Fuel Cells Making Water And Energy

One sunny day in January 2007, at the intersection of Capitol and C streets in Washington, D.C., a short, shiny, sexy little GM coupe sat at the curb and made history. It was the first plug-in hybrid car to be displayed for members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The crowd of congressmen, media types, and passersby ogled the little number with the excitement one would expect when the first car that could run 40 miles on an overnight charge, slash CO2 emissions, and get 150 miles per gallon was available for inspection.

Then a curious thing happened. A Ford experimental SUV, powered by a fuel cell and also capable of being plugged in, drove by, with big letters on its side proclaiming its technology. The crowd instantly swung their heads around to follow that jazzy number down the street, and several folks headed that way to take a gander at the Ford version of the future. After all, here was another technology that could cut CO2 emissions and move away from oil. The crowd was tugged in two directions, one toward the GM plug-in hybrid that could run on gas or ethanol as a backup fuel, and the other toward the Ford electric car that could also be plugged in but would use a fuel cell to "recharge."

The moment crystallized the emergence of a tantalizing question: Which breakthrough technology will rescue both the planet and the auto industry?

There are many who believe that the future is in fuel cells—though today that takes something of a leap of faith. J. Byron McCormick, who leads GM's efforts to develop a fuel-cell car, is one believer.

McCormick is inspired by the elegance of the fuel cell. It uses the energy of the universe's most abundant element, hydrogen, which constitutes 75 percent of all matter, silently combining two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom and in the process stripping off an electron, which then creates a current, to run an electric motor and perhaps power the GM cars of the future. The products of this reaction are electric power, water vapor, and heat. The only emission out of the tailpipe is water, purer than your grandmother's well water.

According to McCormick, the fuel-cell system is twice as powerful as battery-powered electric systems. It excites him for the same reason it was used on Apollo—it's a powerful way to store energy. But many challenges remain. "Storage is the big deal," McCormick says.48 His team has to design a way to compress hydrogen into a space and configuration such that the car does not have to look like the Goodyear blimp to carry enough hydrogen for adequate range.

The fuel-cell effort, however, is a radical departure from GM's past. The company that fought CAFE standards and ceded the efficient car market to the Japanese now recognizes that there are 6 billion people with 750 million cars chasing a depleting pool of petroleum in a rapidly warming atmosphere. "It's not sustainable. We simply must mobilize our energy resources. We think the electrification of the car is the best way to do this," says McCormick.

There are substantial reasons to have doubts about the commercial viability of fuel cells. First, the estimated 50,000-90,000 service stations throughout America would have to be retrofitted with completely new pumps, a monumental task. Second, if hydrogen is produced off site, it will need to be delivered to the stations using new technology independent of existing oil delivery infrastructure. Estimates assume an infrastructure investment of approximately $500 billion. On-site production of hydrogen at the station helps avoid the cost of major investments in pipeline and tanker-truck infrastructure, but questions remain as to what original fuel could be used.

Despite these challenges, GM is serious when it discusses "electrification of the car." Its plug-in designs and its fuel-cell car will share one virtue: The only connection driving the wheels will be an electric motor.

The only new clean-car energy effort we have seen from the Bush administration, its discussion of the fuel-cell car, however, treats hydrogen as a near-term certainty. We cannot allow that illusion to become a diversionary tactic to stop meaningful requirements in improving fuel efficiency. Hybrids and biofuels are near to being ready today. While hydrogen may be the perfect fuel, many questions remain about its practical application, and its use as an excuse for inaction on fuel economy, hybrid development, or any other more current car technology would be an abomination. Forgoing development of the DC 3 in the 1940s in the hope a 747 could be perfected in the 1960s would have been a titanic national error. America cannot wait for hydrogen.

But McCormick's goal to have 100,000 fuel-cell cars on the road in 2015 can't be ruled out. It has investment and energy behind it. As he says, "Can we make it? Yes. Can we make it in time? I believe so." That sense that "failure is not an option"—and a bunch of duct tape—is what got the original Apollo 13 astronauts home. It may just work for GM, but it won't be a simple trip.

So when will fuel cells become commercially viable? Here are three opinions from folks in the know:

• Lawrence Burns, vice president in charge of research at GM, says, "We are going to prove to ourselves and the world that a fuel-cell propulsion system can go head to head with the internal combustion engine," and he believes that by 2010 GM will likely have a fuel-cell car that has the same range and durability as an internal-combustion engine.49

• Ben Knight, vice president of research and development at Honda, says, "We see [fuel cells] right now as the most promising technology to lower greenhouse gas." He adds, however, that it is "too hard to put a date on" the beginning of large-scale production.50

• Joe Romm, assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration and author of The Hype about Hydrogen, says, "We're either talking several decades or never."51

This range of opinions may be the equivalent of opinions that were bandied about when the original car was being developed. Would diesels dominate? Would gas prove uneconomical? Was electric best? Perhaps the car just needs to be reinvented every century, and doubt and debate are as intrinsic to the automobile as a pair of dice hanging from the rearview mirror.

