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Fuel Cell (FC) Watch

After a brief moment of celebrity as star player in President Bushâ''s fantasy of a â''hydrogen economyâ''â''a momentary box office hit that played just long enough to kill the electric carâ''fuel cells fell out of vogue. But the compact electrochemical devices that generate electricity by a kind of reverse electrolysis still have the potential to be a game changer. In some important respects they are closer to commercialization than photovoltaic cells, and if they should suddenly start down the runway and lift off the way wind energy did a decade ago, they could revolutionize both the automotive and power sectors.

A report released this week by Fuel Cell Today takes stock and offers some suggestive hints. All such reports must be taken with a â''big grain of salt,â'' to use a cliché much beloved in the analyst trade; having done a bit of this work myself on the side, I can tell you that a lot of the numbers you read in such reports are pretty much made up. This is no secret. But Fuel Cell Today describes itself as â''the leading organization for market-based intelligence on the fuel cell industry,â'' and its findings seem plausible and interesting. Among them:

â'¢ Global shipments of fuel cells increased 50 percent in 2008, to an estimated 18,000 units

â'¢ Direct Methanol cells accounted for a growing share, putting a squeeze on standard hydrogen types

â'¢ Through the third quarter, venture capital support remained strong, but dropped sharply in the fourth quarter

â'¢ Happily, substantial government support seems assured in the coming years

Specifically, the European Unionâ''s Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative will spend 500 million euros (about $666 million) on fuel cell development in the five years to 2013. Japanâ''s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is spending $1 billion, and Germanyâ''besides participating in the EUâ''s JTIâ''has its own $2-billion, 10-year program ($200 million per year). The United States at present is slated to spend $130 million/year for three years.

Europe accounts for will over half the worldâ''s fuel cell market, and its share grew markedly last year, as did the role of its manufacturers vis-à-vis U.S. competitors. The major emerging markets, in Fuel Cell Todayâ''s estimation, are India, Latin America, and the Middle East.

As in most areas of green technology, the United States lags well behind Europe and Japan, despite its vigorous entrepreneurial culture, because of 30-plus years of governmental neglect. But even so, after years of upheaval and shaking out in the fuel cell industry, the United States still has two very solid players, one of them a United Technologies subsidiary, the other a determined independent. The latter, FuelCellEnergy, has secured impressive contracts in Japan and South Korea to build power-plant-scale fuel cell installations.

Fuel Cell (FC) Watch

After a brief moment of celebrity as star player in President Bushâ''s fantasy of a â''hydrogen economyâ''â''a momentary box office hit that played just long enough to kill the electric carâ''fuel cells fell out of vogue. But the compact electrochemical devices that generate electricity by a kind of reverse electrolysis still have the potential to be a game changer. In some important respects they are closer to commercialization than photovoltaic cells, and if they should suddenly start down the runway and lift off the way wind energy did a decade ago, they could revolutionize both the automotive and power sectors.

A report released this week by Fuel Cell Today takes stock and offers some suggestive hints. All such reports must be taken with a â''big grain of salt,â'' to use a cliché much beloved in the analyst trade; having done a bit of this work myself on the side, I can tell you that a lot of the numbers you read in such reports are pretty much made up. This is no secret. But Fuel Cell Today describes itself as â''the leading organization for market-based intelligence on the fuel cell industry,â'' and its findings seem plausible and interesting. Among them:

â'¢ Global shipments of fuel cells increased 50 percent in 2008, to an estimated 18,000 units

â'¢ Direct Methanol cells accounted for a growing share, putting a squeeze on standard hydrogen types

â'¢ Through the third quarter, venture capital support remained strong, but dropped sharply in the fourth quarter

â'¢ Happily, substantial government support seems assured in the coming years

Specifically, the European Unionâ''s Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative will spend 500 million euros (about $666 million) on fuel cell development in the five years to 2013. Japanâ''s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is spending $1 billion, and Germanyâ''besides participating in the EUâ''s JTIâ''has its own $2-billion, 10-year program ($200 million per year). The United States at present is slated to spend $130 million/year for three years.

Europe accounts for will over half the worldâ''s fuel cell market, and its share grew markedly last year, as did the role of its manufacturers vis-à-vis U.S. competitors. The major emerging markets, in Fuel Cell Todayâ''s estimation, are India, Latin America, and the Middle East.

