A Timetable for hydrogen

The Energy Bulletin carries a story today on the Icelandic Hydrogen program. It describes a steady program of development to displace gas as a transportation fuel, based on hydrogen generated using the abundant natural power sources in the country.

But to underline the current dependence of the world on our current sources, one only need to look at the time table that they expect, in a technology that has solved the major road blocks.
INE has embarked on a research phase that is expected to last 10 to 15 years -- recognizing, like hydrogen backers everywhere, that full conversion will take 40 years or more. "The Icelandic government sees this as a marathon, not a sprint," says Chris de Koning, a spokesman for Shell Hydrogen. The corporations take a similarly long-term approach: "We have been in the energy business for 100 years," says de Koning. "We want to be in the energy business for at least another 100."
The sidebar on how global warming is hurting Californian wines isn't that encouraging either.

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Well, you have to be a little suspect when an Oregon professor talks about California wines. ;-) The've made the argument for decades that theirs is the "more French" climate.

On hydrogen, sure continue the research, but with respect to immediate US impacts - it is more a cautionary tale of what happens when industries lie to themselves.

No, I disagree. Either start installing the infrastructure for hydrogen now if you want it in twenty years or stop the research. It's just a waste of money otherwise.

I'm not sure where to begin, Tim. But I could tell a story I told once before:

I read a long time ago that engineers overestimate the ability of new technologies to come on-line, and underestimate their abilities to extend current technologies. I’ve seen that proven in the computer world time and again. As an example, it was widely assumed in the 1980s that magnetic disks would die out and be supplanted by magneto-optical disks everywhere. True opticals came in, but it was “out of left field” that we could extend plain old magnetic disks into the gigabytes.

We may see that story again in cars: engineers overestimate the ability of new technologies to come on-line, and underestimate their abilities to extend current technologies.

What would have happened if the industry had "built out the infrastructure" for those magneto-optical disks? They are dead in the market today ... what would a speculative infrastructure have accomplished?

I can see two answers. First, if might have been money flushed down the toilet. Or second, it could have perturbed the market so much that we never would have found out that plain old magnetic disks could be extended as far as they have.

I only have one thing to say about fuel cells and hydrogen: EROEI. There are a few unique areas in the world, like Iceland, that will have the ability to make fuel cells work from an EROEI perspective; they will be a novelty akin to the Stanley Steamer of yore.

I believe that a combination of things will extend the fossil fuel era, but ultimately we have to go to something as energy dense as hydrogen to maintain our current level of technology.

The root cause of our problems is not fossil fuels, BUT MASSIVE CONSUMPTION of them. In any biosphere, massive consumption is a problem. We are not talking about forage in this case but our planetary resources. If it isn't oil, then it will eventually be something else. Sustain-ability and harmony within the planetary ecology will sooner or later be realized as the issues. Not by any group alive today, but in some future generation.

odograph might be right for now, but eventually opticals will become the big deal. Their potential in terms of size and speed is nowhere close to being utilized. Hydrogen or something similar that is renewable and non-polluting will eventually be needed. I'm glad someone is doing it.


Solar, geothermal and oceans have energy enough to make hydrogen economic, but not at current levels of Consumption.

Darn, there's that nasty 'C' word again.

I was thinking about it a little bit more, and realized there was an automotive example of infrastructure built too soon: the chargers for the GM electric car. There were a half-dozen at the local Saturn dealer (they had to, they were selling them), but they were also going in at various city halls and libraries. They made headline news when they were installed, much like the Hydrogen Highway press releases we see today.

But the car was scrapped, and the chargers are all gone now. The walls that held them are plastered over and painted leaving no evidence that they were there.

I supposed we are supposed to forget the whole thing.

... but do you suppose anyone's tax dollars went into building that "infrastructure?"

(long term, I expect hydrogen or electric to dominate, but it is insane to predict a winner now and build infrastructure on that assumption)

Odo, I am an engineer and I do know how long it takes to install something. The point is that you will have to predict a winner now and start installing infrastructure if you want anything significant on the ground 20 years from now. You can keep doing research or not; you must start developing what you have right now.

