Arnold Kling  

Economics of Hydrogen, II

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Lynne Kiesling quotes an engineering analysis of hydrogen as a fuel source for automobiles.


I can assure you that there is no way that spending heat energy to make hydrogen to be burned to make heat energy can be anything but a losing proposition... thermodynamically, and hence - with certainty - economically, this is a loser.

For Discussion. Has there been any analysis showing that the cost of creating, storing, and using hydrogen as fuel could be less than the value of the energy the hydrogen would provide? Or is all of the research focused on technical feasibility as opposed to economic feasibility?


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Eric writes:

I wonder who the prof. was. I think my thermo. prof. has passed on to the great faculty lounge in the sky.

As for the analysis, no "study" is needed. It is basic thermodynamics, and almost common sense.

Hydrogen doesn't come from a well. It is made from another fuel. Hydrogen is made at oil refineries all the time, for internal use in the process of turning a barrel of oil into gasoline. It can also be made from natural gas, or as the professor insinuates, electricity from a nuclear power plant could be used to separate hyrogen from water (good old H2O).

Thermodynamically, energy is required to drive these processes. The energy that it takes to, say, split water, is energy that is lost to the overall process.

What the futurists are banking on is that a hydrogen fuel cell is going to be a lot more efficient than an internal combustion engine is. Thus, even though energy is wasted in the creation of hydrogen, the hydrogen is then used by the individual in a much more productive manner.

This is a big assumption. It has taken us 135 years to get to the point we are today with gasoline burning internal combustion engines. Even today they are still being tweaked, to the point where Honda claims to be improving the efficiency of their engines by 1.5% per year. (as a side note, they are using this efficiency to increase the horsepower of their engines, NOT to increase their gas mileage)

This means that the hydrogen fuel cell, which has only been with us since the 1960s, has a long way to go, but it also gives us hope that large gains in efficiency are possible.

David Thomson writes:

I feel it is incumbent for me to reiterate my previous cynical remarks: the fuss over hydrogen has mostly to do with the perception that a water based energy source is totally unlike that yucky oil stuff and supposedly dangerous nuclear fuel. It’s really that simple. The practical aspects of the technology has virtually little do with anything.

frank writes:

I think the above misses the promise of hydrogen - it is not the idea of a cleaner fuel, but of an efficient energy storage medium. Thus environmentally friendly energy sources (wind, hydro, solar, nuclear, etc) could be used to create energy that could then be more efficiently stored and transferred for use in all sorts of applications such as cars.

Plus, if hydogen fuel cells are used in conjunction with "green" energy sources, then there are positive externalities versus a combustion engine that have to be taken into account, no?

John Thacker writes:

Yes, well, if that's the point Frank, then we're really talking about a replacement for batteries as energy storage. It doesn't of course solve the problem of energy sources.

Eric writes:

Journalists often portray the stranglehold that oil has on our economy as almost evil, and anything that poses as an alternative, like wind and solar, as somehow holy.

I'm not inherantly against wind as solar as possible energy sources. There is a lot of really cool engineering going on in the windpower sector now that GE has bought in.

However, wind power and solar suffers from the exact same problem as any other potential power source: NIMBYism. No one wants a wind turbine anywhere near their propery. No one wants to look out from their beach house and see a wind farm sitting off shore, either. And because each wind turbine can only generate a small fraction of the energy of a large nuclear power plant, you need a lot more of them, with a lot more potential NIMBYs.

So maybe before we engineer out the problems of the hydrogen economy, we need to work on the problem of NIMBYism?

David writes:

One thing to mention is that another external cost of our current power plants is (obviously) pollution. Unlike the NIMBY cost, which is borne by a few (relatively), pollution is borne by everyone in the area. So switching from our current system to one which is comprised of wind generators may decrease the total social cost, but at the same time may increase the NIMBY cost. And when the cost of an action affects the few rather than the many, it is much harder to implement.

On another note, I recently saw two separate short segments on wind power and solar power on PBS. In each, they talked about how cheap these were. In the solar power segment, they even said that you could eventually make money from having solar panels, since excess power could potentially be sold. These segments struck me as odd, because if these types of energy are so cheap, why isn't everyone out buying solar panels and building wind turbines? Anyone?

Scott writes:

No one is buying them because they aren’t cheap. Wind power looks competitive with Coal fired power plants until you take utilization into account. Coal fired plants run at between 90% and 100% of capacity. Wind turbines are in the 30% range. Solar panels are more expensive and also have utilizations of less than 50%.

“You can sell the excess power…” Only because the government forces utilities to buy it from you. They don’t want it. It is incredibly inefficient to collect and comes to them when they don’t need it and can’t use it.

David Thomson writes:

"These segments struck me as odd, because if these types of energy are so cheap, why isn't everyone out buying solar panels and building wind turbines? Anyone?"

Please consider the source. PBS is an ultra Left wing outfit. Do I really need to add anything else?

