Friday, May 26, 2006

Hydrogen City: Independent of Oil.

A group of Danish companies have just released a visionary concept called H2PIA (to sound like "utopia") for the construction of the world's first hydrogen-powered city. The idea of using hydrogen as an energy source is not without its critics, including myself. It is a wonderful idea in principle, being so clean as a "fuel" that children could drink the combustion product from it "pure water" unharmed, as it dripped brightly from the exhaust pipe of a fuel-cell powered "green car". However, hydrogen is not a fuel, but an energy carrier, and it is necessary to generate the hydrogen in the first place using some primary form of energy, e.g. by reforming methane (which produces CO2) or by the electrolysis of water, which is impractical on the scale required to substitute for our current petroleum based fuel requirements using renewable sources of electricity. Interestingly, "petrol" is also an energy carrier, and contains a vast amount of energy generated by the geology of the earth over probably millions of years, as is true of all carbon based "fossil" fuels. Energy in the form of hydrogen, in contrast, would need to be locked in on a rather shorter timescale.
H2PIA is far more ambitious in concept, though, and aims to fuel an entire city using hydrogen, not just its vehicles. It is similarly based on fuel-cell technology, and the Danes plan to begin building it next year. The concept is based upon an almost utopian system of ethics: Freedom, Clean Energy; Creativity and Innovation. This sounds to me like something the European Union would have funded in the past, and maybe they still will? One great advantage is that the citizens of H2PIA will be independent of oil, which sounds fine, but an answer to the question of where the hydrogen is to come from is not obvious, not to me at least. I am not aware of any "hard sums" relating quantity to renewable energy provision, and so I am not yet convinced as to the viability of the scheme. However, if they can get around this matter they would indeed have "freedom". Clean energy: sure, if they can produce all the hydrogen from sun or wind, that would be true, but as I say, I would need to see some hard sums, including energy losses (e.g. at least 50% overall for water electrolysis and fuel-cell "combustion", even allowing for an at best 20% capacity factor efficiency for wind-energy).
Creativity and innovation? Who could argue that the notion is neither of these? It would bring together different kinds of business, research institutes and policies and obviate nasty smelly cars in a sustainable way. Again, I would like to see the sums. Perhaps it is practicable for a small city although as I have shown before, substituting the entire national fuel requirement of petrol by "renewable" hydrogen, e.g. from wind-power is not a realistic proposition.
H2PIA would be a complete urban community, with residential houses, businesses, shops, cars and roads. i.e. On the surface, it would look like a normal community, with all the amenities of say my own, the village of Caversham, with its population of just less than 10,000. It is intended to use cutting edge Danish technology, in terms of energy efficient buildings constructed from modern materials, and fabricated according to the latest energy research, so that energy efficiency is an intrinsic feature of the concept.
H2PIA Public: this is the city's central hydrogen production, storage and distribution network, and contains a central CHP (combined heating and power) plant based on hydrogen fuel cells. The hydrogen "filling station" would also be here, where you could load the car up with it.
H2PIA Share: this is the town centre with its stimulating mixture of shops, public spaces, businesses, recreational areas and all other amenities. It is claimed that on a deeper level, here H2PIA will provide the circumstances that allow for a fusion of work (yes, people will need jobs amid the concept), leisure and fun - and create a context for optimism, creativity, joy and life and confidence in the future. Steady on! This really does sound like utopia.
Villa Plugged: plugged constitutes a communal residence for the younger town residents, and is an open, creative and inspiring milieu, created by young people - for young people. Villa plugged gets electricity and heat from the central electricity supply.
Villa Unplugged: is created for families who enjoy light, air and freedom of movement. The villas are not attached to the communal energy supply, and manage their own personal storage of hydrogen and energy production for their homes and cars. Although presumably, they can still fill-up at the central store?
Villa Hybrid: (no, not cars), but this is a family residence where the concepts of plugged and unplugged are combined and so the families produce their own energy but are also connected to the common energy grid which they supply with any excess energy (electricity) they might produce. Interestingly, the car is also part of this and is made use of even when it is not on the road, when its fuel cell produces energy for the common grid.
It all sounds like communism to me: a great idea, but I doubt its egalitarian ideals would work smoothly in practice. Nonetheless, I shall watch this project with interest.

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