America’s utility executives decided that a transition to nuclear was in order. In less than ten years hundreds of plants were built, contributing in toto to about 20% of U.S. electrical capacity. Of course NIMBY and Three Mile Island eventually stopped the nukes in their tracks, but still one can’t deny that they had momentum.

Now let’s look at fuel cells and the hydrogen economy. How fast is that going? Well, there are all kinds of pilot projects today, just as there have been for the last five years. Hydrogen filling stations near international airports…a couple of hundred fuel cell powered buses and cars sent out to enthusiastic agencies and consumers for beta testing…lots of favorable press…beta going very well…first production run expected next year…phased introduction…slight delay…new pilot…improved fuel cells…new storage tanks for the hydrogen filling stations…fuel cell powered jet ski—now that’s cool…fuel cell powered motor scooter—production begins in ’07…scratch that, ’09…slight delay, fourth quarter, ’09…more fleets, more buses…U.S. Forest Service very happy with fifth generation fuel cell powered car…good news, excellent news, very favorable progress, your children will be driving hydrogen powered cars.

Don’t bet on that because that’s not how energy transactions happen. In successful energy transitions there are no pilot projects, no phased introductions, no bullshit. They just happen, and they happen so fast you don’t even see them coming.

All this is very counterintuitive. Hydrogen economy advocates seem so plausible precisely because they plan so thoroughly. They love to produce roadmaps, cost analyses, and highly detailed schemes for integrating hydrogen with the existing fossil fuel regime so that all of the economic powers that be, the auto makers, the electrical utilities, and the construction contractors emerge intact in the new world order.

The problem with this approach is that there are very few historical precedents for it—it simply doesn’t replicate the pattern of successful technology introductions, which tend to be associated with the rise of new corporate giants not the perpetuation of old ones. In fact, entrenched oligopolies seldom promote replacement technologies for the incumbent technology, and they generally only do so when provided with either massive subsidies or with the prospect of realizing huge profits or savings. They’re much more likely to resist change than to embrace it.

The outstanding example of an incumbent promoting what is essentially a replacement technology is RCA’s development and introduction of broadcast television in the nineteen forties. RCA had effectively controlled radio in the twenties, and the company was in the television vanguard twenty years later. And the strategy was clearly extremely successful. Note, however, that RCA neither anticipated nor controlled the introduction of new communication technologies subsequently. Television fit comfortably within the existing advertising supported broadcast model created for radio, and in fact many radio shows and formats migrated successfully to the new medium. More revolutionary notions such as video on demand and video software distribution which could not be supported by the established broadcast model were simply ignored.

A further example is the decision of American aircraft manufacturers and airlines to switch to jets in the late fifties. Jets were faster and cheaper to operate than turboprops, and they made air travel truly the province of everyman rather than a service confined to the wealthy. The major airlines phased out props in less than two years.

The replacement of electromechanical telephone switches with digital switches by the Bell Monopoly in the nineteen sixties is a further example of a wholesale technology change initiated by a monopoly incumbent. Bell, of course, was in a position to pass on costs to the consumer, and it made the change to future proof the network against increases in traffic and the coming of digital data transmissions which Bell scientists anticipated.

But such fundamental transformations are not the norm for obvious reasons. No one wants to spend money on new technologies that might not ultimately turn a profit.

In any case, none of these successful transitions was proceeded by a lot of trials or studies. A decision was made and it was acted upon quickly.

What we have here with hydrogen and fuel cells is much more reminiscent of Ford’s electric car project of the nineties or Chrysler’s automotive turbine of the sixties—lots of hype, lots of tests, and ultimately lots of nothing.

Still, one can’t deny that the auto makers, and, to a lesser extent, the oil companies, have sunk a lot of money into hydrogen—billions in aggregate with lots more budgeted for the future. Why would car companies in either industry act collectively in such a manner if they didn’t think the whole thing was going to succeed?

