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A Nation of Small Sunfarmers

by nanne Sat Aug 9th, 2008 at 06:27:24 AM EST

A breakthrough by the MIT in generating hydrogen through electrolysis has spurred an astounding bout of wildly off-base reporting. It was heralded as a breakthrough in solar power, and even credited with knocking some dollars of the oil price by excitable, uncritical reporters.

Electrolysis does not discriminate as to the source of the electrical current. Anyone covering science or green innovation should immediately recognise this.

The new procedure generated this amount of coverage because the scientist responsible (Daniel Nocera) framed it effectively in the context of a powerful myth: the myth of the autonomous, self-sufficient, energy-producing home. This myth is ubiquitous in talk of a hydrogen economy.

It starts with the MIT Press Release:

In a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative into a mainstream energy source, MIT researchers have overcome a major barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn't shine.

Promoted by afew

As an aside: is this the sort of shameless self-hyping we will come to expect from privately funded research programmes? Just wondering.

Joe Romm, noted hydrogen economy sceptic, rips into it on Gristmill:

As we'll see, they have not developed an efficient storage process -- and we have no idea if it's cheap because they don't have anything near a commercial prototype (indeed, they have not even solved all of the scientific challenges). But in any case, we already have an inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy -- it's called solar baseload.

Yes, solar PV would benefit from cheap storage, but PV's biggest problem is simply its high price, which is expected to drop rapidly in the coming years. And, in any case, for industrialized countries, you can't get too excited about storing daytime PV electricity -- which avoids expensive peak power -- and shifting it to the nighttime, where extra power is almost worthless.

But people (at least in the press) don't want practicality. They want a dream. This dream:
Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera's lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun's energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night. [my italics]

You can take the italicised part and put it straight into the TV advertisement. And here's a graph to go along with that:

As Honda shows, though, there is some room for improvement for the marketing department of the MIT.

(that's from Honda's FCX Clarity programme, the FCX Clarity is a fuel cell vehicle currently being leased to selected individuals in Southern California)

If all of that is possible and becomes affordable, then sure, why not. But we should keep the bottom line in mind, which is best displayed in the following chart:

(From the wiki on a hydrogen economy. Note that while an electric car can also be charged with a home fuel cell, this will have similar inefficiency).

Nocera has successfully made one component of that cycle a lot easier (his discovery pertains to one step in the electrolysis process). Not necessarily more efficient, though. But we use hydrogen for a lot of different things, so any discovery that makes it cheaper to generate through electrolysis is useful.

The myth Nocera is pushing is however not entirely harmless. This is something that was addressed by margouillat in the thought-provoking diary 'The drifting of the "City"':

Others again dream of the "village" as an utopia... ( Sarcelles is a village, same density per m2, a child must know at least 150 names of people not of his family that he crosses in the day, as in a village, while the urban child stops at about 50, etc.)

The villages in the countryside have, in the meantime, dwindled, left over to the few professionals of farming (just like the Gallo-Roman farm that was an industry).
Still, because of technology, the dream of the "original village" is in the mind of many. To live in the countryside with a distant on-line work... With an autonomous house, in a new form of self-sufficiency ! To be with real people, mostly friends whom you can talk to... (those never went in a countryside bar at 6 A.M.)!

The individual housing dream has pushed to the development of thousand  of "new" villages ("lotissements" in french), clusters of small cheap houses with millions of square meters of nice watertight roads to get there, lighted at night, with water pipes, electricity cable (copper), drains, etc... Usually built on excellent agricultural land! All these "Monopoly" houses sit right in the middle of the parcel of land, accentuating the isolation feeling !
When asked, the inhabitants say that's because "they want to be free to do whatever they want, at anytime of the day or of the night, without being pestered by neighbors"... ( speak of social bonds!). In truth, they lose two hours of transportation to go to work, are to tired to mow the grass, and yell at their kids if they are too noisy...!

Microgeneration, more distributed power and decentral storage can be good concepts. They could increase the resilience of the power grid. But that's still a different concept from this dream of individual energy independence. Some people are doubtlessly going to want and get a home energy package that powers their car and all their appliances, day and night, etcetera. But it's not going to be more than a marginal part of the solution.

... presently for hydrogen research getting a possible breakthrough in terms of existing hydrogen technology and selling the research results, as one must do in these days of short-sighted R&D funding, using the biggest splash argument they can.

But note that the conversion of H20 could be at the impossible 100% thermodynamic efficiency, and the power source -> motor energy efficiency is still only 36%, compared to 86 with current battery technology.

So in reality, it still leaves Hydrogen nowhere in terms of the plug and play fantasy ... which, as its a fantasy, is not all that surprising.

Getting back down to earth, as noted in the diary, its still good news ... as we move from the age of cheap oil to the age of net energy return on investment, higher efficiency or lower capital cost hydrogen electrolysis could be a tremendous boost to ammonium production from volatile, sustainable energy sources.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Aug 6th, 2008 at 01:07:11 PM EST
This is from a blog post Jerome linked to:
Why Oil Really Fell Today--and Could Keep Falling - Capital Commerce (usnews.com)
Bottom line: I think research into alternative energy technology is moving ahead way faster than the Washington politicians realize. (But we still need to exploit oil and coal and nuclear to bridge the gap from a hydrocarbon to post-hydrocarbon economy.) And it is all happening without spending trillions of dollars in taxpayer money for energy-themed Manhattan Projects or Apollo programs. This possible breakthrough came from MIT's Solar Revolution Project, which was funded to the tune of $10 million by telecommunications entrepreneur Arunas Chesonis. Heroic capitalism strikes again.

