Category Archives: Energy Technology

Energy Policy – Research Expenditures

A recent article in the Washington Post: (Hydrogen-powered car still seems improbable – Washington post.com ) prompted me to think some more about energy policy in general, and hydrogen fuel cell technology in particular. 

Discussions about technology (especially technology policy) are hampered by two different and conflicting (but both very necessary) viewpoints.  I speak of the architect on the one hand, and the engineer on the other.  The referenced article seems to come at the issue of hydrogen powered vehicles from a mostly engineering perspective. I on the other hand am more of an architect in my outlook (I have never met an inconvenient fact that I could not gleefully ignore in the pursuit of an elegant design ).  Engineers from my point of view (not surprisingly) are often too pessimistic, while architects are too optimistic (well at least I’m happy when my project crashes around my ears).

My specific response  to the article (which is posted — along with others — at  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/16/AR2009111602668_Comments.html> ) is below:

This good article asks the two most important questions:

1. Where does the hydrogen come from? What does it cost to produce? What are the direct costs, and the indirect costs (pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, safety, etc.)?

2. After we’ve produced the hydrogen how do we deliver it to where it needs to go (the supply chain question)?

To these questions I would add two subsidiary ones:

3. Where should the hydrogen producing facilities be located?

4. What is the best place in an energy infrastructure to utilize fuel cells?

Living in Florida as I do, and being without electric power for 2 to 3 weeks after every hurricane (and also being a child of the 60s ) I have become quite enamored of decentralized infrastructure strategies.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that a hydrogen economy means that cars are powered by hydrogen. It is quite possible (and perhaps even desirable) to locate fuel cells on a concrete pad at the back of every house. This would provide all of the electrical needs for the household and could also be used for overnight charging of an all electric vehicle. Hydrogen could be delivered to the house in much the same way as propane is delivered to many houses in the Northeast for seasonal heating.

Hydrogen could be produced centrally (as it appears the author of the article assumes), but it could also be produced locally — perhaps every existing gas station could be converted to a hydrogen producing facility using electrolysis or some other method.

I would like to make two other observations: there is an electric car start up (I believe it is out in California) whose concept is that rather than charging a vehicle overnight at home (or at a charging station), one instead drives up to a battery exchange station takes the old depleted battery packs out of your car, gives them to the station, and pays for new fully charged packs and off you go in a time-frame about the same as it would take to buy a tank of gas today.

I would also point interested readers at a 2002 Scientific American article about the General Motors AUTOnomy concept car which highlights how changes in a drive train (i.e. a fuel cell) can radically change how one might design the final automobile: Designing Autonomy.

I guess my point is that if we are to consider a hydrogen infrastructure we must do this in conjunction with a rethink of how we generate and deliver energy more generally within our economy.

In conclusion I don’t disagree that a "hydrogen" economy is probably a ways off, but on the other hand in the light of trillion dollar bail outs to all and sundry, I don’t find that a couple of hundred million in research funds for alternative energy technologies is all that out of line. At this point we ought to be investing in as many different energy producing technologies as we can (many of these would only require a few million dollars per year).

It is useful at smaller sizes to think of a fuel cell as a much better battery (fuel cells have been used as laptop battery packs in addition to powering cars), but fuel cells can be scaled up to kilowatt and megawatt ranges.  I was reminded of this while watching yesterday’s shuttle launch when a few minutes before takeoff the flight controller asked the crew to switch all shuttle power to the on-board fuel cells.  Clearly the fuel cell has been around for many years now, and has proved reliable in a variety of applications.  You can buy a fuel cell for your house instead of a generator, and these have been installed in a number of locations around the country (apparently a company in California will even sell you one that runs on sewer or landfill gas i.e. methane).

Fuel cells are not a panacea, there are problems, as mentioned in the article, but they are, I believe, solvable with some modest research.

I recently had the opportunity to read the “highlights” of the Department of Energy’s fiscal 2010 budget (it is 102 pages long, and that’s only the executive summary…sigh).  The document is a useful starting point, but it bears almost no reality to what we have or will be spending on energy-related research.  Congress completely redid the budget to reflect its own priorities (and insert a lot of juicy earmarks).  Also there were significant supplementals in the 2009 and 2010 spending coming from stimulus funding.  It is consequently virtually impossible to figure out what we are really spending on research.  Another complication is the fact that many similar sounding items are carried in the budget in widely different areas.  Some things that are actually energy research are carried in the weapons development part of the budget (presumably because military-related items are scrutinized differently).  Other energy research items are carried directly in the Department of Defense budget. 

