a Boost to Hydrogen Economy
By Peter Leister, Vice President of Swiss
Nuclear Society and Member of the Board of Directors of
Nice names like Katrina, Rita and Stan are now
associated with three different facts:
the climate change is perceived to be , well
underway, the increasing numbers of disastrous hurricanes
in the Caribic being one of its manifestations
the most vulnerable technical systems are
- and will most likely also be in the future - oil platforms
and large parts of the US oil refineries
oil prices will therefore climb earlier and
reach much higher levels than expected, heralding the imminent
decline of the era of black gold
Now is the right time to act globally.
Is there a chance to escape the inevitable repercussions
of this decline? Yes there is, but the escape route is different
from what we thought before.
Practically all industrial nations depend heavily
on oil as energy source. Although visions and concepts exist of
what our life would be without it, it is impossible to substitute
it in the short term. Surprisingly, the global view of an environmentalist
on our energy future does not differ much from that of a realistic
engineer: hydrogen economy being the magic word. However,
whereas the environmentalist envisages the global era of hydrogen
production based on renewables only, the engineer, more familiar
with the current efficiency figures of technical systems available
maintains that renewables (solar, wind and biomass) will only
be able to play a niche role in the future.
What can be done in the near future and who
can do what?
Large scale substitution of oil by hydrogen would
imply abandoning the corresponding infrastructure and building
up the appropriate new one. This is a very costly process and
experience shows that depending on the market penetration of the
old technology, it may take several decades. If the transition
to a hydrogen economy proves to be at all a viable proposition,
the author ventures two assertions:
First: large industrial nations
will go through a slow shift from oil to hydrogen economy and
will depend on oil imports for another four to six decades.
Second: by contrast, smaller
industrial nations depending on oil imports will have the opportunity
to complete the transition earlier, let’s say within two
decades, but only in specific sectors of their energy consumption.
Using rather simple arguments, it can be shown
that smaller countries thanks to a few distinct economic features
have a chance to start the transition earlier. The characteristic
features of those countries are:
prospering small and medium sized enterprises
less than 10 million inhabitants
good university education
high standard of living
being a small country
Oil and gas consumption for private, public
and industrial heating purposes should be a considerable part
of primary energy import and production. Examples are countries
like Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Latvia, Slovakia, Switzerland
The sector of energy consumption which should
be converted to hydrogen economy first is energy for heating.
How can that goal be reached?
The technological path into this future comprises
Heat production, transportation technology for hydrogen and hydrogen
The transition programs to be started by these countries are
more or less similar.
In the area of heat production existing oil and
gas burners will be replaced by stationary fuel cells. Stationary
fuel cells are more advanced in their development compared to
fuel cells for transport purposes. They are already on the market
and their improvement is being carried out.
These fuel cells are dual purpose cells since
they produce both electricity and heat. Heat is needed for households
or buildings, whereas the electricity produced is fed into the
electrical grid, thus forming at the end of the fuel cell installation
program a certain part of decentralised energy production. A very
welcome by-product of this technology is that due to the growing
number of installed fuel cells the need for daily expensive peak
power will decrease, because the decentralised power producers
will smooth the grid loads signifi-cantly.
The electricity produced by the fuel cells could
be used instead to feed into the grid, too, for local hydrogen
production. The decision will depend on detailed economic calculations
according to an energy master plan of the individual country.
This area of the whole hydrogen economy booster
program will pose neither intellectual nor technical problems
to the countries.
As far as transportation and storage of fuel
for the stationary fuel cells is concerned, viz., two different
kinds of transportation have to be developed. On the one hand
existing natural gas distribution pipelines will continue operation
for a certain time with natural gas and later on they will be
used to transport H2, when the scale of hydrogen production
has increased. Starting fuel cell operation with natural gas is
only a question of extending CO2 emission. This should
be for a limited period only.
On the other hand fuel cells not connected to
the gas pipeline must be fed by hydrogen and transported to the
end-users by bowers.
Development of infrastructure is needed in this area. Fortunately,
current development in transport of H2 by trucks can
be used for storage purposes, too. The most promising technology
is the metal hydrate technology, although considerable effort
is still required. It might take 5 to 10 years before the technology
has reached market maturity.
The remaining third area of the total program
is the industrial production of hydrogen.
Where will hydrogen come from?
To answer this question one has to look at the
technologies offered on the market, promising the highest efficiency.
As mentioned before, renewable energy sources are not seriously
considered to produce hydrogen, since the territories of the countries
will be too small to harvest electricity from wind, sun and biomass
in the amounts required.
The only other reliable, sustainable and environmentally
benign technology is via process heat production by nuclear High
Temperature Reactors. The market has promised these inherently
safe reactors to be mature within one decade. This sounds credible.
Even chemical processes required for cheap hydrogen production
are available and based on well known chemistry. Electrolysis
is not necessarily the best process due to its inefficiency. For
improved efficiency the chemical processes need HTR’s producing
A period of 10 to 15 years to switch from oil
and gas economy to the hydrogen economy is sufficient for heating
Since the small counties do not produce in most
cases their own cars or have their own oil refineries for gasoline
production, they are totally dependent on the global market for
incorporating energy consumption for transportation into their
own hydrogen economy conversion program. And this conversion will
take more time than the replacement of oil/gas by hydrogen.
At the end of the first conversion period, the
countries following this path and creating partly an hydrogen
economy will certainly have spent a lot of money.
But what will they gain?
An enormous impetus onto their economy of manufacturing
and installing fuel cells and development programs as well.
Substitution of oil/gas by hydrogen for heating purposes
Production prices for the energy carrier hydrogen below
those for oil and gas in the future
A considerable part of energy consumption has become environmentally
A knowledge base with a head start marketable to the late
Meeting Kyoto Protocol’s commitments
Improving acceptance of nuclear energy
The investors and financial side of the story
The three different technological areas for the transition to
hydrogen economy in the heating energy sector will need three
different financing models.
As far as the
fuel cell technology is concerned, incentives are necessary
to find investors. Stationary fuel cells are not as cheap
as oil heated boilers on the market. Therefore, initially
low interest rate credits should be granted and investment
costs should be partially subsidized by the government.
The consumption of H2 has to be subsidized,
too, by public hand. The principle should be that the difference
between H2 and oil/gas should be off-set by the government.
In order to keep the management of this kind of financing easy,
it can be regulated via the amount of electricity produced by
the fuel cells and fed into the grid.
As far as H2 transportation and storage
is concerned, further developments of the metal hydrate storage
technology applicable for transportation and storage should be
carried out by government funded research institutions and university,
in the countries which have already started developing this technology.
When maturity is achieved, there will be sufficient entrepreneurs
investing in the H2-bowser fleet as well as into the
Other countries with no own development program
in this area have to wait until the metal hydrate storage technology
is on the market.
For the remaining third technology area, hydrogen
production, there is no financing model needed because the HTRs
and chemical high temperature hydrogen production are well proven
technologies. Their combination does not impose financing problems
onto the booster and transition program for the hydrogen economy.
If the country has already nuclear power capacities,
it will remarkably facilitate and accelerate the transition to
hydrogen economy. Indeed the knowledge of how to operate nuclear
reactors exists already and nuclear technology is already accepted.