Thursday, December 08, 2016

Hydrogen Futures?

Find the podcast at from Friday 9th December

A special welcome to listeners in the US, and to the increasing number of listeners in France, Canada, Australia and Mexico. 

This week, a detailed look at the future of transport and sustainable transport in particular. News from OPEC and will they really drive the price of oil up? And while they are all pumping out the black stuff - less of it than before - the Chinese are digging out more of their black stuff - coal. The winter outlook for electricity supplies, is it as rosy as we thought? Some commentators predict that the UK and France could be in for a shock if it gets really cold in January. 

The Question 

First, sustainable transport. A friend of mine - let’s call him Michael J for the sake of argument - recently posted the following on social media and raised a lot of important questions.

“I believe I'm reasonably intelligent,” he says, “but there are two related issues that are troubling me.

“I'm a car driver, I love driving simply for the pleasure of driving and I love my cars - hence my classic Sunbeam Alpine. But I don't understand the following:

“First. I don't get driverless cars. I love the thrill of driving and the freedom to go where I want. If I want to be driven I either ask my partner to drive, use a coach or use the train. So why are we investing so much money in something that already exists namely the bus, the coach or the train? Those who think it is the future aren't real drivers.

“Second. Why are we investing so much in one future technology and not another? I mean electric cars and not hydrogen fuelled. Both cut emissions but one is environmentally unfriendly in the production of the batteries. Plus you can get a couple of hundred miles and then wait hours to recharge the batteries. The other is environmentally friendly…and you can refill in a few minutes and be on your way.
“The first is getting billions of government support and manufacturers’ investment whilst the second is getting relatively nothing. We all know Betamax was better quality then VHS but still the wrong one won out. 
“This is a far bigger matter and I hope we don't get this one wrong.
“Just wondering!”

Driverless Cars

Let’s look first at driverless cars, or Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), Michael. The big difference from buses, coaches and trains is that driverless cars will take you from door to door, not just from a station or stop somewhere near your start point to a station fairly near your destination. HS2, the planned high speed line from London to the Midlands and the North, is likely to be built in long straight lines to permit very high speeds. In some places this means that the stations will be built away from the cities they serve, so the time saved on the train will be offset by the need to change to another mode of transport to complete the journey to the final destination. I’ve even heard it suggested that AVs will make HS2 obsolete. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would certainly expect them to offer stiff competition to conventional buses, trains and coaches.

There are many other aspects to AVs, in terms of safety, availability, efficiency and privacy. I don’t think it will be long before AVs will be the only vehicles permitted into urban areas. People who live out in the country will either have to change vehicles at the edge of the city or to use cars with a dual driver/driverless capability. Driverless mode will be automatically switched on in urban areas. All new Tesla cars are now fitted with the hardware needed for driverless operation. Safety is a major advantage of AVs. Over 90% of accidents are currently caused by human error. With AVs the number of accidents is expected to fall by over 90%, and insurance premiums will drop dramatically as well. There is a current press campaign to increase the sentences for those who cause death by dangerous driving or by using their mobile phones while driving. With AVs there will be no more boy racers in the wrong place and no more police pursuits. It will be perfectly acceptable to use the phone, play games, watch TV or just doze off on the way to work.  

AV availability means that you could use the car even after a heavy night out with lots to drink. It will just take you home. An AV could be used for the school run, carrying unaccompanied children. Of course there would need to be some contact with a control room for safety’s sake and some people will have a problem with the idea that someone will always know where you are and where you’ve been. However, with automatic numberplate recognition and more CCTV cameras per head of population than any other country in the world, we’re already well down that road in the UK.

Another aspect of availability raises the question of whether you need to own a car at all. In Europe the average car is parked and idle for over 90% of its life. A single car in a car club can meet the needs of 60 people. Yes, but if you join a car club do you want to walk in the rain to a collection point instead of stepping into your own car just outside your front door? But taxi firm Uber is investing heavily in robotics research. In the age of the driverless car you’ll just call up a vehicle on your smartphone and it will roll up at your door like a taxi, but without the taxi driver. And when you get to your destination you won’t have to park it. In cities a significant amount of congestion (and pollution) is caused by cars trying to find a parking space.

AVs will be efficient. They will all be part of a network and will all accelerate and slow down together with no risk of collision. Avoiding harsh braking and acceleration will reduce energy consumption and wear on tyres and brakes. Traffic lights will be unnecessary, because every car will “know” where every other car is going.

The driverless future is exciting - and total anathema for petrolheads. Invest in racetracks.

Electric or Hydrogen?

The other point that Michael raised was why electric cars and not hydrogen cars? Incidentally I don’t think it’s the government, certainly not the UK government, that’s funding research into either of these.

