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“Well-to-Wheel” is a Fossil Fuel Perspective

By August 26, 2021 11   min read  (2022 words)

August 26, 2021 |

Autor: Timothy Sasseen
Timothy has spent over twenty years working in the renewable energy sector leading teams, helping to guide the industry, and continues today to advocate for a zero emission economy.

Busting the Nonsensical Arguments Against Renewable Hydrogen

DISCLAIMER: I work for Ballard Power Systems but am not an official spokesperson for the company. Opinions and views expressed in this post are solely my own.

In these inexplicably polarized times, it is bewildering to see a closing of minds and narrowness of vision in the battle to save our climate. I’ve long advocated using every means at our disposal to harness the sun, wind, and latent heat within the earth. Having forged my renewable energy career in wind power, I’ve gained faith that clearly sensible energy and sustainability solutions can win out over linear thinking, confused self-interest, and arguments propelled solely by charisma (which, as has been wisely said, is [the] ability to influence without logic.) This faith, I’ve found, is a pre-requisite for a career of any length in hydrogen.

Hydrogen is the first realistic and immanent threat to the regulated monopolistic system of investor-owned electrical utilities. It should come as no surprise that this system, having been given exclusive license for moving our electricity for the last century, coupled with the investor mandate to maximize returns for its shareholders, sees open competition as a threat. This has become particularly acute as load growth from EV’s, which has stagnated for decades, holds the promise of doubling if this exclusivity can be maintained. Notice I am pointing to the system, not those who work in it – no one person working in electrical utilities today is responsible for the “Cost of Service Regulation” (COSR) architecture that the investor-owned utilities (IOU’s) operate under. Indeed, many at the working level within California's IOU’s have become strong hydrogen advocates. But hydrogen will not obey a monopolistic market approach when anyone can participate, and monopolies inherently develop powerful mechanisms for self-preservation.

Media access through governmental agencies is one such mechanism, and much can be achieved with carefully worded rhetoric inserted into an artfully crafted meme. Many such memes have recently and almost simultaneously re-appeared in a broad number of forums, working to prevent the growth of hydrogen by repurposing obsolete data and quoting agenda-driven sources. I’d like to set the record straight on a few of these potent memes, particularly for the benefit of those seeking real solutions to accelerate climate repair.

Well-to-Wheel Efficiency is a Fossil Fuel Relic

Many purport that batteries will always be more cost effective than fuel cells because they are more electrically efficient. This is the “well-to-wheel efficiency” fallacy that the battery-plus-grid orthodoxy perpetuates – that the objective is to keep as much of a finite amount of renewable energy as possible. This scarcity perspective is rooted in petroleum, whose economics are governed by its finite nature.

The paradigm switch to free, inexhaustible renewable energy seeks a different goal – to capture as much sun, wind and latent earth heat as possible, and get it to do the work we need done for as little cost and environmental impact as possible. This is where the single-minded approach of poles, wires, and a continuous flow of lithium oxide waste begins to show serious weaknesses. Doubling our electricity production for transportation will require us producing at least 4 times the renewable energy now produced in California, for example; other regions will need far higher increases. Building enormous battery installations, and thousands of miles of new high-tension lines from remote generation areas will be far from low-impact. Distributing this electricity through the point-to-point web of urban electricity systems will require massive construction projects, particularly in the densest areas of activity; and building this to a far higher standard of reliable service than we’ve seen to date will make buffering and redundancy a costly necessity.

Contrast this with creating a zero emissions fuel at the point of energy capture through electrolysis. A far wider range of sources becomes accessible, from distant deserts, remote geothermal vents, and floating wind farms where fuel can be produced and stored as the energy is available. This fuel can be moved as gaseous and liquid fuels are moved today – by rail, truck, boat, or pipeline. Distribution at the point of usage does not require tearing up city streets or stressing of over-taxed infrastructure. Supply of renewable hydrogen from this variety of sources over a variety of vectors become as certain as finding gasoline at a gas station.

The Myths Go On and On

This is only the beginning of the disinformation that needs to be addressed about hydrogen in the popular press, confusing legitimate concerns with self-serving agendas. Here are some more myths that need to be put to rest:

MYTH: The primary beneficiaries of hydrogen and fuel cells are fossil fuel industries

Today, petroleum companies are not the primary players in transportation hydrogen – the biggest investors in green hydrogen are industrial gas companies (IGC’s). It must be said that the biggest investors in transportation electrification infrastructure are investor-owned utilities, whose environmental and legal histories are at the very least no better that the IGC’s. Picking a batteries-only strategy over a hydrogen-inclusive strategy based on which for-profit corporation is backing it has little more logical foundation than picking a favorite NFL team – they are all in the same league.

MYTH: Gas companies have captive customers that bankroll their new line of business

Transportation Electrification puts investor-owned electrical utilities into transportation, which their COSR business model was never designed to support. This keeps grid-dependent customers in a far more captive state than gaseous fuel users, who can choose the lowest cost [from] a wide variety of competitive sources and distribution companies, with price stability from long-term supply agreements.