The only way of arriving any where near an answer is to look at their other research activities. Auto manufacturers are simultaneously researching hybrids, advanced diesels, various fundamental improvements on spark ignition gasoline engines, and hydrogen powered internal combustion engines as well as fuel cells. Fuel cells may get the most publicity but that’s not where all the money is going. What they’re doing is hedging their bets.

And there’s something else going on, something on which I can only speculate.

I think that most of the top executives in the auto companies recognize that fuel cells are actually the dark horse technology, not the one that is most likely to succeed. They may have felt differently ten years ago, but the lack of progress in fuel cell design has to be reckoned with today. The investment community sure as hell isn’t supporting fuel cells like it used to, and auto executives are not ignorant of the larger business community.

So if not fuel cells, what, and where does all of the auto company fuel cell research fit in?

Here’s what I think is going on:

I think a hidden consensus is emerging that the probable future of the automobile is some sort of plug-in hybrid. This would use a combination of internal combustion engine and batteries just like current hybrids, but would be able to store sufficient electrical energy that it could cruise for a considerable distance without utilizing the ICE engine at all. Such a vehicle might use other forms of energy storage as well. Certain types of advanced flywheels seem promising by virtue of their very high energy density, and ultracapacitors could augment the batteries in storing electrical energy, though batteries and internal combustion engines would form the foundation.

What kind of batteries? Certainly not the lead acid and nickel metal hydride types used in today’s hybrids. They’re just too bulky. Lithium is a possibility though it’s still kind of marginal in automotive applications, but I tend to believe that air cathode batteries, most likely rechargeable air lithium batteries are the best bet. These have energy densities approaching fuel cells and some types are already in commercial use. Combine these with the most advanced type of ICE such as a two stroke compression ignition design and you’re probably looking at over 100 miles per gallon. In fact one company, AFS Trinity, a flywheel manufacturer, claims that they can eventually build a passenger vehicle capable of 200 plus miles per gallon. At that point both global warming and fossil fuel depletion look a lot less urgent.

Most of the work the auto manufacturers have already done on fuel cell vehicles is directly applicable to such a design. They’re generally farming out the fuel stack engineering to specialists and concentrating on power plant management systems and electric motors, both of which are needed in an optimized plug-in hybrid. When they need to migrate to such advanced hybrids they’ll have most of the basic research out of the way. The irony is that most auto makers publicly state that hybrids are a bridge technology to fuel cell vehicles. It’s more likely the other way around.

So why bother publicizing fuel cells at all? Because it’s a way of postponing action. Insist that fuel cells are the only way to go and then add that you’re facing at least a decade of research before going to market. And hope that the public will be patient.

Plug in hybrids of reasonable effectiveness could probably be developed in three to five years because most of the technology is near to where it needs to be. With fuel cells all bets are off. No one knows how long it might take to make them commercial, and no one knows if they can be successful at all.

So why are the auto makers playing a waiting game with fuel cells and failing to move on plug-in hybrids? Simple economics. Developing a new engine production facility costs in excess of one billion dollars, not counting the design work on the new engine itself. Opting for a plug-in hybrid involves a commitment that is probably on the order of not one but several billion dollars after all the changeover costs have been factored in. And the possibility exists that the fuel cell research costs can be recouped in other areas than automobile manufacturing. Many auto manufacturers work in aerospace and military contracting where fuel cells are already present in niche applications. What might not work in an automobile could be eminently salable somewhere else.

Auto manufacturers are not nearly ready to make a commitment to plug-in hybrids and for a good reason. A plug-in hybrid of really advanced design would be quite expensive to build today, and even with rising gasoline prices, might not represent a very good value for the customer unless the vehicle were held for many years. Let’s say the vehicle carried a price premium of $12,000 which might indeed be the case. Twelve thousand dollars can buy a lot of $3 per gallon gasoline—4,000 gallons to be exact. How far can you go on 4,000 gallons? If you only get 20 miles to the gallon, you can go 80,000 miles which for most of us is several years of driving. Right now the gas guzzler probably makes more sense even with elevated fuel prices.

