That’s been the first huge limiting factor in renewable energy production – how do you store it for the rainy day? In particular, solar. The sun only shines some of the time, so when it’s not shining, how do you get electricity, if you’re not using hydrocarbons, which after all, can burn night and day, 365 days a year? But this problem also appears with wind (which does not blow the same every day) and other renewable energy sources.
Up until recently, and even now, batteries have limits. The bulky sizes, low capacity levels, and degradation of that capacity over time, have all made battery storage the redheaded stepchild of renewable energy. Think of this as a bottleneck for transitioning to other types of power that are not as constant as hydrocarbon-based fuels.
In comes hydrogen. Using hydrogen as energy storage works thusly: let’s say you have a solar panel on your roof. It generates excess electricity than what your daytime use is. So that extra energy would then be used for electrolysis of plain, old, H2O…aka water…separating the H from the O and producing hydrogen and oxygen (well, O2). The oxygen is let go, the hydrogen captured. Electrolysis is an energy-sucking process – it takes energy to break the molecule up. But now, the resultant hydrogen becomes stored energy. Because let’s say it’s 10 pm, there’s no sun, and you turn on a light. The hydrogen fuel cell in your basement – storing the hydrogen in whatever form, gas, liquid, or solid – mixes that H with air. The air has O2, the hydrogen likes to bond with O2, and that marriage of the two elements produces energy – which can be captured and run through your wires as electricity.
That’s the basics…I don’t pretend to remember all the specifics, like regarding any extra electron atoms and where they go. But in the end, all it means is that hydrogen, once made, is an energy storage battery.
Though it sounds really hunky-dory, it might just not be the right solution. First, electrolysis is pretty inefficient. Someone once pointed that out to me, and in researching it, it appears they are right. Any research in the area of electrolysis has to focus on reducing the cost to produce a fuel cell – there’s not much you can do to change physics. There is also high-heat electrolysis, which is still stuck in the lab, and is not yet in production. Even high-heat has a conversion rate of maybe 50% – compared with generating hydrogen from natural gas, which has an 80% efficiency.
There’s another major limiting factor in the use of renewable energy in the first place, which is the efficiency of the energy capture. Current solar panels only capture about 25% of sunlight falling on them for conversion, because only a small range of wavelengths can affect the panel. There’s hope in that department, like with this.
Here’s some of my problems with Finegold’s proposal, bold as it is. It seems he doesn’t understand the difference between energy production and hydrogen, which really would only act like a battery. He has not answered the question of where that energy would be produced (because right now, hydrogen is by far most efficiently produced by natural gas, a hydrocarbon).
Another problem is that I have not seen him address energy use. A much better investment of most of his $100 billion would be an efficiency program that uses regulation and incentives to drive innovation in efficiency. I’ve heard crazy figures like people could reduce their footprint on the earth by up to 90% if only we developed the energy-saving products, processes, and lifestyles that are quite within our technological reach.
This would require standing up to big auto, big industry, and big oil. Get rid of the subsidies for drilling, obviously, but also raise efficiency standards for cars by tens of miles per gallon, in a short time span. We have the current technology, with hybrids and electric cars, just not the will. The Congress just might save GM’s bacon in the meantime, forcing them to be innovative with the rest of the auto industry, since they can’t seem to get off their bottom lines and do it themselves.
It would also mean efficiency standard for things like refrigerators, ceiling fans, air conditioners, TV’s (do they have to suck up all that power when they’re off??). Did you know that your ceiling fan could be more efficient, but that the industry killed any chance of that because the GOP Congress slipped an amendment into a bill that preempted the rights of states to impose higher standards?
The other side of that coin is incentives. Personally, I oppose tax breaks for big business as much as possible, because after the tax break or subsidy has passed its usefulness, big business has the money to lobby to keep it anyway (like property tax breaks on telephone polls for telecom, or the gianormous farm subsidy bill). I would like to see subsidies and tax breaks given to individuals, instead. So let’s say a new fridge that uses 50% less power came out this year, but it costs twice as much? Give the consumer the ability to pay for it with subsidies and tax breaks, instead of subsidizing the company. Same result, the product moves, becomes more popular, goes into mass production, and comes down in price over time. But when the time comes, it’ll probably be easier to lose the subsidy to the consumer than one direct to the business.
Whatever we do, it does have to be bold. $100 billion is completely reasonable. However, I am disappointed in the lack of concentration on reducing our energy use, the rhetoric that appears to replace scientific understanding for buzz words, and the inability to stand up to Big Oil and other industries in order to walk the fastest path away from hydrocarbons. I don’t think Finegold’s admittedly unspecific proposal (all I see is a press release, which is not a proposal, by the way) is the best…or most efficient…way.