MYTH: 95% of hydrogen for transportation comes from fossil fuels

Hydrogen for ammonia and diesel fuel comes from fossil fuels. True. Electricity for aluminum smelting comes from coal. Also, true. This myth focuses on a misleading connection between the energy source and the energy carrier. It’s as much “greenwashing” as calling all battery EV’s everywhere environmentally friendly, without considering the source of their electricity.

Hydrogen’s “carbon content” is as much dependent on its source energy as electricity’s “carbon content”. The opportunity this points to is for hydrogen for industry to be made carbon-free as well. This will drop the price of zero-carbon hydrogen dramatically, and zero emissions transportation economics will only improve.

MYTH: Renewable electrolytic hydrogen is only R&D and pilot phase

Electrolyzed hydrogen has been in production for decades; in fact, Nel has been doing it in Europe for almost a century. Fuel cell buses have been in regular commercial service far longer than their equivalently-sized battery counterparts, and are performing exceptionally well, showing superior operational capabilities to battery buses in the US, Europe and Asia.

MYTH: It will always be 10 to 15 years before hydrogen is profitable

Major studies have shown fuel cell electric vehicles will achieve price superiority over both battery and combustion alternatives well before the end of this decade. Every major truck producer is investing in hydrogen fuel cell platforms, except for the one well-known EV manufacturer whose opinionated founder maintains a monolithic perspective (perhaps fuel cells are not useful to him in his plan to leave our planet.)

MYTH: Transportation electrification is the lowest risk method to decarbonize transportation

Environmental risks from spent lithium oxides, and from new electrical transmission across fire prone areas are highly significant risks. Hydrogen from electrolysis involves only hydrogen, oxygen and water, and used in fuel cells have a far superior lifecycle energy and waste impact than lithium-ion batteries.

MYTH: Battery technology will make long-haul trucking with batteries possible

While price declines for batteries have been very optimistic, volumetric and gravimetric increases are limited. Tesla, for example, is looking at cutting its price in half, but its battery’s energy capacity is set to increase by only 1/6th. Moreover, long-haul trucks will require 1MWh or more energy between refuelings. To refuel in a half an hour or less will require chargers capable of well over 2MW each, and multiple of these running simultaneously at truckstops. Even for ten charging stalls, connecting over 20MW of utility power to a truck stop would be fantastically expensive, the charging equipment would be massive and also expensive, and all of this would be out of reach to a small fleet owner or independent owner/operator who wished to charge their own trucks.

MYTH: Renewable hydrogen should be saved for use in the chemical sector

This is a surprising argument, again from a fossil fuel perspective. We are seeking renewable and thereby unlimited energy sources. Producing more renewable hydrogen for the chemical industry will further drive down electrolyzer capital costs and related prices, making it even more attractive to produce as a transportation fuel. The more we make, the more people will want to make it.

MYTH: Hydrogen powered vehicles are unsafe

There are many favorable safety aspects of hydrogen relative to fossil fuels, but there is a fundamental operational point that makes their safety superior to that of batteries. Hydrogen fuel cell engines store their energy in compressed gas tanks, almost identical to those in use for CNG, which are extraordinarily crash-proof and even bullet-proof. Power comes from the fuel cell, separated from the energy storage by a series of pipes, valves and controls, meaning any problem with the engine has limited energy to react and cause bigger issues.

Battery drivetrains, by contrast, store their energy in exactly the same place as where they produce power. That’s like putting your gasoline tank inside your engine block. You could conceivably design a way to do this, even safely, but it would require a great deal of isolation and exotic materials to do so. Batteries can be made to be safe as well, despite this, but will always require a thick sandwich of powerfully isolating materials, complicating recycling and emergency response procedures to any incidents which get beyond these protections.

MYTH: A centralized electrical grid is the most democratic and just way to serve power

Electricity in the modern age has become a business staple on par with water and transportation – few businesses, large or small, can survive without it. We have already seen control over this staple abused to enforce controversial measures, and dirty diesel generators used as counter-measures against this control. We have also seen continuous battles from investor-owned utilities to resist rooftop solar, community choice aggregators, microgrids, and other threats to their government-enforced monopoly on electrical power. Hydrogen represents an even larger threat to this exclusive control. Centralized electrical power is centralized control; liberating access to power through hydrogen severs a tempting linkage between political and electrical power for those who may seek to use one to affect the other.

Let’s Focus on Decarbonization, Not Polarization

The scale of this task is beyond the grasp of any one person, any one company, any one technology. It is beyond the efforts attainable even by any one arena of activity of humanity, and we must have the integrity and perseverance to eschew fundamentalist, narrow minded leadership that says “I have the only way!” and accept the hard work of continual dialog and maximum effort.

We cannot afford single-minded approaches to lead us down a path that is economically unattainable, and threatens our ability to achieve our climate goals in time. “Electrifying everything” is simply not enough – we cannot rely upon investor-owned government-regulated monopolies to accomplish all that we need to do, on their terms. We must call upon communities, businesses and governments to broaden their perspectives. We must replace archaic and detrimental systems, [and convert] for-profit electrical monopolies into community-controlled municipalities and CCA models. Most importantly, we must be inclusive of the best of zero-emissions technology available today for decarbonizing our entire energy system as quickly and safely as possible. For many applications, hydrogen is clearly the most effective choice. Let’s make sure that choice is not stifled by careless and agenda-driven rhetoric, while we still have the resources available to make it.

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