Several companies already have hydrogen fuel cell cars - including the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell, Honda FCX Clarity, Hyundai ix35 FCEV and Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell. In the UK you can buy a Toyota Mirai. It’s about the size of a Ford Mondeo, has a range of over 300 miles and can be refuelled in 5 minutes. Like all electric cars, because the hydrogen fuel cell drives an electric motor, maximum torque is available from rest, so its acceleration beats almost anything else on the road. In operation it is totally clean. The only emission is pure water. 

At the moment there are only eight hydrogen filling stations in the UK and if you run out of fuel you can’t top up from a jerrycan at the side of the road. The tank has to be filled at high pressure. The Toyota Mirai costs £66,000. Yes, of course this would come down if the car were mass produced, but there are a number of other problems with Hydrogen.

First, 95% of hydrogen is currently manufactured from methane, natural gas. The principal by-product is carbon dioxide, so while the process is cleaner than a diesel car it’s about as polluting as a petrol car. Hydrogen can be created by electrolysis, by passing a current through water to split it into hydrogen and oxygen. It’s a very clean process but not very efficient as a significant proportion of the energy goes into waste heat. This is not a problem if you are using surplus electricity from a wind farm or solar array. Hydrogen is seen as a useful medium for storing renewable energy, and the inefficiency of the process doesn’t matter given that wind and sunshine are free. On the other hand, using electricity from coal-fired or gas-fired power stations for electrolysis makes the hydrogen expensive and creates CO2 emissions at the power station.

Hydrogen can be transported from the point of generation to filling stations by road or by pipeline. The pipelines typically need to be 50% larger than natural gas pipelines to allow an equivalent calorific value of the gas to be transported at safe pressure. Road tankers for hydrogen are also very different from oil tankers because of the high pressure involved. An alternative under consideration is for each filling station to produce its own hydrogen locally, from natural gas, petrol or some other hydrocarbon. This means that the source chemical - methane or petrol or whatever - will have to be delivered to each site, together with enough energy to power the conversion process. And what about the carbon dioxide (CO2) byproduct? Will that be stored on site and then collected and taken away? Carbon capture and storage has been promised for years but no-one has yet made it work on a commercial scale. If you take all these issues into account it makes sense to consider the alternatives.

Michael is very dismissive of electric cars because for one thing he says that they are “environmentally unfriendly in the production of batteries.” I’ll give you that one, Michael, until I have time to research the life-cycle of batteries. Don’t forget that hydrogen cars also have batteries - presumably smaller than electric cars but about the same as petrol hybrids. They are used to store the energy from regenerative braking and freewheeling. They also cope with the varying demand for power as the car is driving around, as the fuel cell will produce electricity at a constant rate. 

“You can get a couple of hundred miles [with an electric car] and then wait hours to recharge the batteries,” he says, "hydrogen is environmentally friendly…and you can refill in a few minutes and be on your way.”  Actually most electric cars still struggle to give you much over 100 miles. The BMW i3 is even available with an optional range extender, a motor-bike engine in the back to charge up the battery if you run out. However, although it will take all night to recharge an electric car from a domestic socket, electric car drivers tell me that fast chargers put back 80% in about 20 minutes. The Tesla Model S has a range of over 300 miles and its new compact model will have a range of over 200 miles. This won’t be enough for everyone, but even a 100-mile range is enough for the vast majority of daily commutes. And yes, a hydrogen car is environmentally friendly in use, but as we’ve seen, hydrogen production has the carbon footprint.

BBC Top Gear reports: “Four car industry giants, BMW, Daimler, Ford and the Volkswagen Group, have confirmed that they are joining forces to deliver a fast-charging network for electric vehicles across Europe.
“The quartet is forming a joint venture to build a network said to total around 1,000 charging points, sited on major routes all across Europe. The statement talks of power levels ‘up to 350 kW’, which is significantly faster than anything currently available. Around 400 ultra-fast charging sites are planned initially, and the network will be based on the Combined Charging System (CCS), which suggests that this solution will become the industry standard going forward.

“The goal is to enable long-distance travel through open-network charging stations along highways and major thoroughfares, which has not been feasible for most BEV (battery electric vehicles) to date,” the jointly issued statement says. “The charging experience is expected to evolve to be as convenient as refuelling at conventional gas stations.”

Daimler has announced it will be building a €500 million battery factory in Germany, and I’ve heard that it will be marketing a domestic storage battery in the US. Sounds like it’s running to catch up with Elon Musk and Tesla.

Both BMW and Daimler have hydrogen vehicles, but maybe deep down they really believe that the future is electric.

Clean Air

Anything other than diesel, anyway, to improve our air quality. Greenpeace is on the case with a petition to Prime Minister Theresa May. 

