I go back and forth on the whole “Hydrogen Economy” concept: on one hand, the idea of a fuel that emits only water is about as green as it gets; on the other, the commercial viability of hydrogen fuel is so far off that it seems to make a lot more sense to focus more heavily on technologies already available: biofuels, hybrid engines and battery-operated electric vehicles (all of which have their shortcomings, too). Still, this is awfully cool: Xcel Energy and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, “…unveiled a unique facility that uses electricity from wind turbines to produce and store pure hydrogen, offering what may become an important new template for future energy production.” According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press,
The research project is expected initially to generate only relatively tiny amounts of hydrogen — about 17 kilograms a day. Each kilogram has roughly the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline.
The produced hydrogen will be used to generate small amounts of electricity. In the future, if commercial-scale production can be achieved, scientists say hydrogen’s most economical use will be as a vehicle fuel, for either internal-combustion engines or fuel-cell-powered cars. …
Energy lab and Xcel officials said initial hydrogen production costs are expected to be about $8 a kilogram, making the process more than three times as expensive as using gasoline to run a car.
But by 2020, or perhaps earlier, they expect costs to drop to $2 to $3 a kilogram, in the range of current gasoline prices.
If we’re going to move forward with research into hydrogen as a commercially-available fuel (and I think we should), I’m very glad to see that this approach is being investigated. As I understand it, the most cost-efficient way to extract hydrogen now involves using coal or natural gas, which certainly undermines the perception of it as “clean energy.” Both Lester Brown and Amory Lovins have touted using wind power to electrolyze water as a sort of “gold standard” of hydrogen production, in that it’s about as green as we can get. I’m still not crazy about all the focus (and funds) being directed towards a fuel source that even the Department of Energy projects is twenty years away from widespread availability, but projects like these can provide a bit of hope that a renewable energy future may not be such a “pie in the sky” concept after all…
Photo credit: David Parsons and NREL/DOE