As in most areas of green technology, the United States lags well behind Europe and Japan, despite its vigorous entrepreneurial culture, because of 30-plus years of governmental neglect. But even so, after years of upheaval and shaking out in the fuel cell industry, the United States still has two very solid players, one of them a General Dynamics subsidiary, the other a determined independent. The latter, FuelCellEnergy, has secured impressive contracts in Japan and South Korea to build power-plant-scale fuel cell installations.

Two Reports Highlight U.S.-China Climate Issues

One, â''Common Challenge, Collaborative Response,â'' comes from The Asia Societyâ''s Center on U.S.-China Relations and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Itâ''s noteworthy above all because it comes from a task force chaired by Nobelist Steven Chu, the new energy secretary, and John L. Thornton, an Asia expert and former co-COO of Goldman Sachs. The other, a little confusingly, comes courtesy of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. Written primarily by two men youâ''ve probably never heard of, David B. Sandalow and Kenneth G. Lieberthal, it actually has some interesting things to say.

Ten years ago, in the November and December 1999 issues of IEEE Spectrum magazine, we drew attention to the critical importance of coal combustion in China and India, and discussed the implications for climate and clean energy technologies. If advanced industrial countries like the United States â''want to mitigate the risks of climate change, after cleaning up for themselves and getting their owns houses in order,â'' we said at that time, â''the next best thing they can do is help China and India do the same.â''

Since then, Chinaâ''s greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from coal combustion, have come to equal or surpass those of the United States. On a per capital basis, however, the Chinese peopleâ''s emissions remain a tiny fraction of Americansâ''. Hence the enduring difficulty of finding common constructive ground, the focus to todayâ''s two reports.

The Chu-Thornton report calls on the leaders of the two countries to convene a climate summit. Specifically, it says the two countries need to find ways of continuing to make electricity from coal, by developing clean coal technologies; collaborate to enhance energy efficiency and deploy renewable energy technologies; and find â''innovative finance mechanisms,â'' so that the private sectors can be better engaged. Those conclusions will strike many as less than compelling. Zero-carbon coal technologies are still far from commercialization, and to the extent they are being actively developed today, the Scandinavians, not potential partners in the United States, are leading the way. In the meantime, emissions from coal can be cut only by burning less coal, and that can occur only if non-renewable as well as renewable energy sources are drawn uponâ''specifically, more natural gas and more nuclear power. Improving efficiency is a good thing but runs up against the efficiency paradox: the more efficient and the more inexpensive energy is, the more people use. So mandated conservation measures also will be required. As for financial innovations . . . the less said, these days, the better.

The Sandalow-Lieberthal report, at least to judge from the executive summaries, is more substantive. It suggests, for example, efforts to electrify vehicle fleets and improve the energy efficiency of buildings, and creation of a joint Clean Energy Corpsâ''a kind of mutual Peace Corps. It says the two countries should initiate at least one major technology co-development project. Identifying an area of genuine U.S. technical strength, it says that the United States can help China in â''large-scale database management, and instrumentation that can contribute significantly to Beijingâ''s capacities to monitor and evaluate energy policy outcomes.â''

Like Chu-Thornton, Sandalow-Lieberthal say there should be a U.S.-China summit as soon as possible, and that cooperation on climate change and clean energy should be a key topic. As it happens, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that she will soon travel to China, and that climate will be high on her agenda.

Now weâ''re really talking.

Michigan Announces 45-by-20 Renewable Goal

Last September, at a speech at Eastern Michigan University, Thomas Friedman chided the state of Michigan on its lax renewable portfolio standard and challenged it to revamp its economy away from auto manufacturing dependence by adopting the most aggressive rps in the country--30 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2040. In her State of the State address on February 3, Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced a far more ambitious plan, pledging that 45 percent of the state's electricity will be generated by renewable energy by 2020.