Air pollution isn’t just dirty,” they say. “It is poisonous. Diesel cars produce Nitrogen Dioxide, one of the most toxic air pollutants in cities.
“4 out of 5 new diesel cars will be pumping out dangerous levels of Nitrogen Dioxide - some 15 times over the legal limit.
“UK’s High Court found the government guilty of underestimating how much diesel cars will worsen the pollution in our air.
“Alarming levels of toxicity in the air in the UK causes 40,000 deaths each year. Yet, the government continues to support dirty diesel despite the fact that safer and greener technologies are available.
“Sign the petition to tell Theresa May to cut diesel emissions - ban any new diesel cars from coming onto our roads and accelerate the shift to cleaner, greener road transport.”

Go to if you’d like to sign.

Ford doesn’t make cars in the UK any more, but it does build diesel engines. Bad news for Dagenham.

In addition to Barcelona that I mentioned the other day, now four more cities, meeting at the C40 Conference of Mayors in Mexico, have announced restrictions on diesel cars. Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City will all exclude diesel vehicles by 2025.

In the UK NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, has just opened a consultation on air quality. They urge drivers to drive as smoothly as possible and even recommend that speed bumps should be removed to make this easier. Bad air kills 25,000 people prematurely in England (the Greenpeace 40,000 figure was for the UK) and people should avoid sitting in rooms close to busy roads. If you would like to take part in the consultation go to 

Outlook for oil - and coal.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the rest of OPEC are still pumping oil, although less of it than before. For months they have been keeping production up in an attempt to keep the oil price down. They wanted to push it down to bankrupt the US shale oil producers and protect their own market share. It’s not really worked, and the low price has reduced their revenues. Saudi is particularly embarrassed and has had to spend from reserves. It’s a one-product state and without oil  revenues has virtually nothing. OPEC agreed last week, supported by non-OPEC producer Russia, to cut production. Cutting production is designed to push prices back up, hopefully to at least $60/barrel, and as of 8th December Brent Crude was trading around $53. The one-year forecast is $57. The key question is whether the OPEC agreement will hold. The temptation is for one or more of the 13 OPEC partners to increase production at the high price to try and boost revenues. If too many do this the price will fall back. Industry insiders believe that this is indeed what will happen. 

While OPEC produces oil, China is digging coal. Last week China was praised for holding to its commitment to the Paris Climate Change Agreement in the face of scepticism from the new US administration. This week the Seattle Times reports that 

China is scrambling to mine and burn more coal.

A lack of stockpiles and worries about electricity blackouts are spurring Chinese officials to reverse curbs that once helped reduce coal production. Mines are reopening. Miners are being lured back with larger paychecks - up as much as 50% this year. But maybe even that won’t be enough after last Saturday’s disaster which killed 32 miners. That’s in addition to the 21 who died in another mine last Tuesday and the 33 who died in yet another mine on 31st October. Disregard for safety standards appears to be widespread across Chinese industry. It’s the Chinese, of course, who will be building the UK’s next generation of nuclear power stations.

China’s response to coal scarcity shows how hard it will be to wean the country off coal. That makes it harder for China and the world to meet emissions targets, as Chinese coal is the world’s largest single source of carbon emissions from human activities.

Winter Outlook

Talking of electricity blackouts, there’s an update on the Winter Outlook. The latest report comes from ENTSOE, The European network of transmission system operators for electricity. They warn that while Europe in general is in a secure position, both the UK and France will be vulnerable to cold weather in December and January. According to Bloomberg,, temperatures falling to 1.5℃ on 8th December would be critical for the UK. Although we had frosts earlier in the week, 8th December saw an unseasonable 14℃ and temperatures were not expected to fall below 12℃ overnight. Still plenty of time for a cold snap before the end of January. The UK relies on imported electricity to deal with short-term winter peaks, much of it coming via the interconnector under the Channel from France. France has its own problems. I’ve mentioned the proposed Hinkley C nuclear station many times over the last year, and the station under construction at Flamanville in Normandy which uses the same design. Construction is held up there while the French Nuclear Inspectorate examines the integrity of the castings of the reactor vessel. Since they were made by the same foundry, there are also doubts about the integrity of the reactor vessels in many of France’s operational nuclear stations. They are being taken off line for extended maintenance, reducing the nation’s generating capacity and reducing the surplus available for export to the UK. France will make up its shortfall by importing electricity from neighbouring countries and will be able to pass some on to the UK. ETSOE believes that in normal and severe conditions Europe should be able to cover demand. Short-term wholesale electricity prices are nevertheless reaching record levels.

That’s it for this week. We’re already up to 22 minutes, so I’ve had to hold over the item on Smart Cities and cybercrime but I’ll cover that next time. I’m off now to interview Clive Wilson about the Sustainable Development Goals.

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For now, until next week’s Sustainable Futures Report, have a good week and goodbye.

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