At some point the cost of gasoline, diesel, or mixtures of the latter with biofuel, synfuel, or alcohol will rise to the point where plug-in hybrids become compelling, but it won’t be right away. Lower grade fossil fuel resources such as tar sand, oil shale, and methane hydrates will come on line within ten years and arrest the ascent of fuel prices for a time. My guess is that plug-in hybrids might not appear in any numbers for another dozen years or more.

So how does hydrogen fit in? In a plug-in hybrid, a hydrogen ICE begins to make some sense because you’re using so little fuel in the first place. The storage problems that plague cars using nothing but hydrogen for energy storage become much less significant.

Does that mean a plug-in hybrid hydrogen ICE design represents the future? Maybe, but only if governments begin to mandate greenhouse gas emissions standards that even fossil fuel or biofuel plug-in hybrids can’t meet. Will that happen? Maybe in Europe, but probably not in India and China and probably not in the U.S. My belief is that enough hydrocarbon fuel can be produced from various sources—coal, conventional petroleum, biological materials, methane hydrates, and recycled petrochemicals—that hydrogen won’t be all that cost competitive for the rest of the century unless some really cheap form of electrical generation emerges. Some people think that’s fusion and maybe it is, but fusion reactors are currently infeasible and even if they’re perfected they’ll cost a mint if they’re anything like the current experimental designs.

At any rate, the auto makers know that they may not be able to continue with business as usual for the next hundred years or even the next thirty years, and that they need to have some options in place. The problem is that they may not be even considering the right options at this point.

One has to entertain the possibility that the transportation systems of the late twenty-first century may be fundamentally different from those of today. Transportation ninety years ago bore little in common with what we have today. Cars were rare outside the U.S., air travel was almost nonexistent and what little existed was mostly lighter than air; ships and trains accounted for most mechanized transportation around the world. And in American cities electric street cars were the principal mode of transport. Is it safe to assume that in what will probably be an era of equally rapid technological change, familiar modes of transport will remain unaltered except for the fuel?

What really radical changes might occur in this century? One distinct possibility is that current fossil fuel energy problems won’t be adequately addressed, and that severe and protracted economic crises will ensue accompanied by ruinously expensive transportation fuel prices. Obviously if that worst case scenario occurs, there won’t be as many miles traveled by airplanes and automobiles. Another possibility, a happier one to be sure, is that personal rapid transit systems will appear, not some revamp of today’s wretched light rail systems, but individual vehicles traveling on overhead rails that can be summoned in seconds and programmed to take the individual traveler anywhere within a metropolitan area at speeds exceeding 100mph. Such systems have already been designed, and somebody will build one somewhere within fifteen years. If it succeeds it could obsolesce automobiles more quickly than you could possibly imagine. How about evacuated tube MagLev? Such systems were envisioned forty years ago and there are serious efforts underway to develop them in China. In such a system magnetically propelled cars ride on frictionless bearings in tubes maintained at a mild vacuum. With no air resistance, the cars can travel at speeds of thousands of miles per hour with vastly better energy efficiency than supersonic aircraft and no noise. There is no question that such systems could be built with existing technology—in fact, they’re far more feasible than fuel cells today. Will they happen? God knows. The race is not always to the swift.

Still another possibility is the appearance of low cost, partially automated personal aircraft capable of near vertical takeoff. Prototypes of such aircraft have been designed and NASA has a serious program for sponsoring their development. Such vehicles would constitute a truly disruptive technology, far more than fuel cell powered cars, and yet the technology for realizing them is much closer to realization.

The current personal transformation system based upon automobiles is absolutely pervasive, constraining and conditioning where we live and work, how we interface with friends and associates, how we learn, how we spend our leisure, and how we worship. Because automotive transportation in its present form so powerfully shapes our life, it is highly resistant to change. Eliminating it or even modifying substantially is almost like pulling the bloodstream out of a man and expecting him to keep on functioning. Think of the Comanche of Oklahoma whose whole material and cultural existence was predicated upon equestrian nomadism? What happened when they were defeated, dismounted, and confined to reservations? The culture was shattered, the people broken. And yet if history teaches us anything it is that overwhelming changes can occur no matter how tightly knit is any given material civilization.


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