Beyond its "45-by-20" target, the Michigan plan is noteworthy in the way that it ties its renewables goal to job creation in the state. Granholm is asking the Michigan legislature to enact a law that will give every utility customer--residential, commercial and industrial--the chance to be a â''renewable energy entrepreneurâ'' by selling back to the grid the renewable energy generated on-site from solar panels, wind turbines or other renewable sources. The Governor is also asking the Public Service Commission to change the way it regulates utility ratesâ''allowing utilities, through a reform of the rate setting mechanism, to make money when they enable customers to cut their electricity use.

Electricity customers of all classes will also have the opportunity to weatherize their homes and install energy efficiency technologies with zero upfront costs through a â''Pay As You Saveâ'' system. The cost of the associated improvements and equipment, including financing, will be added to the customerâ''s utility bill on an installment basis. A portion of the added costs are expected to be offset by fuel savings. The governor said that the state will also require all utilities that have filed plans for new coal fired generatorsâ''eight are currently proposed-- to resubmit generation plans in light of the new RPS standard.

Granholm intends these initiatives not only to encourage more renewable generation but to generate employment for laid off workers installing and manufacturing turbines, panels, and energy saving devices. She also announced a new â''Michigan Energy Corpsâ'' that will put unemployed residents to work weatherizing 100,000 homes and 1000 buildings over the next year.

Energy Secretary Warns of California Agriculture Collapse

In his first interview since taking office, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu told the LA Times that if worst-case greenhouse gas projections materialize, 90 percent of the Sierra snow pack could disappear by the end of the century, threatening water supplies to farms and cities. â''Weâ''re looking at a scenario where thereâ''s no more agriculture in California,â'' he said. Chu compared the countryâ''s situation to one in which the owner of new home is told that the house could burn down unless itâ''s rewired. â''Iâ''m hoping that the American people will wake upâ'' and take care of the rewiring, he said. â''I donâ''t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen.â''

For the record, Iâ''ll tell you when I gripped in my gut what could happen. It was only after writing a book about climate change, actually, when I happened to drive from New York to New Orleans. My route took me down through West Virginia and then straight west to Memphis, Tennessee, on the Mississippi River. When I got roughly to Graceland, Elvis Presleyâ''s mansion in south Memphis, I turned left and headed straight south for Mississippi. Soon I crossed the state line, and then shortly after that, virtually from one minute to the next, the landscape changed totally. It was no longer the verdant and fertile rolling hills of Kentucky and Tennessee; it was flat, yellow, arid, and scruffy. I was in the Deep South.

The change had not been gradual. When I crossed some invisible line, I had stepped from one giant ecosystem into another. What if that line were to move a hundred or two hundred or three hundred miles north, so that large parts of Americaâ''s breadbasketâ''Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Missouriâ''were no longer in the North but in the South? And what if every other one of the worldâ''s breadbaskets were to experience similar simultaneous changes?

In my book, I had wanted to include a technical illustration prepared by scientists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in which the Illinois climate was shown, in a hundred-year scenario, to be the same as East Texasâ''s. (The map showed the state of Illinois superimposed on Texas.) An editor found the map too sensationalistic. We argued. Having never actually been to East Texas, I threw in the towel and let the map be deleted. In retrospect, I wish I stuck to my guns.

FERC Boss Dubs the Plug-in a 'Cashback' Hybrid

nrel-prius-plug-in-hybrid-demo-vehicleThe head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) predicts that plug-in hybrid vehicles will provide immense benefit to power grid operators -- enough for utilities to provide kickbacks to their customers, paying down the extra cost of a plug-in in as little as three years. Jon Wellinghoff, FERC's acting chairman, made that comment at a Las Vegas trade show last week according to coverage by the Las Vegas Review-Journal (which I picked up on thanks to the keen newswatching eyes of specialty publication EV World).

Wellinghoff's comments refer to plug-in hybrids equipped with the smarts to communicate with the power grid, which he termed the "Cashback Hybrid" according to the Review-Journal article:

When the Cashback is plugged in, motorists can allow the utility to vary the speed at which the battery recharges so that the utility can more closely match supply and demand for power on the electric grid...In return, the car owner could obtain cash back or a credit from the utility that makes the electricity free, he said.

