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The Car of His Dreams

Amory Lovins says gas prices won't stick, but even if they do, he's still stuck on his Hypercar.
Fortnightly Magazine - February 15 2001

more or less—to both micro- and macro-turbines.

However, if you have a choice, you probably would be happier with a fuel cell than you would with a turbine. ... It's the most reliable generating technology we know because it has no combustion and no moving parts.

... One other wild card likely to emerge in this decade is the reversible fuel cell, which can convert electricity into hydrogen or hydrogen into electricity with equal ease, and comparable efficiency. Proton Energy Systems in Connecticut is already shipping early models. ...

I think [reversible fuel cells] could turn out to be the method of choice for distributed systems like residential photovoltaics. Having affordable local storage changes everything, and it makes intermittent renewables like photovoltaics and wind far more attractive because you can make them a firm dispatchable resource.

How has the recent gas price run-up affected your strategy?

[Assuming the present spikes stay up], which I think is not very likely—this brings out a strategic advantage of the hydrogen approach: You're not depending on any single fuel. You can make hydrogen just as easily and cheaply out of off-peak retail electricity [through electrolysis.]... In addition, and not often talked about, there are two other classes of options for making hydrogen. One is non-electric renewable approaches, using biomass or direct photolysis—that is, sunlight plus a catalyst splitting water-that works in the lab, and people are trying to scale it up. ... [Another] option is to reform liquid hydrocarbons. ... If the carbon were sequestered and the hydrogen sold, then you'd have that option.

In the beginning, how would cars "gas up" with hydrogen while sitting in an employers' parking lot?

It's not difficult to pipe hydrogen around safely. ... You piggyback at first on the miniature reformers that you put in buildings to run their fuel cells for cogeneration and trigeneration, because the reformer will typically be sized to peak building loads that seldom occur, so the rest of the time it has some spare capacity that can be used to produce hydrogen for storage and resale to nearby vehicles.

You say that fuel cell prices must drop first. What's new on this front?

The factories for early volume production are now built or are being built, and this year you should see some very interesting products entering the market. I think the first applications will be in buildings and buses. (And we're talking here about PEM [proton exchange membrane] fuel cells. [Others] have been on the market for several years and there are hundreds of them in the field.)

I think the most important argument about fuel cell cost is that you can afford to pay several times more per kilowatt if your car is so efficient that it needs several times fewer kilowatts to make it go. That's exactly what Hypercar vehicles do.

Why not put the converter right in the car, as many automakers have attempted?

A Hypercar vehicle, being so efficient, needs much smaller hydrogen tanks, which are small enough to package conveniently within the vehicle. ... [Hydrogen tanks] wouldn't fit