As I mentioned in one of my first posts here, I held Ballard Power, perhaps the most advanced of all fuelcell manufacturers, stock for almost 3 years as it fell from the high 30s to the low teens. Why did such a promising company fall when seemingly every media outlet and politico was touting the "Hydrogen Economy" and its fuelcell powered vehicles? The answer is essentially what I mentioned above--Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI), or Net Energy--related to the infrastructure to support such a system.

Now I very much wanted fuelcell vehicles and the hydrogen economy to become manifest because of my investment. However, when I did more research into the problem of erecting the necessary support structure, it became clear why the "smart money" was no longer in Ballard or other fuelcell manufacturers. The best parallel for the needed infrastructure is LNG, but once LNG is offloaded its delivery to consumers is made possible through an already existing and very complex plumbing system. A hydrogen plumbing system wouldn't be as complex--no lines to houses--but it would still need to be built, and it's the building and operation of such a system that renders the EROEI for hydrogen negative, regardless of how the hydrogen is produced. It would be far more profitable from an EROEI standpoint to use the electricity produced by solar, ocean, etc, directly in EVs. As an investor, I would want to see my money go into R&D that improves the performance of battery packs for EVs and improves the process of lipid and sugar extraction from algae for use in ethanol and biodiesel production.

We have already spent a great deal of money/energy on developing our current infrastructure, which is far from perfect. Commonsense says we should be looking at ways to retain as much of it as feasible instead of using ever scarcer resources to build something entirely new and untested.

Thank you Karlof!

I agree - use existing infrastructure. use existing vehicles. Recycle. All of it. I posted some links to a website in my previous posts where they tell people how to convert standard, normal cars of today to 100% electric, at a fraction of the cost of hybrids.

But for longer distances we will need nuclear trains (which nobody is talking about but which is the best vehicle for the weight and power of a small reactor on land)and a railroad system upgrade (talk about a good option for retirement stocks - RR). Or we will need the energy density present in hydrogen to fuel long-haul trucks. If you just put this in the major metropolises, trucking alone would likely be enough to justify this limited infrastructure. It might require both to be realistic - the hydrogen trucks could do the intrastate, and trains the interstate.

But perhaps the largest energy expenditure is personal vehicles in metro areas. This could go to 100% electric with minimal fuss, and reduce consumption considerably. If you told Joe SixPack his gasoline bill could go from $300/month to $30/month, he just might get interested, especially if his adjustable mortgage payment is crimping him. And the existing grid would only need upgrading.

Tim and odo -

I am also an engineer/geologist. Don't pick a winner now. Make a winner by doing the switch! If we overload the grid, then that is where the investment will go. Look at the antlike activity in power companies after the east coast blackout!! If the demand is there, the investment appears to capitalize on it, even in the current system.

Look also at

If my arithmetic is correct, a 10 sq m roof should be able to produce 80,000 kwh per year which is 5 times what a typical house consumes during the year. This energy could be fed back into the grid to power electric trains and electric cars.

I'm a fan of mag-lev trains for hi-speed, long distance passenger movement, while the current diesel-electric can be powered by biosiesel and all electric lines by ocean power.

Solar Houses are the way as SMUD has shown, and with the newer solar shingles, they can be integrated into the structure of the house.

Want to go into business and make money? Start a solar panel factory--demand far outstrips supply and will for decades. It could be a great university project combining the engineering and business schools and provide a great public service. Imagine if Pudue or MIT or....

Even better, lobby your town council to make at least solar water heating a mandatory component of new housing. This and other such changes can be made at the local level and together can facilitate the philosophical/cultural change most of us see as needed for future survival, while making a substantial contribution to the total energy budget.

Sorry, that was a typo, it should say 100 sq m, amd not 10 sq m in my earlier post

If this is actually the explanation for the uncommonly mild weather here in Houston, then we may already be in the midst of dramatic climate changes:


I am anxious to hear how the MSM will spin this....

Tim, what success rate engineers have for picking winners 20-30 years hense?

And why didn't GM pick right with their electric car?

From what I've read, GM had a winner with their electric car. A lot of their owners didn't want to give them up but weren't given a choice. GM decided to go with SUV's instead, but that wasn't an engineering choice.