Energywise reported last week that these 'cashback' plug-ins may also pay dividends for the environment by reducing air pollution from power plants. One reader found my explanation of the research behind that report -- a study of the Texas grid from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory -- less than fully transparent, so here's another go:

The idea is that utilities can control when and how quickly a plug-in recharges -- the scenario Wellinghoff invokes -- and thus use this control to smooth out power demand. They can fill dips in demand by increasing the charging rate of the plug-ins, and clip peaks in demand by pulling back on the charging throttle. This smoother power demand means the utilities have less need to throttle up and down the 'peaking' plants normally used to track supply and demand -- a process that releases a disproportionate share of smog-forming NOx.

In the main case NREL modeled -- the Texas grid supporting plug-in hybrids equal to 15% of the state's vehicle fleet -- net NOx emissions decline despite the added power generation required to charge the vehicles. NREL predicts even greater reductions in NOx, as well as cuts in sulfur dioxide and CO2, if the utility's have the additional power of drawing charge out of the vehicle batteries (so-called vehicle-to-grid capability).

Again, these results hold true for Texas and remain to be confirmed for other grids.

PNAS Paper Details Irreversible Climate Change

A paper posted today by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences spells out human-induced climate changes that will be irreversible for as much as 1,000 years after greenhouse gas emissions stop. The findings are not notably new, but are sharper and more precise, and have extra weight especially because of the scientific prestige of the lead author, the atmospheric chemist Susan Solomon. Solomon is famous for elucidating the dynamics of the Antarctic ozone hole and was the leader of the IPCCâ''s most recent Working Group 1, which reported on the physical science basis of climate change.

â''Following cessation of emissions,â'' says the abstract of the PNAS paper, â''removal of carbon dioxide reduces radiative forcing, but is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the ocean, so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop for at least 1,000 years.â'' If atmospheric CO2 rises from 385 parts per million today to levels between 450 and 600 ppm in the coming century, as expected, we can expect to see â''irreversible dry season rain reductions in several regions comparable to the â''dust bowlâ'' era [in the United States] and inexorable sea level rise.â''

Electric Vehicles Can Cut Power Plant Pollution

Last week Energywise reminded that doing right by the environment is more complicated than simply downsizing the carbon footprint. Shifting to soot-free power sources will reduce mortality in cities, we noted, while increased use of variable wind power could jack up emissions of smog-forming NOx from the 'peaking power' plants that ramp up and down to balance electrical supply and demand.

Now power grid modelers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory add another twist to this story with a report that electric vehicles (EVs) plugged into the grid can reduce NOx emissions and possibly more. Their report "Emissions Impacts and Benefits of Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles and Vehicle-to-Grid Services" appears in the January 22 issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Ramteen Sioshansi (now at Ohio State University) and NREL's Paul Denholm found that putting electric vehicles on the grid had the opposite effect of adding variable renewable energy sources: whereas wind turbines put extra stress on the power plants balancing the grid's supply and demand, electric vehicles can act as shock-absorbers.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles accounting for just 15% of the U.S. car fleet, for example, could provide enough buffer in the electrical signal to cut NOx emissions during the summer ozone season. And that despite the need to generate extra electricity to recharge the plug-ins. As the authors put it, the PHEVs can behave like extra 'spinning reserves' to take strain off the peaking plants:

When PHEVs act as a source of spinning reserves, they allow the system to operate more efficiently, decreasing the emissions from peaking units and partially loaded power plants currently used to provide ancillary services.

Adding more sophisticated vehicle-to-grid (V2G) controls that enable the grid to direct charging and discharging of EVs can cut NOx emissions further and also reduce emissions of CO2 and sulfur dioxide, by enabling grid controllers to dial-in use of the most efficient power plants.

V2G services can substantially reduce generator emissions of CO2, in some cases eliminating more than 80% of the increase in generator emissions of CO2 from introducing the PHEV fleet.

One caveat, just to make life more complicated: the authors predict that emissions impacts of PHEVs will be highly sensitive to the mix of power generators on a given section of the grid. The results above are for Texas.

The New John Dingell and the Gang of 10 (15)

For a generation, Michigan Congressman John Dingell has been the U.S. auto industryâ''s most effective advocate in government and the sharpest critic of air regulation that could threaten the industryâ''s perceived interests. He also has been a fierce investigator, whose staff is feared by anybody who has the misfortune to drift into its target sights. But in the new Congress, California Congressman Henry Waxman--the most effective advocate of stronger air regulation in government--unseated Dingell as chairman of the key committee handling energy and the environment. It was a controversial breach of normal congressional etiquette that went down poorly even among some Waxman allies, including Congressman Barney Frank, who has emerged as the Democratsâ'' pointman in all matters pertaining to the global financial crisis.

