In the late 1970s I recall watching a BBC science show that showed at least four main different hydrogen fuel options. The researchers were all from the big engineering universities like MIT, CALTECH, and Oxford, so we’re not talking garage inventors. The different options were clearly discussed and demonstrated on prototype models. I was eager to hear more in the coming months about this energy option, especially having just come out of the early 1970s oil embargo. What did I hear – Silence! This was before the internet. It was as if these hydrogen fuel ideas had never happened. At that time, I conjectured that these fuel technologies would have threatened big oil and that the patents (if they existed) were bought up and buried. Today, we have ongoing research, but we are told that they are still not economically an option yet with lots of math to show us how expensive they would be. This despite the Shell energy Corporation’s investment in the Icelandic hydrogen energy infrastructure and the numerous garage inventors who are driving around with hydrogen converted cars – many using tap water as the fuel. That’s just one personal observation. Most hydrogen made at the moment is derived from methane, which seems a waste of a primary fuel to gain a secondary fuel (hydrogen) when water is readily available in most places on the surface. (I’m not debating water quality or water needs worldwide at this time that could lead to water wars). The good thing about hydrogen is that it can be stored in and used as a mobile fuel. It can also be used as part of a fuel cell generation. When combined with a renewable electrical source it can be essentially a clean mobile fuel with water as its exhaust.
When we look at today’s problematic and fragile electrical grid system (there’s that word FRAGILE again), the easiest solution using today’s options is the one most challenged. (we won’t discuss here the groundbreaking possibilities for energy generation in the near future.) Now for a little short story about greed and the electrical system we take for granted. By 1900, the modern AC electrical grid was fast becoming the way of the worlds electrical supply. There were two inventors vying for dominance in this new technology: Thomas Edison (General Electric) with his DC system and Nikola Tesla (Westinghouse) with his AC system. Tesla was well ahead of the game and won the contract to electrify the lighting system at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. After that the AC system became the standard electric utilities worldwide. Now the big money guys get into the act. The first automobiles were electric and Job D. Rockefeller was greatly concerned. Not only was his oil monopoly profit being threatened by the electric grid (people used Kerosene) but electric cars would also remove gasoline as a potential fuel in the cars. Rockefeller backed Henry Ford and created the gasoline internal combustion engine as a motor standard. Tesla was still at the top of his game and his electricity genius was beginning to concern other money giants. For a time, many of the leading financiers of the day vied with one another to invest in Tesla’s projects. Eventually the most important US banker of his generation, J.P. Morgan (notable financier for the Rothchild family), became Tesla’s exclusive backer during the period when he experimented most actively using the earth itself rather than wires for conducting electrical current. J.P. Morgan backed Tesla’s many inventions, until it became clear that Tesla was more concerned about providing humanity with free energy than making money. Almost overnight, Morgan pulled his support vilifying Tesla’s work as problematic, mainly because Tesla’s potential wireless electrical system would be almost impossible (at that time) to meter usage for the buying and selling of electricity. After that, Tesla was a ruined man.
Over a century later we are still entrenched with the same system – we need something to spin a turbine that creates electrical AC energy. Until relatively recently, we heated water (coal, oil, methane, nuclear decay, trash) to produce superheated steam, or a kinetic water source (e.g. water moving downhill), that spins the turbine. While micro-hydro electric systems are now available (if you live near a running water source you’re allowed to use) the rest require a large-scale power plant, so we stuck with the grid system. Or are we? The current technology exists for every house to be its own power generating system, which can then feed unused electricity back into a more localized grid for industry to use. I would show my students a Google image of the houses surrounding the university. I asked them to notice the most wasted space in the picture that was soaking up sunlight – the roofs! Imagine every house having solar panels (PVs) on the sunny side coupled with Solar Thermal panels, small wind generators, and geothermal systems connected to the house, then we could all be independent of grid electrical needs. I had a friend who built his house off the grid and for the next 20 years he lived there, never paid a utility bill. His water was from a well with a solar powered pump. He also had a leach field so not sewage costs either. There are so many ways to do this kind of system with current technology. The only drawback? People resistant to thinking differently! Economists also have a say, but neglect to show how scale of use reduces prices needed for investing in this idea when building a home. Before all the naysayers rush out to point out a minor problem, let me point out that all the technologies require some form of manufacturing that in itself can be a polluting part of the system through mining of necessary minerals. I admit it is not perfect, but compared to the highly polluting fossil fuels that we burn ALL the time, it is a step in a better direction, because once in place they are a non-polluting source of electricity for a long time.
Recently, while visiting Europe I took one of the fast inter city express (ICE) trains from Munich to Amsterdam, instead of hiring a car with an expensive drop-off fee, or taking a flight between the cities airports. What a smooth ride that was. I could get up, walk around, go to the refreshments car, and find a toilet without a line. At one point I took a picture of the information panel that showed the speed that the train was going – 300Kph. In the U.S. the Amtrak technology is still circa 1950s. It’s a great to travel on it but not exactly a fast trip if you need to be anywhere fast, and about as costly as a flight. Then we could get into Maglev trains and the possibility of ultra-Maglev in vacuum tunnels with speeds proposed of 3000Kph. Eventually I will start posting about specific case studies, but for now, the broad overview of our cultural thinking is necessary.
Then there is another extensive piece of real estate that could be used – Paved roads! If we used special silica (glass) roads or transparent concrete to pave the surface, then solar panels can be embedded with the road to provide incredible amount of electricity and even keep the road warm during winter – trickle charge heaters embedded in the road, thus removing the sand and chemicals used to keep traction with icy conditions. In my SL text I also suggest that the use of hovercraft would remove the need to repair the roads each season – imagine no more potholes or orange cones and barrels. Of course the road repair industry would not be happy. AS technologies change so do the skill sets and labor needs. The big thing about using renewable energy options is that once they are in place, the fuel sources that power them are local and mostly FREE (i.e. Sun, wind, etc….). Compressed Air is also an option as a secondary fuel – it is currently in limited use in the Tata cars being driven in India. Options seem as endless as inventors. What we need is a business climate that allows them. If we want change then WE have to be the ones that demand it. It is amazing how consumer sovereignty has a big affect on how business do business. More observations about business in the next post.