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.

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.

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.

LNG – Driving Natural Gas Forward

LNG has recently been in the news a bit more than normal, and seems to be gaining some headway as an alternative transportation fuel, but in the past LNG has seemed to be an uneconomical solution. Natural gas is piped into most communities; all that we have to do is compress it and fill our vehicle with it, why would we be going through all of the trouble to liquefy natural gas? Natural gas is a domestic product, and by liquefying natural gas we can get it into locations where pipelines don’t exist, in addition LNG is becoming a clean energy alternative in the trucking industry.

The main purpose for liquefying natural gas is to make it easy to transport. Once it is transported to its destination the LNG is then converted back to its gas form and distributed into a natural gas pipeline.   This is a cumbersome process that has in the past been too expensive to be economical but as world demand increases and technology advances, LNG is becoming more popular.

While LNG is not widely used for transportation, it has become popular in the trucking industry where Westport is a leading innovator in LNG technology. Recently Westport and Shell began a co-marketing campaign in North America that could insure that infrastructure becomes available along the major trucking routes throughout North America. This could have a significant impact on LNG usage in North America and also fuel a surge in demand for CNG vehicles. Westport has also entered an agreement with GMC to provide natural gas engines for their light duty vehicles, and while LNG is not practical for light duty vehicles, CNG utilization would benefit.

When we consider the economic implications of becoming more dependent on a domestic supply of energy and see how LNG could open up North Americas domestic infrastructure it all starts to make sense. When we see companies like Shell, Westport, and GMC buying into the idea of a natural gas future, the infrastructure to support it shouldn’t be far behind.

Oil is for Fossils

The other day I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, he is a very well educated and intelligent guy, and at some point our conversation turned to the idea of an infrastructure run on electric vehicles. He began to discuss the shortcomings of an electric infrastructure. He had some good points, but I simply countered with “we don’t have a choice” fossil fuel will not last forever.

In an interesting article from the July 2011 issue of Popular Science, Paul Roberts discusses some of the cold hard facts about our oil future. First he makes the point that oil is very efficient form of energy, that when we can get to “easy oil”, it has one of the highest ratios of energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). But we are quickly burning through the easy oil. As we have to extract oil from the more difficult sources, such as shale, coal, and heavy oil, the costs will go up substantially and the EROEI will go down.

The article discusses that if we moved to an alternative energy source today and started replacing vehicles at our current rate to run on this new energy source, it would take 15 years to swap out the world’s fleet. If we were to do this, it is estimated that we would reach peak oil consumption sometime in the 2030’s and it would take about two trillion barrels of oil over the next four decades to meet this demand, this is double the 1.2 trillion barrels that have been used thus far.

There is still quite a bit of oil on our planet, it is estimated that there might be 8 trillion barrels of oil. But most of these reserves are difficult to get to, expensive to extract, and have poor energy returns on energy invested. Oil will sooner rather than late become too expensive to run the worlds economy. The sooner we get started on our transition to a renewable alternative, the brighter our futures will become.

Helga’s Golden

I have talked about how my life long passion for outdoor activities has been my inspiration for a philosophy for life that treats our planet with respect, but you can only get so far into the backcountry on your own, at some point you need some help.  A big strong girl can help out; one that will carry your gear, and has the heart to kick it into four wheel drive and climb anything in front of her.  The need for this kind of loving has brought out a dark side in me, because at some point I fell in love with an evil woman who took me places no other woman had ever taken me, and I just can’t let go.

I met Helga about 15 years ago when I moved to Reno. I knew I wanted to have a big hefty girl that could take me on exotic adventures that no skinny little fuel sipper could possibly go. So I started looking in the classified ads to find my perfect match, that’s when I met Helga, she was for sale by owner, she looked a bit beat up and probably hadn’t been treated with the respect she deserved, but I knew with a little TLC she would be a fine woman, more than capable of satisfying my needs, and the price was right.

Helga has taken me on adventures that I could only have imagined before she came into my life. We regularly go places that most girls wouldn’t even try to go, and she not only gets me there, she carries my gear, and provides ample protection from the elements too. I know that Helga is not popular by some of today’s standards, and people sometimes look at me funny, maybe even with a bit of disgust as I feed her, but those who appreciate a strong woman often compliment me on her beauty and some will even reminisce about how they once had such a woman, and how much they miss her now. The memories I have built with Helga will last forever, and even though she’s a bit tired now, I feel I owe it to her to make sure she is well taken of in her golden years.

Helga is now and always has been a recreation vehicle, she averages about 1,400 miles per year.