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it's HYtime

By

Carl-Jochen Winter, Überlingen

         Professor Dr.-Ing. C.-J. Winter, Obere St.-Leonhardstr. 9, 88662 Überlingen, T/F +49 7551 944 5940/1,   cjwinter.energon @ t-online.de         

Energy needs time! The time needed before a new energy provided its first significant contributions to the energy mix of mankind was never less than a few decades, up to half centuries. That was the case when in the second half of the 18th century the industrial exploitation of coal mines in England began which started the industrialization of the world; that was repeated when, one century later, mineral oil and natural gas slowly but steadily began to remove coal from home heating systems and from tenders of locomotives-the automobilization began; once again, a similar process started when in the middle of the 20th century, after the first nuclear reaction in 1938 by Otto Hahn in Berlin, nuclear fission came up which, after more than six decades, now provides some 7 % of primary energy equivalent worldwide: Energy is an issue of centuries!

There is no evidence that it will be different for the new energies expected in the 21st century, which will have to be researched, developed and demonstrated for quite a number of decades, too, before their market readiness: efficiency gains, all sorts of renewable energies, and the secondary energy carrier hydrogen. All of them follow the classical S-shaped curve of market introduction, which usually begins with a quite modest gradient until, at a first turning point, they enter a self-supported market which, after a second turning point, turns asymptotically into market saturation. 30 or 40 years, even 50 years for the complete process from the first innovation until saturation are not at all unusual.

Experience from the centuries of development of the world energy system tells us that, on principle, there is little chance to alter anything as decisive as this S-shaped behaviour, or even to accelerate the market turn. The consequence is trying to start the innovation process as early as possible and, regardless of any backlashes, see the matter through. Truly, in most cases it is almost too late! Decades are needed for a viable business case.

Nothing different applies to the upcoming hydrogen energy economy: it's HYtime (hydrogen time)-it is high time to follow the pathways into the hydrogen energy economy without being misled by wrong directions or stumbling stones. Energy is nothing one can make short work of. Perseverance and continuity are asked for. Because hydrogen, too, and its energy converters, will not be available tomorrow in order to influence the clean transport markets, the exergetically highly efficient fuel cells in home heating systems, or the heat-power-blocks of upcoming virtual decentralized power stations. Let's recall that in 1922 the first operational gasoline filling stations in Germany were opened to the public, and station saturation was perhaps reached in the 1960s. For comparison, in 1999 the first two hydrogen stations went into operation in Hamburg and Munich; if the time period until saturation will again be decades, the automobilist can count on complete hydrogen infrastructure availability in, say, 2030. Facit: Once again, energy needs time!

The co-operation of the triade of industry, science and government is indispensable. Science and technology provide the technology bases, the innovations, the systems; industry follows the market criteria, installs the production units, builds up the infrastructures and manages them; the government sets safety and fiscal framework conditions and furthers acceptability among users. And all of this not at all only nationally, but rather globally, because energy is nothing national, energy converters are nothing national alone. Germany is a good example for a global player; it imports more than two thirds of its primary energy needs, and it is a powerful exporter of energy technologies and systems. There is no indication of a change in the future.

The transfer into the hydrogen energy economy will not follow a jump-start, developments in the energy field never follow jump-starts. On the contrary, usually there are powerful cons which, for the final success, have to be compensated by equally powerful pros. No doubt, cons are the reliable worldwide hydrocarbon infrastructures long in place. No investments in new oil or gas fields, none in the next generation of gas turbines or combi-plants, none in the fuel cell energy converters in home heating systems or the like will be replaced without convincing cause prior to their re-capitalisation. When, however, the investment of the next technology generation is due, then the further developed "old" technology engineers are accustomed to applying weight to the balance, which only with a strong reversing lever can be outbalanced by the "new" hydrogen technology. And there is another argument which makes it not at all easy for hydrogen and its technologies: in the meantime, gasoline fuelled automotive vehicles which meet the European environmental code EU VI are environmentally clean down to the measurability limits; home heating systems including heat utilization of condensable gases are approaching energy efficiencies of almost 100 %, (though exergy efficiencies remain miserable at only a few percent); gas turbine power plants have reached energy efficiencies of nearly 40 %, steam power plants of 50 %, and combined cycles of almost 60 %. On principle, further developed technologies use experience which sometimes goes back hundreds of years; engineers leave pathways they are accustomed to using only when the arguments are irresistible.

