Hydrogen Highway or Bridge to Nowhere

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the American public was promised a future on the hydrogen highway. America would eliminate their dependency on foreign oil and move into the future with clean technology that would eliminate air pollution. So what happened? Are these futuristic vehicles on the way? It turns out that there is still a hydrogen movement. Hydrogen has run into several problems over the years and is still a long way from being a reality, but it seems like some of the problems are being solved.

One of the first problems was how to get enough hydrogen fuel storage on a vehicle to allow it to travel a reasonable distance. Hydrogen is not as efficient as gasoline because it is less dense. To accommodate the differences in energy storage manufacturers have been tasked to find a storage solution to allow extended travel. This problem seems to have been solved with a carbon fiber tank that allows hydrogen to be stored as a compressed gas.

The biggest problem is the lack of infrastructure to support hydrogen vehicles and the cost of constructing this infrastructure. Much like the problems with CNG vehicles, consumers aren’t going to purchase vehicles that they can’t fill up at regular intervals. There is very little infrastructure for fueling hydrogen vehicles and installing this infrastructure is expensive; a business would be unlikely to make this investment without a demand for the product, and without vehicles lined up outside I don’t expect we will see too many stations. There are several states investing in a hydrogen infrastructure, but progress is slow.

Even without this infrastructure manufacturers are moving forward with the development of hydrogen vehicles. Though fuel cell vehicles are becoming more efficient and cost effective, the cost of a hydrogen vehicle is still prohibitive. Toyota has estimated that its hydrogen vehicle scheduled to be released in 2015 will cost $130,000; a bit too much for the average American.

There are still a lot of hurdles to be conquered on the way to a hydrogen highway, but it doesn’t seem to be a bridge to nowhere at this point. Fuel cell vehicles have become more efficient, and the fuel storage problems have been overcome for the most part. And though vehicles are too expensive to be a realistic part of the mix for the average consumer, manufacturers are moving forward with vehicles. But without sufficient demand for the fuel infrastructure it seems unlikely that businesses will make the investment needed to meet the demands of a hydrogen highway; but maybe someday.


The Battery Dilemma

The Obama administration has set a lofty goal of having one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. As electric vehicles become more popular I wonder if we might just be trading one problem for another. We all know from our past experience that you certainly don’t want to get battery acid on your skin, let alone have it affect the ground water supply; this could be devastating.  Are we destined to have landfills filled with toxic batteries? What I found as I scoured the internet looking for information was surprising to me; it appears that modern lithium batteries pose less of a threat of pollution than the old lead batteries, last long enough to minimize the environmental impact, and also can and should be completely recycled at the end of their useful life.

The key to all battery usage is proper disposal and recycling and dumping any batteries into landfills poses a health risk. But regardless of the type of battery (lead, nickel, or lithium), if recycled properly they pose little environmental risk. In addition, according to the Battery University if more batteries were recycled it would be profitable to do so.  Lithium batteries in general present less environmental threat than do their predecessors and also have a substantially longer life cycle. Chevrolet expects the lithium Ion battery in their Volt plug in vehicle to last the life of the car and warranties their batteries for eight years.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised to find that should an electric transportation infrastructure play a major role in our future, battery disposal should not be a major threat to our environment. The most important feature is to make sure there are programs in place to properly dispose and recycle used batteries. If people act responsibly and recycle their batteries at the end of their useful life the threat will be minimal.

Post Fukushima Nuclear

Nuclear Power seemed to be back in mix in recent years; Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were distant memories.  The nuclear industry had learned from these tragedies and modern plants were built with safe guards to prevent this type of disaster from happening again. In addition, nuclear waste recycling was making the source of energy seem less threatening and if radioactive waste could be reduced or eliminated nuclear could be seen as safe. Many countries were banking on this safe and clean source of energy to fuel their economies and move into a new generation free from fossil fuels.  But then Fukushima happened and once again nuclear power is suspect and the populous of the world is skeptical.

In a recent assessment of the future of the nuclear industry by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) it was found that while nuclear power facility forecasts have been downgraded, there is still global demand for nuclear and plans throughout the world to build additional plants. The IAEA also reported that work is still underway to bring the Fukushima plant to a “cold shutdown condition” and found that food contamination in the surrounding areas was above regulation values. According to a November 12th article in the Huffington Post “tens of thousands of the plants former neighbors may never be able to go home” and reported that “a preliminary government report released this month predicted it will take 30 years or more to safely decommission Fukushima Dai-ichi. Like Chernobyl, it will probably be encased in a concrete and steel “sarcophagus.”

Fukushima has clearly had a negative impact on the future of nuclear energy throughout the world. Though the next generation of nuclear plants is predicted to be much safer and less susceptible to disasters like Fukushima, nuclear energy is once again viewed as an unsafe and unreliable source of energy. Just as it took decades to for the memories of the disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island to fade, the disaster at Fukushima will darken the forecast for nuclear energy for decades to come.

A Step in the Right Direction

There were some significant questions when hybrid, gas/electric, technology hit the market. First there were concerns about how well these vehicles would work. Anytime a technology is new there are questions about how reliable they are going to be. Another question is related to the economics of the vehicles, will the investment in hybrid technology be offset by savings on fuel?

