Tuesday, September 23, 2008

green party hydrogen response 2: darren johnson

The stuff about hydrogen vehicles is especially important to flag up in London. Not only did the city take part in the CUTE hydrogen bus trial, but Transport for London are testing a fleet of 70 hydrogen-powered vehicles starting next year.

TfL’s vehicles will be a mixture of buses, vans, cars and motorcycles that will be used by TfL staff, the police and the fire brigade... The five-year trial of both fuel cells and hydrogen combustion engines will cost around £22 million.

I sent my analysis to the Green members of the Greater London Authority, Darren Johnson (key issues include climate change) and Jenny Jones (sustainable transport).

After a month I did a reminder email prod, and shortly after received this

Many thanks for your letter, which you sent to both myself and my colleague Jenny Jones.

We agree with the emphasis on traffic reduction as the first priority. As the Green Transport Advisor to the previous mayor Jenny was pleased that London achieved zero growth in traffic, but was determined that we could actually reduce traffic and build on our reputation as the only major city in the world to switch people out of their cars and onto public transport. The planned expenditure of £500m on walking and cycling was due to be the next big step in making traffic reduction a reality.

We believe that London should use all the tools available in switching people to lower carbon transport. The programme of all new buses being hybrids by 2012 is something that we are pushing the new mayor to stick to. We continue to push for strict criteria to be applied to biofuels, so as to restrict their use in London.

We have supported the hydrogen partnership, despite being aware of the misgivings you raise and will state our reasons for doing so.
Hydrogen is a technology which is still in development. We are not convinced by the optimists within the green movement who see the switch to hydrogen as the big transition which will take place in the next five to ten years (it has been five to ten years away for the last twenty years).

However, we do accept that progress has been made and the technology has taken significant steps towards mainstream production. We are aware of the well to wheels analysis of the current hydrogen vehicles and are pushing for the London contracts to include the sourcing of hydrogen to come from renewable energy within the capital.

In the meantime the technology needs supporting through the transition period when it is being piloted and trialled. There are significant potential gains for the environment and whilst the current generation of vehicles are not the most environmentally friendly, that is more to do with our lack of renewable energy infrastructure, rather than the buses themselves.

Finally, we think that air pollution is one of the major problems facing Londoners and hydrogen vehicles have an immediate impact because they are non-polluting at the point of use. Given that London is going to fail its 2008 target for PM10 and its 2010 target for NO2, anything which reduces these emissions has to be seriously considered.

CC: Jenny Jones

To which I replied:

Thankyou for your letter of 19 July replying to my letter regarding hydrogen buses. Please forgive the academic overtones of using footnotes in this letter but, as I’ve no doubt you personally know, in the area of green ideas you hear many surprising assertions and often they are without basis.

Hydrogen as a vehicle fuel has indeed ‘taken significant steps toward mainstream production’. Mainstream production is not a reason to support it if it can’t deliver sustainability. When a new idea is advancing and about to expand, that is precisely the time to consider it most carefully. Any earlier and it may never happen, any later it’ll be trying to get the genie back in the bottle.

You, personally, are in a position to influence this one way or the other. So there is a great responsibility to be sure of what you’re advocating. As CUTE’s own studies show it’s a massive increase in carbon emissions(1), you have every reason to oppose it.

Making hydrogen from a green electricity tariff causes the same emissions as if it were made from grid electricity. If we start powering our vehicles from the electricity grid, it adds to overall demand for electricity; taking the renewable electricity for hydrogen production means the same amount of electricity being generated from fossils generation elsewhere, so the extra emissions should be attributed to the new demand from hydrogen.

As an analogy, imagine if you went home tonight to find there were a hundred new cars parked on your street. The drivers of the new cars got there first and took the spaces, making the usual cars have to overcrowd other places and park illegally. The new drivers could claim that they were taking the sensible legal spaces, but we would all know it is they who are creating the problem.

