One of the things I’ve enjoyed hugely during my years in the parliament has been the European Energy Forum (EEF), organised by my good colleague Giles Chichester MEP (SW). EEF arranges dinner-debate events, where I’ve learned a great deal about a wide range of energy issues. The latest one focussed on Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology, touted by some as the solution for low-emission vehicles. In that rôle, it has to compete with hybrid; all-electric; LPG; bio-diesel; and, indeed, diesel itself. I don’t pretend to be an expert on these questions, and I’m happy to leave it to the technical folk and the market. But of course a major problem for fuel-cell vehicles (and for most exotic fuels) is the provision of distribution infrastructure. A fuel-cell vehicle is not a lot of good without a hydrogen supply
This involves a huge investment in hydrogen filling stations, and the old chicken-and-egg dilemma. No one is going to buy a fuel-cell car without a filling station. No one is going to build a network of hydrogen filling stations if there are no hydrogen cars out there. Hydrogen will start, if at all, with commercial vehicles on regular routes — like buses, which can all be re-fuelled at the bus station.
Of course we should remember that hydrogen is not an energy source — merely a way of storing and distributing energy. The vast majority of hydrogen comes from electrolysis of water, which requires electricity to start with. This in turn will come from conventional or alternative generation, which may or may not be “clean” (in the eco-freak jargon). So while fuel cells give you zero tail-pipe emissions, they may give you the same total emissions as petrol, depending how the electricity was generated to start with.
I was interested in another potential application of hydrogen fuel-cell technology: energy storage. Which brings me to my bêtes noires — wind turbines. The killer problem for wind (well, one of the killer problems) is intermittency. Various solutions have been suggested, ranging from pumping water up-hill, to drive hydro-turbines when the wind drops, to charging up a fleet of ten million electric vehicles (part of the green pipe-dream for the future) and borrowing some energy back again when we’re short (OK, so it’s a daft idea, but no dafter than wind farms to start with).
Our industry spokesmen at the EEF event proposed that excess electricity generation when the wind blows should be used to electrolyse water (into hydrogen and oxygen). The hydrogen can them be stored, quite cheaply and safely, and used with fuel cells to generate electricity when the wind drops. Bingo! Intermittency solved, at a stroke! The greatest obstacle to wind power swept away.
Except that, as always, there’s a fly in the ointment. I did a bit of checking with those who know about these matters, and they pointed out that whenever you convert energy from one form to another, you lose some of it. Efficiency is never 100%. And in this case, we’re converting it twice — from electrical to chemical, and back again. I’m told that the losses in this double conversion are likely to be of the order of 75%.
So we start with expensive electricity from wind, and we lose three quarters of it in the process. So we’re now paying four times as much per kilowatt-hour as regular wind energy — which was expensive to start with. And that’s before we’ve started paying for the hydrogen storage, electrolysis and fuel cell kit, which doesn’t come cheap. So a technically feasible solution proves to be hopelessly uneconomic — which is what wind power was to start with. Back to the drawing board, guys, I’m afraid.