In 2006 my company began making the investment in hybrid technology, we began with the Ford Escape hybrid. We currently have 15 of these units in our fleet. Ford Escapes with hybrid technology costs the consumer an additional $9,000; or about 2300 gallons of gasoline. The hybrid technology offered about a 48% increase in fuel economy and at $4 a gallon, that is about $560 a year in savings for an average driver; it would take an average driver about 15 years recover the additional costs. From our experience these vehicles have been trouble free and reliable. We have had no major problems with any of our hybrid drive units and the maintenance has been comparable to the standard gas models. Also the performance of these vehicles is comparable to the gas models. The units I have driven have all had plenty of power, in terms of a 4 cylinder engine, and have been comfortable to drive.

Consumers should not purchase hybrid vehicles if their goal is to save money, even today the payback on fuel savings compared to the additional money that is required to purchase the technology would only be recovered if a driver put on excessive miles or kept the vehicle longer than average. But the technology is good for the environment and helps reduce dependence on oil. A consumer should look at a hybrid if they are conscientious about reducing dependence on fossil fuel and take heart in the fact that the technology has been proven to be reliable and unlikely to add hidden costs to their purchase through an average life cycle.

It’s Not a Bunch of Garbage

Renewable energy sources should be used as often as possible, but anytime we can take a source of waste and turn it into energy we should be taking advantage of it. I was proud of my city when I saw that the local refuse company, Waste Management, had constructed a Landfill Methane Generation facility. All landfills generate methane gasses and municipal solid waste landfills are the third largest cause of manmade methane emissions in the United States.  By using this renewable source of energy, recycling our garbage, we create a cleaner environment by reducing methane emissions and reducing the amount of space that our garbage takes up at our landfills. In addition we generate electricity that can be used to supply power to the surrounding communities without burning coal, oil, or natural gas.

The project in Reno is scheduled to provide 3.2 megawatts of electricity to the surrounding communities with  a planned  expansion that would bring  another 1.6 megawatts, enough electricity to power approximately 2,800 homes; not bad for garbage. The plants take advantage of a natural process where the organic waste decomposes under organic conditions. The key is to trap the gasses and allow them to be directed into a digestion tank where the process is increased by eliminating oxygen. Once the garbage is mixed with water and compressed the methane is captured and piped off for use as fuel to generate electricity. It’s an ingenious solution that solves multiple problems. Society will continue to generate garbage; we should be taking advantage of it, and I’m happy to see that my city is turning garbage into energy.

Don’t let Winter Spoil your Bicycle Commute

Daylight gets pretty limited during the winter months and inclement weather also becomes a threat, these conditions add some challenges for bicycle commuters, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to use your bicycle to commute. These types of conditions just mean that we need to take some extra precaution and be more prepared. We need to be conscious about the challenges that these conditions create and make changes in our routine and gear in order to accommodate these challenges and ride safely.

Part of the challenge of continuing to commute through the winter months comes from having to commute in the darkness. To adjust to these conditions we need to make sure that we have proper lighting for our bicycles and also that we take care to plan alternate routes. My normal commute takes me along the river path, but once it is dark out I am reluctant to ride along this path as it is too remote to be safe, in this situation I change my route to remain on the road. But with proper planning I am able to minimize the amount of time I spend in traffic. Take the time to google your route and look for alternatives that will take you through more lightly traveled residential routes. Also be extra cautious when riding in the dark, even if your bike is well lit, take extra time to stop for stop signs and yield to any vehicles on the road.

Another challenge we deal with is inclement weather and once again with a little planning this is a challenge that can be dealt with. Always wear your helmet regardless of the weather, but here it provides some extra warmth. Get yourself a thin fleece ski hat to wear under your helmet and a neck gator to be able to pull up should the weather demand extra warmth. Also invest in a nice pair of gloves to insure that your hands remain warm. If you are comfortable while riding you are much less prone to be impatient and make a critical safety error. Another item I recommend is safety glasses, I wear them at all times when riding just to prevent any potential debris from coming up from the road and striking my eyes, but especially in the winter when cars may spray up water, snow, and even sand or salt. Also think about investing in a decent set of fenders for your bike, though they look a little geeky, you will be a lot more comfortable should you get caught in a storm.

Winter time presents some additional challenges but doesn’t mean that we have to stop commuting by bicycle. Be prepared to commute in the dark during the winter, be prepared for inclement weather, and make sure you take extra time to yield to traffic. By taking precautions we can stay fit, save money, and reduce traffic congestion all year.

It’s a Sunny Day

One of the things I’ve never understood about solar power is why we have to build all of these big solar farms out in the middle of nowhere in order to use solar power. I’ve always thought that if everyone just put a couple of solar panels on the roofs of their houses the problem could be solved; homes would be self sufficient and excess energy could be sold back into the grid. By the time every house had solar panels on their roofs it would be the equivalent of one of these big unsightly solar farms anyway, so why not go for it?

I was recently encouraged to see that we may finally be heading in this direction. In an interview with NRG CEO David Crane he discusses how the electric industry will be changing and looks at the choices that people will have when it comes to their energy consumption needs. He discusses how in the future “the explosive-growth part will be between distributed solar power, which is like 1 to 10 megawatt size, and then residential, which is measured in kilowatts. We have so many parking lots and warehouse rooftops and residential locations where people want to reduce their monthly electric bills and that is just an enormous area of growth….”

He also discusses how the move to a smart grid and electric cars will play a major role in how we satisfy our energy needs. With the smart grid in place it will automatically schedule your energy needs to be fulfilled when demand on the grid is low and program your car to charge when it’s most cost efficient. These approaches make sense and allow us as consumers to have a choice about how we consume and how our consumption affects the planet.