June 3, 2011
It’s plain that no one thing will replace fossil fuels. What will probably happen is that different niches will be filled by different solutions. And on top of that we will change our behaviours over time, nudged along by availability and price. Where today we just jump in a car and expect to go at least 500km before topping the tank, tomorrow our expectation for a refuel or recharge could be somewhat less. We will adapt, as we have always done. In the medium term oil will still be around, so long trips may be performed in a traditionally-driven (or hybrid) car and shorter journeys by EV. Or EV battery technology will improve and the limitation will go away. Indeed there are so many variables – including the cost of oil – that the timescale could vary enormously. And somewhere in the mix of possible futures s is H.
You’ll note in the lengthy story at the link below that little attention is paid to the downsides of H. It’s a positive piece that puts EVs in an unchanging capability box and presses home its point about a renewed “trend” towards improving H-cars. Whilst it’s largely true, in a sense, it doesn’t give a full account either. The article glosses over the fact that it takes energy to make H, just as it takes energy to compress, store and distribute it. It doesn’t gush out of the ground like oil, it has to be made. Be that by current, energy-rich methods or by solar and biomass innovation, it still has to be made, stored and shipped around. So you are using a lot of energy just to make, umm, energy. Whilst EVs have an energy cost, too, they remove some of these penalties and make savings by simplicity, re-use of existing (but revamped) infrastructure and lower ongoing maintenance cost.
Whereas for H just about every part of the current petrol delivery system would need to be upgraded – read 100% replaced – to cope. Whilst it’s do-able it doesn’t sound cheap, either. Even after having been made it needs to be compressed into a denser, more transportable liquid form. We may be used to the idea of pipes, pumps and tanks but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t like to be free of them, too. Let alone beefing them up to cope with compressed H.
Nevertheless H production cost (ie energy input) will definitely improve over time; but right now – and into the medium term – it still carries multiple – and crippling – energy efficiency penalties. So why do car companies – and perhaps the oil industry as well – keep on at it? Well my best theory is that it casts a “greener glow” over the industry, something they need desperately. H is also a palatable prospect in that it doesn’t change much of the scenery – the car companies keep their competitive advantages largely intact and new entrants are discouraged. Oil companies can upgrade their distribution infrastructure and offer H side-by-side with petrol. And being a (admittedly highly compressed) liquid kept in tanks we remain “familiar” and “comfortable” with the whole idea. It’s a behaviour-change minimisation strategy, in a nutshell.
So for the incumbents they basically keep things as they are. Liquid fuel burnt in an engine – that’s what they know best. They continue to build a complicated beast that needs to be fed, cooled and lubricated under a strict maintenance schedule. It will run cleaner and last longer but the whole model remains intact. Whereas an EV is a simpler alternative that needs next to no maintenance, engine-wise. The parts list is more than halved and the maintenance requirements shift mainly to battery replacement and wear and tear on the tyres, bearings and electronics. And crucially – with the high-tech combustion technology no longer required – it opens up the car game to new entrants. And why would they want that?
Not so surprising then that the incumbents want to sell H-cars. And once again the entrenched, old guard mass media just lap up the gushing press releases about H taking on EV. Well, there’s some truth there – and a heck of a lot of spin.
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