And where are the pros? The solar hydrogen energy economy which generates hydrogen from all sorts of renewable energies is environmentally and climatically clean over the entire length of its energy conversion chain-well-to-wheels, or well-to-stationary-energy-services. If the Kyoto process is really taken seriously beyond the first beginnings, which still are not even supported by all nations, then the atmospheric concentration of climatically relevant greenhouse gases has to be reduced by 60-80 %. This is only feasible by phasing out a good many elements of the hydrocarbon energy economy now in place and replacing them with clean hydrogen and its relevant energy conversion technologies. Another powerful pro: along with continued and accelerated depletion of the world's oil and gas fields, a growing oligopolization of oil and gas suppliers is observable. The market is going to be dominated by the energy sellers, fewer and fewer sellers supply more and more energy buyers. Furthermore, the energy sellers are increasingly geographically concentrated in the so-called "energy strategic ellipse" spread out from the Persian Gulf, via Iran, Iraq, and the central Asian states to as far as Siberia, all together world regions which are still in search of their political stability, more or less-from an energy standpoint not at all a satisfying situation! The hydrogen energy economy, on the other hand, offers ubiquity, no possible primary energy (raw material) is excluded from the generation of hydrogen; each world region may contribute with its specific primary energy potential. If hydrogen comes from coal or renewable energies, an eventual coal "OPEC" or renewable energies "OPEC" is highly improbable-from an energy political standpoint, these are decisively stabilizing views!

Another pro is hydrogen's ability to facilitate the decentralization of a nation's energy system. The established centralized energy system of converting primary energy raw materials to primary energy and further to secondary energies for the delivery of end energies, useful energies and finally energy services nationwide is supplemented by locally available renewable energies and exergetically efficient hydrogen (from natural gas) fuelled fuel cells for the simultaneous supply of heat and electricity. The resident or the automobilist utilizing a fuel cell in his home heating system or under the hood of his vehicle becomes a provider of heat and electricity, if professionals do not relieve him of this task: professionalization of the back end of the energy conversion chain is due, comparable to the established grade of professionalisation at its front end. A thought experiment says that 20 million fuel cell home heating systems à 5 kW each in Germany sum up to just the 100,000 MW which is the current on-line capacity!

Solar hydrogen, i.e. hydrogen from all sorts of renewable energies, is the ultima ratio, some say the prima ratio! The hydrogen energy conversion chain is environmentally and climatically clean over its entire length; environment or climate change abatement costs do not come due! To date, however, the world capacities of renewable installations are much too small to be able to contribute to the hydrogen market. Questionable is in addition whether it isn't more appropriate to use the renewable kilowatt-hour directly in the electricity market After all, with hydrogen electrolysis one additional conversion step is necessary, which has to be paid for. It is firmly expected that over a not too short interim period hydrogen will be produced from fossil or nuclear energy wherever fossil raw material is available or nuclear facilities are accepted by the society. Using this interim period to further develop hydrogen technologies which are not yet fully mature will only be beneficial, since, still, some key hydrogen technologies are not yet in a solid marketable shape, such as for instance economically viable mobile storage technology for the expected ranges, or stationary small scale reformers for home heating systems, or the generation of coal-hydrogen with carbon capture and sequestration in un-mineable coal seams or emptied oil or gas fields or, after mineralization, on the earth's surface, or, last but not least, generation of hydrogen from renewable sources. In all cases, costs will be the decisive factor; costs will have to be oriented to the cost of the hydrocarbon system now in place and may deviate eventually only for cardinal reasons, like environmental and climatic benignity, or, doubtless, energy security due to hydrogen's ubiquity. Whether the market honours these reasons for cost increases depends on internationally binding political framework conditions, too.

It's HYtime - the transfer into the hydrogen energy economy is to become the energy centerpiece of the 21st century. Persistence in pursuing the consecutive transfer steps, continuity in energy politics as energy technology politics, international consciousness and promoting acceptability among lay energy users are components of a long-lasting development which extends far beyond the usual periods of legislatures!

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