Hydrogen only becomes effectively renewable if the whole grid is powered by renewables. Until then, it causes more fossils to be burned and should be counted as such. Not to do so is as disingenuous as the hydrogen manufacturers who claim it has no climate impact because the CO2 was released at the production plant.
Making hydrogen from electrolysis from the grid, as the analysis I previously sent to you showed, has around ten times the carbon emissions of a diesel bus. If someone came to the GLA with a proposal for a low exhaust-emission, tenfold carbon-emission bus that has twice the resource impact to manufacture than a normal bus, what would you say?

It could, as you suggest, be made by electrolysis using new dedicated renewable infrastructure. Even then, hydrogen makes no sense. We take electricity, convert it to hydrogen, then convert that back into electricity to power the bus. The hydrogen is, in effect, just a very inefficient battery. Making hydrogen by electrolysis takes colossal amounts of electricity. It’s only 30% efficient, less than half the rating of any other method(2).There are far more efficient batteries available.

Fuel cell vehicles that operate on hydrogen made with electrolysis consume four times as much electricity per mile as similarly-sized battery electric vehicles(3).
Using electric vehicles would mean a quarter of that dedicated renewable generation infrastructure would be required. That would mean it would be 100% renewable a lot sooner, and a lot less money and resources to invest in the meantime, and it could not be used as an excuse for the fossil fuel companies to promote high-carbon hydrogen.

It’s hard to see how it could ever be cost effective to make hydrogen from electrolysis. It’s such a wasteful process that powering the UK’s vehicles with electrolysis hydrogen would take more electricity than we presently use for everything else combined(4). The concept is being dangled as a reason to push on with hydrogen by the companies selling fossil-derived high carbon hydrogen, such as BP and Shell.

Not only would you need a lot more renewable electricity capacity for hydrogen, but the fuel cells themselves have relatively short lives. The average for a bus in the CUTE trial was 2,300 hours, which is around the limit of a fuel-cell’s life(5). These expensive bits of kit will need replacing on every bus about once a year.

Beyond this, I stress again that the upcoming TfL trial’s use of hydrogen as a combustion fuel is even worse; a lot more hydrogen used, and as it’s usually stored as a liquid there’s far greater energy use in manufacture (liquefying it and keeping it liquid until the point of use takes about half the energy it contains(6)).
As far as I know, there’s not a single study that says liquefied hydrogen is more efficient than fuel-cells; everything I can find says it’s far worse.

Additionally, the reports of BMW’s hydrogen combustion car said that whilst it does have greatly reduced exhaust emissions compared to a petrol or diesel, nonetheless it does emit some nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, so it was not actually zero-emission(7). I presume that also applies to other hydrogen combustion vehicles.
I share your concern for local air quality. However, surely reducing such emissions shouldn’t take precedence over concern for the climate impact, especially if that impact is many times worse than diesel, and much lower carbon zero-emission options are available.

Climate science demands that carbon emissions start to decline within the next decade or so. Instigating a plan that will actually increase emissions at this crucial time, that will require far more energy consumption and infrastructure than lower-carbon options on the table - how can that be the best use of financial resources, let alone be considered sustainable or green?

London should be looking for sustainable and effective solutions. The hydrogen bus could only eventually meet that by costing a huge amount of money and profligate waste of electricity.

Surely, among the real solutions, London should be looking for the cheapest and most efficient. That can never be hydrogen.

CC: Jenny Jones AM

1- CUTE, Project No.NNE5-2000-00113 Deliverable No.8 Final Report, 30 May 2006, p60, Fig 5-17. http://www.fuel-cell-bus-club.com/modules/UpDownload/store_folder/Publications/CUTE_D8_Final_Report.pdf

2- US National Academy of Engineering, Board on Energy and Environmental Systems, The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities, Costs, Barriers, and R&D Needs (2004), p39 http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10922&page=39