In my blog post yesterday, I drew attention to Obamaâ''s instructions to sharply tighten auto fuel efficiency standards, and to the immense technical challenge those instructions represent for the deeply troubled U.S. auto industry. In a New York Times article expanding on that theme today, David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., is quoted as saying that adoption of the California standards â''would basically kill the industry.â'' Erich Merkle, an independent automotive analyst in Grand Rapids, Mich., predicts that there will be â''consumer outrage with the fact that theyâ''re limited to maybe two vehicles and thereâ''s nothing there that would meet their familyâ''s needs.â''

But listen to the new Dingell, as quoted in the same article: â''President Obama and I both share the goal of energy independence and a cleaner environment for our children and grandchildren. We have a unique opportunity in history to address the issue of global climate change and we must take bold and balanced action.â'' Having said that, Dingell expressed hope that Obama would not let a patchwork of national air regulation develop--decoded, that means Dingell hopes Obama will not let California set national fuel efficiency standards.

Donâ''t count Dingell and his Midwestern political allies out. As another article in todayâ''s New York Times points out, representatives of the two coasts have been tending to set the climate agenda, but coal-burning states in the Midwest and Southwest will be most adversely affected by any attempt to set a price on carbon (whether by cap-and-trade or a tax). Representatives of those states in Congress formed a Gang of 10 last year, which subsequently expanded to 16 and now has dropped back to 15, with the entry of one member into Obamaâ''s Cabinet (as Secretary of the Interior).

Dingell is a warhorse highly experienced in political combat. Even without his committee chairmanship, he will have a big influence on whatever climate and energy independence plans are adopted.

Obama Orders Sharp Tightening of Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

This morning, as expected, President Obama told the Transportation Department to draft implementing rules, pursuant to 2007 legislation, calling for a 40 percent improvement in automotive fuel efficiency by 2020. Even more importantly, he instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to act on an application by California and 13 other states to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks (including, notably, SUVs). That decision reverses Bush Administration policy and comes the same day Lisa Jackson was sworn in as new EPA Administrator.

If EPA gives California the go-ahead to set its preferred standards, the effect could be to increase the average required fuel efficiency of cars and trucks to 35 mph from 27 mph now, by 2016. Thatâ''s four years faster than the Federal government proposes to have the industry achieve that efficiency, and itâ''s a technically challenging goal. To put it in a personal perspective, my own Mini Cooper, which is one of the smallest vehicles on the road in the United States, gets only 37 mph under optimal conditions and on average no better than 32 mph. The Mini is in some respects a high-performance sports car cleverly disguised as just a cute family sedan, to be sure; but taking Americansâ'' historical preferences into account and the ways the U.S. auto industry has sought to satisfy them, the new rules will represent a radical shift.

How much is the industry at fault for current problems, and how much public support does it deserve to get, as it retools? In a February Scientific American column, Columbia Universityâ''s Jeffrey Sachs argues that four fundamental points deserve more emphasis; two seem noteworthy. â''The automakersâ'' plight is the result of the dramatic collapse of all domestic vehicle sales rather than the U.Sâ''s declining share of those sales,â'' writes Sachs, and â''the public and political leadership bear huge co-responsibility with industry for the misguided SUV era.â''

Sachs argues that a new public-private partnership will be vital to reviving and reorienting the U.S. automobile industry. He points out that in recent years, the Federal government has spent about as much on energy r&d each year as the Pentagon has spent in two days.

NOTE: EPA Administrator Jackson came under some fire for her environmental record in New Jersey, especially from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. But efforts by a few Republicans to stall her confirmation appear to have been pro forma.

SEPARATELY: the Atlantic Monthlyâ''s Marc Ambinder reported in his blog earlier today that Obama would appoint Washington lawyer and climate change expert Todd Stern as his chief envoy on global climate change, with the title Under Secretary of State. Stern most recently worked as a senior deputy to John Podesta at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

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