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Frontlines

DC power makes a comeback in this vision of neighborhood grids and fuel cells on wheels.
Fortnightly Magazine - October 15 2000

Frontlines

Engineers Have Their Day

 

DC power makes a comeback in this vision of neighborhood grids and fuel cells on wheels.

"The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stone. And the oil age won't end because we ran out of oil." And columnists will never run out of quotes—as long as Amory Lovins is around, railing against the conventional wisdom. These days, he's talking about a new energy industry based not on oil, but on hydrogen.

"Oil will become not worth extracting," he predicts. "Good mainly for holding up the ground."

Lovins made his mark during the late 1970s and early 1980s, with his "negawatts" campaign. He would intervene in utility rate cases, urging regulators to consider conservation as an alternative to new power plants. He called it DSM—demand-side management. To the utility executives, it was "damned stupid marketing." Why ask ratepayers to stop buying electricity?

A rising stock market and falling oil prices put the negawatt crusade out of fashion during most of the past decade, but now the pendulum has swung again. Crude is up. Natural gas is up. Lovins has returned, as eager as ever to remake the world. "A great industry," says Lovins, talking about electric utilities, "but a bad business." So I made a point to catch his latest stump speech—"The Surprises are Coming: Hypercars, Hydrogen and Distributed Utilities"—at the annual conference of the U.S. Association for Energy Economics, held last month in Philadelphia.

"THE AVERAGE AMERICAN CAR IS PARKED ABOUT 96 PERCENT OF THE TIME." Amory Lovins joins that statistic with predictions of falling costs for hydrogen-powered fuel cells to bolster his new concept—the Hypercar—a 20-kilowatt power station on wheels, the ultimate in mobile distributed generation.

The Hypercar is an electric vehicle charged by a hydrogen-fired fuel cell. Early on, utilities saw electric cars as a scheme to build overnight load, when they would supply AC power for battery charging. By contrast, the Hypercar becomes a full player in distributed generation.

"You pay an annual lease fee," says Lovins, "for the privilege of driving your power plant." (That's for the 4 percent of the time you use your car.) "For much of the rest of the time," he explains, "rather than plugging your parked car into the electric grid to recharge it—as battery cars require—you plug it in as a generating asset. While you sit at your desk, your power plant-on-wheels is sending 20-plus kilowatts of premium-quality electricity back to the grid."

At the same USAEE meeting, a few hours later at the awards dinner, I heard more praise for fuel cells from Kurt Yeager, the president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute. In his after dinner talk, "Technology Innovation in the 21st Century," Yeager suggested that EPRI is clued in to the wonders of distributed generation.

Yeager sees fuel cells launching a revolution in the way utilities operate the local distribution network. In fact, Yeager sees an advantage from the fact that fuel cells produce direct current (DC), instead of the alternating current (AC) that marks the operating standard

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