Sat Aug 9th, 2008 at 06:27:24 AM EST
A breakthrough by the MIT in generating hydrogen through electrolysis has spurred an astounding bout of wildly off-base reporting. It was heralded as a breakthrough in solar power, and even credited with knocking some dollars of the oil price by excitable, uncritical reporters.
Electrolysis does not discriminate as to the source of the electrical current. Anyone covering science or green innovation should immediately recognise this.
The new procedure generated this amount of coverage because the scientist responsible (Daniel Nocera) framed it effectively in the context of a powerful myth: the myth of the autonomous, self-sufficient, energy-producing home. This myth is ubiquitous in talk of a hydrogen economy.
It starts with the MIT Press Release:
In a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative into a mainstream energy source, MIT researchers have overcome a major barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn't shine.
Promoted by afew
As an aside: is this the sort of shameless self-hyping we will come to expect from privately funded research programmes? Just wondering.
Joe Romm, noted hydrogen economy sceptic, rips into it on Gristmill:
As we'll see, they have not developed an efficient storage process -- and we have no idea if it's cheap because they don't have anything near a commercial prototype (indeed, they have not even solved all of the scientific challenges). But in any case, we already have an inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy -- it's called solar baseload.
Yes, solar PV would benefit from cheap storage, but PV's biggest problem is simply its high price, which is expected to drop rapidly in the coming years. And, in any case, for industrialized countries, you can't get too excited about storing daytime PV electricity -- which avoids expensive peak power -- and shifting it to the nighttime, where extra power is almost worthless.
But people (at least in the press) don't want practicality. They want a dream. This dream
Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera's lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun's energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night. [my italics]
You can take the italicised part and put it straight into the TV advertisement. And here's a graph to go along with that:
As Honda shows, though, there is some room for improvement for the marketing department of the MIT.
(that's from Honda's FCX Clarity programme, the FCX Clarity is a fuel cell vehicle currently being leased to selected individuals in Southern California)
If all of that is possible and becomes affordable, then sure, why not. But we should keep the bottom line in mind, which is best displayed in the following chart:
(From the wiki on a hydrogen economy. Note that while an electric car can also be charged with a home fuel cell, this will have similar inefficiency).
Nocera has successfully made one component of that cycle a lot easier (his discovery pertains to one step in the electrolysis process). Not necessarily more efficient, though. But we use hydrogen for a lot of different things, so any discovery that makes it cheaper to generate through electrolysis is useful.
The myth Nocera is pushing is however not entirely harmless. This is something that was addressed by margouillat in the thought-provoking diary 'The drifting of the "City"':
Others again dream of the "village" as an utopia... ( Sarcelles is a village, same density per m2, a child must know at least 150 names of people not of his family that he crosses in the day, as in a village, while the urban child stops at about 50, etc.)
The villages in the countryside have, in the meantime, dwindled, left over to the few professionals of farming (just like the Gallo-Roman farm that was an industry).
Still, because of technology, the dream of the "original village" is in the mind of many. To live in the countryside with a distant on-line work... With an autonomous house, in a new form of self-sufficiency ! To be with real people, mostly friends whom you can talk to... (those never went in a countryside bar at 6 A.M.)!
The individual housing dream has pushed to the development of thousand of "new" villages ("lotissements" in french), clusters of small cheap houses with millions of square meters of nice watertight roads to get there, lighted at night, with water pipes, electricity cable (copper), drains, etc... Usually built on excellent agricultural land! All these "Monopoly" houses sit right in the middle of the parcel of land, accentuating the isolation feeling !
When asked, the inhabitants say that's because "they want to be free to do whatever they want, at anytime of the day or of the night, without being pestered by neighbors"... ( speak of social bonds!). In truth, they lose two hours of transportation to go to work, are to tired to mow the grass, and yell at their kids if they are too noisy...!
Microgeneration, more distributed power and decentral storage can be good concepts. They could increase the resilience of the power grid. But that's still a different concept from this dream of individual energy independence. Some people are doubtlessly going to want and get a home energy package that powers their car and all their appliances, day and night, etcetera. But it's not going to be more than a marginal part of the solution.