From oil-dependent past to hydrogen future

by Stephen Hesse

Making a global transition from fossil fuels to clean hydrogen-energy systems seems like pure science fiction — until you meet Amory Lovins.

Not only can Lovins outline the specifics of a practical hydrogen future, he also has a proven track record of transforming fiction into fact.

Take, for example, Lovins’ home and office, the Rocky Mountain Institute, 2,200 meters up in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, where the temperature can drop to minus 44 degrees, and cloud cover can last for weeks on end in winter. “And yet,” he says, “if you come in out of a snow storm into [the RMI's] central atrium, there you are in the banana farm where we have harvested 27 banana crops.” Not bad for a building that has no heating system, because, according to Lovins, “We don’t need one and it’s cheaper not to install one.”

The RMI building has “insulation and windows that insulate like 8 to 12 sheets of glass,” and a ventilation heat-recovery system that eliminated the need for a heating system, thus lowering construction costs. With the money saved, “plus a little more,” Lovins and his colleagues built a system that saves “95 percent of water-heating energy, half of water, and 90 percent of the household electricity — which costs about 7,000 yen per year for the 372-sq.-meter building, and all of that paid for itself in 10 months.”

The clincher is that this was done with technology available in 1983. “Now,” he says, “we can do better.” Even today, though, most builders remain blind to such innovation.

Lovins, who is an experimental physicist by training, is best known for his groundbreaking work on energy- and resource-use strategies. Last month he was in Tokyo to give a presentation at the United Nations University on the highlights of an RMI plan to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen by combining car- and building-energy systems.

As radical as this may sound, the hydrogen transition is already well under way. According to Odd-Even Bustnes, special aide to Lovins, there are several bright spots around the globe — including one just around the corner. “On Yakushima Island there is a very well-thought-out initiative to make Japan’s first hydrogen-based economy,” he notes, “Iceland is another, and Hawaii may be a third. Vanuatu and other island states are all considering making the move — for example, the North Mariana Islands.” Bustnes also expects developments in “hydro-rich regions such as British Columbia and New Zealand.”

China, too, which is expected to have an unquenchable thirst for energy in years to come, is intrigued. “Very keen interest from the top levels of government is leading several developments in various regions of China toward developing hydrogen-based regional economies,” says Bustnes.

Lovins believes that the most logical way to begin the transition to hydrogen-energy generation is to begin making “super-efficient direct hydrogen fuel-cell cars that can be plugged in at power stations when they are parked.” He and his colleagues have been working on revolutionary car designs for a decade, but it was not until 2000 that the rubber finally met the road. That year, with the help of top designers, industrial partners, several million dollars and eight months of work, the Hypercar zero-emissions concept vehicle emerged.

“The concept car, of which we have a production-costed, manufacturable version designed, can carry five adults in comfort, has nearly 2 cu. meters of cargo space, takes almost half-a-ton up a 44-percent slope, and weighs only 857 kg, which is less than half the normal weight for a car this size, like the Lexus RX300,” says Lovins. “In fact, it weighs the same as my aluminum, 2-seat Honda Insight hybrid car. And yet the simulation says that the carbon fiber, which makes it so light, is so strong that it can hit a wall at 56 kph with no damage to the passenger compartment.

“It accelerates 0-100 kph in 8.3 seconds, and averages the equivalent of 42 km per liter. It runs on safely stored, compressed hydrogen in commercially available tanks. But the reason it uses so little hydrogen is not only the efficiency of the fuel cell, but more fundamentally it is that the car itself is so light and so low in drag that it can cruise at 89 kph on the same power to the wheels that, say, the Lexus this size uses just for its air conditioner,” says Lovins.

“And instead of health-threatening pollutants, the only emission from a fuel-cell car is water,” he adds.

At 50,000 units per year, Lovins believes the car can be made at costs competitive with sport-utility vehicles, “but with much less — maybe 10 times less — capital, assembly effort, space and parts count.” He has his own body design sitting on supercomputers, but the car “could look like anything you want, it can be any model, style, size.”

These light, efficient cars could run on compressed hydrogen gas stored in small, safe, onboard tanks — which is where buildings come in. According to Lovins, it makes sense for fuel cells to go into buildings first, since buildings use two-thirds of all electricity. In addition, buildings can house miniature natural-gas “reformers” that can extract hydrogen from natural gas, or use cheap off-peak electricity to electrolyze hydrogen from water.

Cars could then be fueled at apartment buildings and company depots, making heavy, onboard reformers unnecessary and also limiting the need for a broad network of fueling stations. Later, as gas reformers and electrolyzers become cheaper, it would be cost-effective to set them up like today’s gas stations.

Lovins also sees a revolution in electricity. Rather than selling it as a raw commodity, “Turn it into a value-added product,” he urges. “If you have hydroelectric dams, as you do [in Japan], or geothermal plants, run them in a mode we call hydro-gen; that is, use the electricity to make hydrogen and ship that as the product, and you make much more profit than by selling electricity.”

In Japan the transition has begun. Next week, Toyota will become the first carmaker to put hydrogen vehicles on the market, leasing fuel-cell hybrid vehicles to government offices in Tokyo. Simply using fuel cells in ordinary cars, though, will prove prohibitively expensive, says Bustnes. “If Japan goes the route of standard cars with onboard reforming, it would likely permanently disadvantage its hydrogen-car industry.” Lighter cars are necessary to reduce costs and raise efficiency, he says.

And Toyota has competition. “The heads of four major oil companies and several major car companies have already stated publicly that we are entering the oil endgame and the beginning of the hydrogen era,” says Lovins — proving once again that he is way ahead of the pack; making fact out of fiction.