It does appear that the administration attempted to “refocus” (read reduce) fuel cell research, but congress restored a lot of it. 

In the aggregate I would guess we have spent tens of billions of dollars on energy related research since the end of World War II. There have been several studies highlighting the fact, however, that in real terms  research expenditures in energy production have declined markedly – both in the public and private sectors. This should not be all that surprising considering how little the energy generation fundamentals have changed as a result of all that research spending.  However, given that energy underlies virtually every facet of our society, and fundamentally contributes to our standard of living this is nevertheless somewhat disturbing. 

Given the current political and economic realities (whether you agree with them or not), there are several areas that are getting attention: carbon sequestration, nuclear energy (mostly fusion), fuel cells, solar, and energy distribution infrastructures to name just a few.  The DOE budget appears to give some funding to all of these.  But superficial reading can be misleading.

Let’s look at a couple of examples:  carbon sequestration and energy infrastructure expenditures.

Carbon sequestration is all about the taking of greenhouse gas emissions and burying them somewhere out of sight and out of mind or converting them into something more benign. Much of the focus here is on coal-fired plant emissions, and on agricultural waste — what’s left on the fields after farmers have done their harvest. We tend to forget that a considerable source of greenhouse gas emissions are not in fact the automobile and coal-fired generating plants (although these both do contribute a significant fraction) but agricultural waste and livestock gas emissions (including those from humans). Just the fact that DOE is providing funding for this kind of sequestration approach (as opposed to trying to reduce emissions directly) is I believe a step forward. 

There is also a considerable amount of funding in the budget for what has been has come to be called “smart-grid” technology. This mostly has to do with modernizing the electricity distribution grid and making it more resilient in the face of generation outages. I would, however, prefer that we think a bit more about energy distribution in general to include not just electricity distribution, but also fossil fuel, and hydrogen distribution. I would like us to rethink what energy needs to be centrally generated, and what can be done locally. It is my belief that a distribution architecture based on a highly localized energy generation strategy would be more flexible and resilient than the current centralized distribution grids that we currently employ.

Given current concerns with global warming many have suggested that we move nuclear power generation back to the front burner. I was initially of this opinion, but upon reflection I don’t think we ought to be building any more fission plants. With Yucca Mountain no longer on the horizon,  I believe we would be prudent to run the plants we already have until they reach their natural end-of-life status, and then decommission them (itself a lengthy and costly procedure – Maine Yankee for example took 7 years and $500 million to take down).

On the other hand we should pursue research on fusion power technologies very aggressively. I don’t want to go into nuclear technologies in any great detail here (I plan to have a subsequent post on this topic), but, if you read the DOE budget you might think that the only approach being pursued is the ITER international consortium. However, hidden away in the weapons part of the budget is funding for ICF (at a level higher than that for ITER). ICF is construed as a weapons stewardship program — that is ICF can be used in lieu of setting off nuclear explosions to answer weapons oriented questions. While ICF can certainly be used to do this, it is in reality (wink wink nudge nudge) a fusion power generating technology with (many think) better potential than that offered by ITER. Clearly ITER will not lead to any kind of commercial power generation capability before the 2050s (according to their own latest projections). Being a bit cynical (and reading some of the ITER and ICF project justifications) it is apparent that these large-scale projects are more about preserving "rice bowls" then about producing practical results.

There are four or five other fusion projects (most very small — both in size and dollar expenditures) funded by a variety of private and public sources. Perhaps the most visible (based on web interest) of these is the Polywell project funded by the U.S. Navy. This project has been ongoing since the early 90s. Most recently it had been funded at about $2 million per year. A major milestone and project review was recently passed, and the Navy has increased funding fivefold going forward. I will talk about this, and the other “little” nuclear technologies in more detail in the forthcoming post alluded to above.  It is these kinds of small scale efforts that I believe need more robust funding – right now we’ve got all our eggs in two very big, costly baskets. A small scale fusion success would be radically trans-formative. 

After I posted this, I came across the links to two Scientific American articles that informed my thoughts on nuclear waste handling, and carbon sequestration.  I add them here for any who might be interested:

Handling Nuclear Waste

Carbon Capture Demo

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