Eric writes:

Polution is a problem in a theoretical sense, in most cases. This isn't the 19th century, and we don't have coal fired power plants creating a smog so thick that laudry left outside to dry is soiled. These days, even the coal fired plants are fairly clean, at least from a soot perspective.

Everything you need to know about NIMBY has occured in Cape Cod. It is fair to say that Cape Cod is a liberal place. You don't find many Republicans there. And yet they are fighting a plan to put a wind farm off shore, tooth and nail. It is a very nasty fight.

Now, if liberals aren't going to allow a windfarm to be built in a place that has no impact on them other than visual, where on earth are you going to be able to build a wind farm? Keep in mind that you have to build these things WHERE THERE IS WIND!!!

As for everyone having solar panels on their roof, selling excess power back to "the system", keep in mind that the power system is set up to distrubute power from a few big generating stations to you, the "ratepayer". It is not set up to absorb power from the ratepayers. To even propose such a system without understanding how the current system is built and operates just goes to show how engineers are not even consulted when economists and others come up with their crackpot utopian schemes.

David Thomson writes:

“To even propose such a system without understanding how the current system is built and operates just goes to show how engineers are not even consulted when economists and others come up with their crackpot utopian schemes.”

How dare you rely on common sense to support your position? Don’t you realize that a utopian reformer doesn’t need to do such a thing? Why should anyone let a few facts tear down a beautiful fantasy?

Alas, some people might conclude that you should be sent to the nearest gulag. Then again, it’s probably easier to simply shoot all the reactionaries and start all over as they tried to do in Cambodia.

Eric writes:

Following up with the comment that wind power has low availability:

http://www.forbes.com/newswire/2003/04/15/rtr940320.html

Wind power is hard to forcast, and supply cannot easily be increased and decreased on a second by second basis to meet demand, a requirement for the electrical grid to function! Maybe computers, simulations, and sensors are the answer, but not without a lot of work, and a certain degree of trial and error.

But that's what the California electricity market is all about, right? Trial and error, with a lot more of the later!

teddy writes:

"Please consider the source. PBS is an ultra Left wing outfit. Do I really need to add anything else? "

Sure Dave. Tele-tubbies are gay. Mr. Rogers is a communist. Sesame St. is prep for the proletarian movement. Only Fox News speaks the truth. Do I really need to add anything else?

As for "I can assure you that there is no way that spending heat energy to make hydrogen to be burned to make heat energy can be anything but a losing proposition... thermodynamically, and hence - with certainty - economically, this is a loser."

I think the existence of battery power refutes the above logic. We use kinetic energy to charge up potential energy in batteries and then we turn it back into kinetic energy - losing much of the original energy along the way. Since Duracell and Energizer are still in business I'd say, economically, converting energy from one form to another and back again can't be a total loser. The benefit you give to portability outweighs the cost of the energy conversion.

Eric writes:

Okay, this is a little off the subject...

I saw a roundtable on C-Span, talking about the future of PBS. It was maybe six months ago, and it included Bill Moyers, Ray Suarez, and the black chick from Washington Week. I believe that Jeff Greenfield was the moderator, and he challenged the panel on the liberal politics of PBS. Everyone dismissed that PBS has a liberal bias, but Moyers was by far the most upset by it.

To him, they were fighting words. To me, his reaction was the kind that you have when you know that you are wrong, and you're being called on it.

It is axiomatic that PBS has a liberal bias. To even argue that it doesn't is silly. If it has ANY programming that is conservative, I'd like to hear of it, because it doesn't. Of course it has non-political programming, but it is very few and far between.

As for Fow News, the vast majority of its programming is talk show based. On these talk shows, the news of the day is discussed, and there is always a liberal opinion to balance off the conservative viewpoint. How is that a conservative bias?

Scott writes:

Trading off portability against energy efficiency makes sense – in certain applications. For transportation, we’ve already got a nice portable power system. The internal combustion engine works well and runs off of liquid fuel that has a really high energy density. That makes both the engine and the fuel highly portable. In addition, the fuel occurs naturally. We just have to purify it. Finally, the fuel, fueling system and fuel storage are all pretty safe and easy to handle.

While it may be theoretically possible for hydrogen power to overcome those advantages, I don’t think that it is likely. I think a more reasonable approach would be to work on the efficiency of the gasoline engine. It’s probably got a higher payoff.

Douglas Hvistendahl writes:

Here in North Dakota, among farmers, there is no NIMBY problem. The prices for crop production are low, and they love to lease out a small fraction of the land for wind towers! The problem is transmission capacity. I'm working part time for PWP which has leased a number of quarters in the windiest region of ND (availability 58%). One of the reasons this location was picked is that we can anchor one end of the leases on an existing 345KV 3phase power line. We also have the Garrison dam facilities for "storage" and the Beulah lignite power plants. The only problem with electricity here is the need to ship it out of state to profit. Now if we could locate some electricity hungry industries to move out here . . ..

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