The challenges facing the development of fuel cells mirror those faced in building a biofuels economy, as we shall see, but fuel cells carry even greater technological uncertainty and greater investment challenges. In both cases, though, the most pressing problem is implementing a strategy of distributing the fuel. Large investments are being made in cellulosic ethanol, for example, but very little by oil companies in putting in E85 ethanol pumps. Large investments are being made by Honda and GM in the hydrogen car but little by the gas companies in designing a hydrogen distribution system. The chickens are doing all right; the eggs are lagging. Or is it vice versa? This is one reason the vision of the plug-in hybrid has proved so compelling, with its use of existing infrastructure to swap out electricity for liquid fuel. One way or another, here is a place where government has a pivotal role in creating the conditions for the necessary private partnerships to bloom.

But all of these low-carbon cars offer a future of transportation that is easy to love. After all, falling in love with cars—isn't that what Americans do best? What clean cars will we fall for tomorrow? The future remains to be invented.

Becoming Mahatma

You must become the change you seek in the world.

—Mahatma Gandhi

Redmond, Washington, is one of the grayest, wettest, most soaked places in America. It is so wet that one time when Al Gore arrived in Seattle and asked a boy if it always rained in Washington, he received the reply, "I don't know, sir. I'm only eleven."

Mike Town is a teacher of environmental science at Redmond High School with a special passion for energy conservation, as he tells it, "ever since my brother and I couldn't run our paper route during the oil embargoes of the 1970s because we couldn't get gas for our old clunker. I had even built a passive solar house in 1992, and I thought I was doing pretty well. But then the kids got to me."1

The "kids" in Mike's classes had listened to him for years extolling the necessity of dealing with global warming and the virtues of renewable energy. They loved him and his classroom, bedecked by posters of America's wilderness areas. They loved his lectures about the virtues of renewable energy. They even clamored to see his passive solar house. But one day they broke him down and lit him up, all at once.

"I had been going on about how we just have to incorporate solar energy into our lives if we are going to stop ruinous global warming that will damage these areas we love. I knew this field, so I was cruising along feeling pretty good about my efforts, but then one kid brought up me up short. 'If solar electricity is so hot, why don't you put solar panels on your house, Mr. Town?' she said. 'You've been talking about this for two years . . . and I don't see you doing anything about it. Why not?'

"She had me. I realized right then that there was no way I could have integrity in teaching these kids to act if I was not going to. I had to put my money where my mouth was. I decided right there to build a solar-powered home, I didn't care how rainy it was."

So Mike went out and built a 1,600-square-foot home for himself and his wife in a nice spot—if you like a constant drizzly rain and low gray clouds scudding up to the Cascade Mountains. He epoxied strips of American-made Unisolar amorphous silicon solar cells onto the metal sheets of his roof in about two hours, hooked it up to an inverter, and turned on the lights.

And against the conventional wisdom, it worked. Ever since, his electricity costs have effectively been reduced to zero. His hundred square feet of solar cells, lying nicely on his southerly facing roof, produce a thousand kilowatt-hours per year of clean electricity, which results in a modest $10 to $20 monthly utility bill. That bill is netted to zero when he gets the credit for the net metered power he feeds back into the grid. He did have to pay for the purchase and installation of the system, a cost of about $5,000, but since he avoided putting in a furnace by using passive solar, he figures he saved an equivalent $5,000. He is able to keep a comfortable home with just a tiny propane heater when it gets cold.

Forget what you've heard about solar panels. If a teacher can light his home in one of the soggiest places on earth, imagine what can be done where the sun actually shines.

And forget what you've heard about the Kyoto emissions targets being too tough to reach. Mike has taken his commitment into his school, helping it meet the equivalent of its portion of the Kyoto target by changing the entire direction of the school's energy use. After swapping out its lighting, controlling the temperature of its rooms, and installing a high-performance, in-ground geothermal heat pump, Redmond High is a better-quality workplace and has reduced its CO2 emissions 27 percent below Kyoto targets with ease. Now the high school in Microsoft's hometown will be a beacon for energy efficiency in schools, treating energy transformation as a natural extension of the innovation brought about through the software revolution.

We can't allow ourselves to be trapped in the tyranny of the present. Mike didn't, and now the future is on the rain-beaten roof of an inspirational teacher in Redmond.

Mike and Meg Town pose in front of their zero-energy solar home that feeds electricity back onto the grid. Clean solar energy is here today and working cost-effectively and reliably all across the country.

Chapter 3

Guide to Alternative Fuels

Guide to Alternative Fuels

Your Alternative Fuel Solution for Saving Money, Reducing Oil Dependency, and Helping the Planet. Ethanol is an alternative to gasoline. The use of ethanol has been demonstrated to reduce greenhouse emissions slightly as compared to gasoline. Through this ebook, you are going to learn what you will need to know why choosing an alternative fuel may benefit you and your future.

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