Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Using logic to solve the wind problem

No, no; I am not advocating the hanging of politicians again: it's about energy generation.

As we all know, wind power is incredibly stupid; expensive, space-wasting and, above all, so unreliable as to be completely fucking useless. Even if you are generating power, there is no effective way to store said levels of power for any decent amount of time (capacitors being utterly unsuitable for our needs).

However, rather than signing stupid and pointless pieces of paper, it seems that, as usual, the Americans are leading the efforts to produce greener power by actually doing things (hat tip to purplepangolin in these comments) rather than waffling crap and eating expensive lunches in exotic locations.
Xcel Energy and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory today unveiled a unique facility that uses electricity from wind turbines to produce and store pure hydrogen, offering what may become an important new template for future energy production.

“Today we begin using our cleanest source of electricity – wind power – to create the perfect fuel: hydrogen,” said Richard C. Kelly, Xcel Energy chairman, president and CEO. “Converting wind energy to hydrogen means that it doesn’t matter when the wind blows since its energy can be stored on-site in the form of hydrogen.”

The facility links two wind turbines to devices called electrolyzers, which pass the wind-generated electricity through water to split the liquid into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can be stored and used later to generate electricity from either an internal combustion engine turning a generator or from a fuel cell. In either case, there are no harmful emissions, and the only by-product from using the hydrogen fuel is water. On site is a new building that houses the electrolyzers and a device to compress the hydrogen for storage; four large, high-tech tanks to store the hydrogen; a generator run by an engine that burns hydrogen; and a control room building, where computers monitor all the steps of the process. Xcel Energy and NREL are each paying part of the $2 million budget for the two-year project.

“The project allows our researchers to compare different types of electrolyzers and work on increasing the efficiency of a wind-to-hydrogen system,” said Dan Arvizu, NREL director. “And, it has the potential to point the way to a completely emissions-free system of making, storing and using energy.”

You see? That's the way that it should be done.

There are, of course, downsides; hydrogen is highly flammable and also occurs naturally as a gas. It thus needs to be very cold and under high pressure to be brought to liquid form, which makes transport and logistics something of a problem.

However, it can also be used in hydrogen fuel cells which, though currently not really viable, are becoming more efficient. The main research facility for H2 fuel cells in Britain is at St Andrews University, something which Timmy knows quite a bit about as he has donated scandium for use in their experiments (scandium apparently boosts the capacity of the cell).

All of these caveats are, of course, mere engineering problems which will be sorted out. The point is that the Americans have seen what the problems are—wind power is unreliable and storing of large quantities of electricity for long periods of time near impossible—and have decided to address the question in a logical way.

In the meantime, our government persists in building wind turbines in order to hook them up to the energy grid, where they are, not to put too fine a point on it, almost entirely useless.

UPDATE: thanks to M V Smith in the comments, who points out that Pure Energy Solutions is having a go at the same thing in the Shetlands.


johnny nunsuch said...

Not been here yet DK
a piece about it was in the Torygraph a few weeks ago so perhaps the yanks aren't that much ahead our only problem is our government which is shit at the best of times

Mark Wadsworth said...

Not that original. Has it not always been the case that they use spare/cheap electricity capacity in the night-time to pump gas into gasometers and pump water up into reservoirs?

But good stuff nonetheless. The key to all this is just stop subsidising stuff and somebody will work out the cheapest and best way of doing things.

Devil's Kitchen said...

It's not quite the same issue, Mark. We are talking about storage for peak time supply when the wind is not blowing (which is often).


Anonymous said...

There's a chap in Japan looking to do something but with tidal power. Though in this case it's based on some form of crazy electromagnetic system that was originally explore for use as a propulsion system for submarines. It didn't work. And so far this doesn't seem very far on at all.

It's in this months New Scientist.

BTW - Thanks for the quotage yesterday. I'm still having spasms of rage over it. It seems it all got passed today too.

Anonymous said...

Another item that might be of interest in the latest New s
Scientist is this one:


Apparently, at least half the warming recorded over the last thirty years is because we're polluting the skies less than before.

Seems to me that the planet's going to do as it pleases, no matter how many laws we pass.

bernard said...

Hydrogen is the commonest element in the Universe. Seems a shame not to use some of it.
In the same way, when scientists were looking for a super-fast semiconductor, someone pointed to one of the commonest elements on Earth, Silicon, and said "let's try some that", and....viola!!

Anonymous said...

Cutting CO2 output by 80% surely means that some of us have to stop breathing?

I hope The Brown Gorgon is going to lead by example.

Anonymous said...

Mhist all cruddy blighty - that last comment should have been on the previous post, not this one.

Time to stop posting and concentrate on the drinking. I'm neglecting my duties as a boozer here.

Jock Coats said...

Ack! I suggested years ago that they use the solar power in Mali or Western Sahara or somewhere nice and hot to split water into hydrogen and then ship it up to Europe!

Roger Thornhill said...

This is the solution I have banged on about for ages. Seems some like minded people out there. I bet in Unst they have to fight government-funded vested interests and "not invented here" placemen in the State who understand little. It is not just possible to create hyrdrogen, for you can also synthesize hydrocarbons like methanol which is far easier to retrofit to oil heating systems and vehicles.

I hope the Orkney project is listening and that "Highlands Not Pylons"* team get on to it before yet more beautiful scenery is raped by government diktat.

bernard: hydrogen is indeed very common, most of it being burnt already of course - i.e. water.

* it scans better in Scottish!

Anonymous said...

As long as forty years ago, a "Tomorrow's World" programme demonstrated that hydrogen can be used very simply in an ordinary petrol engine with a simple mod to the carburettor. So where's the problem? we don't need complex fuel cell, just tanks of hydrogen. And for those who say "Ooh, it's flammable.", well, numbnuts, so is petrol, considerably more so.

Devil's Kitchen said...


Liquid petrol is not flammable: petrol fumes (gaseous) is. Further petrol exists primarily as a liquid at room temperature and normal pressure (I'm not going to go into partial pressures at this stage).

There are two problems with hydrogen: the first is that, being naturally gaseous tends to make it inefficient (say, 25% energy yield as compared to 70% for petrol).

The second is that, unless the laws of physics have changed since I was at school, it takes more energy to electrolyse water into hydrogen than one can get out of it, making the process yet more inefficient.

The only reason that electrolysis is to be welcomed in this instance is that wind power is deeply unreliable and electricity storage inadequate, thus rendering hydrogen stable but, more importantly, greener than the alternatives.


Anonymous said...

Granted, but unfortunately, exposed petrol produces enough gaseous petrol to allow ignition. Diesel, on the other hand does not. Also granted, hydrogen is less efficient than petrol, but it's a great way to store the output from wind generators. Some people in the Shetlands are already doing it, see

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