The funding is already there, but the need for marketing continues.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Wed Aug 6th, 2008 at 02:10:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Researchers chase the funding that's there, not the funding they wish was there. The shifting sources of funding has increased the benefit of being able to generate a flurry of publicity irrespective of whether its found on BS.

And the reason that the research is channeled into hydrogen is because of the Bush decision that pushing hydrogen gave them a target that was far off enough in the distance that they could use it to justify killing off real, ready-today technologies, like the zero emissions mandate in California that was forcing auto companies to put electric cars on the road.

The article above is, of course, opposed to an "Energy Apollo program", because an "Energy Apollo program" runs the risk of a substantial amount of money being made available to not just research but also development that is not under the thumb of a corporate boardroom.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Aug 6th, 2008 at 02:19:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This cover from Nat Geo 1975 is the ammonia producing Windship concept of my mentor, Prof. Wm. Heronemus.

As the former chief designer of the Nautilus class of nuclear submarines, "The Captain" (USN, ret.) knew his way around the ocean.  A large portion of the top engineering execs in US windpower went through his program at UMass Amherst.  Here's the ammonia version from Popular Science around the same time.

Today's versions of the designs are very much more sophisticated.  He passed on a few years ago, and i miss his cantankerous wisdom dearly.

The concept of multiple rotors replacing one large rotor is that each level is tuned to the stronger winds it sees, giving higher efficiencies than a super rotor.  Despite many more parts, they are much easier and cheaper to mass produce to rigorous standards.  Further, there is little risk today for a 20 meter rotor, while the super rotors have many unknowns remaining.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin

by Crazy Horse on Wed Aug 6th, 2008 at 07:04:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... as a diary on Agent Orange.

It struck me that this could well be a very useful breakthrough indeed in the creation of ammonium from surplus windpower out on the high plains.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Aug 6th, 2008 at 05:15:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's some level of discussion you got there, for DKos standards. Very informative thread.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Wed Aug 6th, 2008 at 06:50:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah ... I posted a link to it on the dKos environmentalists mail list, and it seems to have attracted a lot of the regulars, while luckily avoiding the wrecklist.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Aug 6th, 2008 at 07:36:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Mike Strizki has already built a solar hydrogen homestead in NJ.  He has PV panels which produce hydrogen which he uses to run his vehicle.  He did it a few years ago for $150,000 which is not bad for a first working prototype.  The cost would probably be dramatically reduced if economies of scale could come into play.

Strizki is now working on building a similar system for Johnny Depp's island get-away.

Historically, Edison and Ford teamed up to produce electric homes using co-generators, batteries, and backyard windmills that would provide enough power for both the house and at least one vehicle.  They tried to market their ideas in 1914 but WWI and, allegedly, industrial sabotage killed the project.

I say start small.  Solar IS Civil Defense - a flashlight, radio or cell phone, and an extra set of batteries all powered by sunlight.  Combine the solar with a hand crank or pedal power generator and you have a reliable source of low voltage DC power day or night by sunlight or muscle power.  You can do this for around $100.  Today.

Solar IS Civil Defense

by gmoke on Wed Aug 6th, 2008 at 02:50:31 PM EST
As much as some people like the concept of being completely independent, there are such things as economies of scale.  Decentralization down to the level of households is lunacy.  For one thing, who's going to maintain (or operate, for that matter) thousands of individual PV H2 producers scattered everywhere?  The homeowner?  
by tjbuff (timhess@adelphia.net) on Sat Aug 9th, 2008 at 01:49:42 PM EST
... of the individual household is fine for those things that do not have substantial economies of scale and scope. After all, they make for a more robust, resilient system.

But the notion that those things that do not have substantial economies of scale and scope will add up to Energy Autarky is silly, because a substantial economy of scope comes from harvesting a wide variety of sustainable renewable power sources over a wide area and moving surpluses from one area to meet immediate demands in deficit areas, instead of ever storing it in the first place.

And the diary makes an important point that deserves highlighting.  Energy autarky requires that everyone live on a property large enough to provide their energy needs ... which is an incentive to larger houses and larger energy needs. We are better off with four households living in their individual residences in the form of two pairs of stacked townhouses, than with four households living in four separate ranch plan houses with the same floor space, even though the total roof area of the four separate ranch plan houses is larger.

After all, the smaller area per square foot floor space of the side by side stacked townhouses that sacrifices the roof area for photo-voltaic cells also reduces total energy demand to heat and cool the rooms of the residences to any given level.

There is a given per person energy budget that can be renewably sustained, and side by side with ignoring commercial scale economies is ignoring scale economies in Energy Return on Investment.

This is all to the side of the point that the claims regarding the energy efficiency breakthrough of this new technology do not appear to have any foundation (Oil Drum).

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Aug 10th, 2008 at 11:44:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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