3- Alec Brooks, CARB's Fuel Cell Detour on the Road to Zero Emission Vehicles, Electric Vehicle World, 7 May 2004
4- Decarbonising the UK – Energy for a Climate Conscious Future, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, 2005, p74
5- Dr Sukhvinder Badwal, Fuel cells, Science on the way to the hydrogen economy, Australian Academy of Science, 5 May 2006
6- US National Academy of Engineering, Board on Energy and Environmental Systems, The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities, Costs, Barriers, and R&D Needs (2004), p38 http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10922&page=38 30-40% for liquefaction, around another 10% maintaining refrigeration until point of use.
7- Bruce Gain, Road Testing BMW's Hydrogen 7, Wired, 13 Nov 2006 http://www.wired.com/cars/energy/news/2006/11/72100

That snail mail letter crossed in the post with an email from Darren Johnson:

Many thanks for this. We will be doing more work in this area in the

Cllr. Darren Johnson AM

There's been no response to my letter. I'm guessing that's it.

I want to be optimistic about what 'work in this area' means.

I want to believe it means that he's not just taking my word for it but is checking his sources, and if his investigations show my analysis to be broadly correct the Greens will reverse their position and speak out against hydrogen vehicles.

I want to believe it means he's seen through the great hydrogen decoy, namely that although it's a huge emitter now it could one day be made from water using renewable electricity.

That idea is like the 'capture ready' promise that's making people swallow new coal-fired power stations. It means higher emissions now on the promise of the possibility (without any binding obligation) that there could be lower emissions later.

Hydrogen from water has the advantage of actually existing, but the idea still swiftly falls apart. It would be just a way of storing electricity; a grossly inefficient way that can't compete with batteries that already exist, so why are we considering it?

The answer lies in the dividends for those who dangle the dazzling decoy, those who make the fossil hydrogen we use today and will continue to use for as long as it's more profitable than electrolysis. Which, factoring in manufacture from coal, is likely to be centuries to come.

I want to believe Darren Johnson's followed the logic and that, moving as slowly as a party's policy must do, is stirring something of a turnaround in the Greens' position on hydrogen.

Like agrofuels, hydrogen is the wrong answer because it asks the wrong question. It's saying 'how do we keep our vehicles on the road whilst maintaining the profits of the established oil companies?' rather than 'how do we live within sustainable emissions limits?'.

As with agrofuels, it's a climate 'solution' that actually causes greater emissions than burning oil. There can be no credible Green position other than opposition to hydrogen as a vehicle fuel.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you on the gross waste of energy with Hydrogen. However for there to be a climate solution there first has to be a climate problem. Fortunately that does not exist other than in computer models.

merrick said...

You're soooo right harbinger. Less than 1% of climatologists can't be wrong.

Answer me these:
1- Does the atmosphere contain carbon dioxide?
2- Does it have an effect on global temperature?
3- Have human activities led to an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?

If the answer's 'no' to any of them, please explain why.

punkscience said...

Good work dude. I should point out that the GP policy document, the Manifesto for a Sustainable Society, contains only a handful of references to hydrogen (searchable here- http://policy.greenparty.org.uk/index.html), most of which are endorsements qualified by statements asserting that it is useful only as long as the production of electricity used to generate it is sustainable. So I'm sure you'll agree that the party is far from being hydrogen-huggers. However, I think it is really important that the party reacts strongly to the hydrogen straw-man and I think DJ and JJ and all of the Green Party executive need to be reminded of this. With this in mind, would you object if I emailed them myself to emphasise your conclusions?

merrick said...

Punkscience, I totally agree that the Green Party isn't especially pro-hydrogen, nor does it feature prominently in their thinking.

My beef is that it's clearly an environmentally detrimental technology whose only benefits are exceeded by other more eco-firendly technologies, and that it is being pushed by the oil and nuclear industries. As such, the Greens should be actively opposing it instead of supporting it.

Whislt the policy stuff says things about reneable sourcing (itself a massive red herring), in London where the hydrogen is fossil sourced the Greens are supporting it.

My guess is that they've not looked into it enough, and what experience I've had of working with and around Green Party folks makes me hopeful that, presented with the reasons why hydrogen should be opposed, they'd see it, agree and shift. Note how there's no equivalent correspondence with the conservatives on any matters at all.

By all means, write to them; the more of us who do, the more likely it is that they'll change position.