My own opinion FWIW is that the U.S. is going to have to try everything to stay ahead of the game. Wind, solar, nuclear, mass transportation, and alternative fuels. You have to start building the factories and the fabricating plants to make the stuff before you can start installing it. I'm not sure we even have the engineering and skilled construction manpower available anymore when you start talking about building the equivalent of twenty refineries or power plants per year.

J, if that guy's data is right we are so screwed. The minimum effect of global warming would be to run up everybody's energy usage.

Well, that's part of it. I think electric cars have been better demonstrated at this point than hydrogen. I mean, they've been delivered at an acceptable price point.

GM "gamed" the system, when they pulled the electric cars and started another decades-long research project. It was precisely so they could keep selling those SUVs:

With so many decks steeply stacked against GM, why does it even bother with hydrogen? Hydrogen has the virtue of removing the auto industry from the environmental debate, even if it creates the same or more pollution upstream. As Burns likes to point out: “If we want to have our market capitalization approach that of other industries, we can’t have the car held hostage to the debates about energy dependence, resource usage, global climate change.”


They didn't want to be "held hostage" to energy or environmental debates ... so they PR'd the heck out of hydrogen. That's sick, but that is corporate resonsibility in its worst case.

There is an interesting competition in the fall in Washington D.C. where Universities compete to build solar houses. Last time they also had to power an electric car.

We will blog more on the event when the competition comes around. This is also the year for the Solar Car race, and these cars now do the speed limit, though the last race 2 years ago, was the first where some cars also carried a passenger.

Tim -

I saw a MSM show on the mission to check on the conveyor and the ice thickness. It was on the Discovery Science channel. They used a US nookular sub and also surface instruments placed strategically on the ice with sensors hanging below into the water. They spooled it up before the scientists had their data massaged, so it ended with a "possible climate disaster" ending. The report tagged in Energy Bulletin is the actual results of their compiled data sampling.

I have a gut feeling that it is true, and that scientists have been forced to eat their own research for a long time because the gubmint didn't want a panic, and the gubmint IS their funding. I have a friend in NOAA who told me 10 years ago we were royally screwed even if we had all started riding horse then, because this is a cumulative issue, and we were already there.

Please, oh please don't anybody in government tell me they don't know about this when they funded the project and loaned one of Dubya's nookular toys for it...


FWIW, I am looking for a VW right now without engine or and old fiberglass kit car to convert to electric. I am an oilfield engineer - we are good at refitting and making things work with minimal funding...LOL!

I contacted the conversion guys - they definitely know what they are doing. Conversion should cost me about $3000, and the base vehicle should be under a thousand. But I am extremely "handy" - might be more for others.

Would this be something interesting enough for a website?

odo -

didn't the GM electric have some type of proprietary high speed 240V charging system? Or was that in their research that I read about that? And weren;t the batteries proprietary as well?

Here's one guy's story of the GM system:


I'm not sure what I think about electrics right now. It may just be that they work as in-city vehichles, and don't need fast charging. That might mean (in a low petro world) that you take a train for long trips, possibly renting an electric when you get there.

Interesting! He also has a list of chargers he's used ... which nicely illustrate infrastructure built and then discarded:


Oh, it just keeps getting worse! Consider the quote:

"This is the solar array at the Santa Monica, CA Civic Center. Here, an array of Photovoltaic Cells get a constant bath of sunshine just a half mile from the beach. The electricity generated by the cells fuels the electric car chargers below.


"During the 30 year life of this station 120,000 kw of solar electricity will be generated. 15,000 to 20,000 gallons of gasoline will be saved. 113,000 pounds of coal or 1,200,000 cu feet of natural gas would have been required by the utility company to produce the same electricity."


These things are gone right ... and that dream of a "30 year life" along with it?

If the UK does indeed cooldown, then this item will be of greater concern for those living there, http://money.guardian.co.uk/utilities/story/0,11992,1479812,00.html

The cooldown would also have a huge impact on farming.

The overall level of FUBAR is rapidly increasing in all four crisis areas.

One thing to think about is these hydrogen fuel cells require what resource to be used??

Are these resources so plentiful and infinate that they can replace OIL as a fuel source??

I see the same things happening to the Hydrogen alternative as to OIL but at a much quicker and faster scale.

If we truly wish to become free of the finite resources then we must goto one that is ever replenishing.