It’s five o’clock in the morning. Sunlight is already coming in my bedroom window. Time to think about getting up.
Energy wise there’s little going on in my house at this hour. A clock running by my bed and one on the kitchen range. The instant-on (actually always on) TV went to recycling months ago, so that’s no longer an energy-consuming problem. The computer is in sleep mode. There are a few LED indicator lights burning in the office so electronics there are still running. It’s warm enough outside so the heat won’t be coming on.
In the early light of morning the house is nearly energy dead. But if there were solar panels on the roof a little trickle of electricity could be charging an electric car, if I had one. Or perhaps electricity from those solar panels could be charging batteries for the house to use later in the day. Those first rays of sun could even be powering up an electrolyzer to make a little hydrogen to be stored and later fed into a fuel cell car. Or better that hydrogen could energize a stationary fuel cell generator to make both heat and power for my home.
That amber light of dawn is energy that’s being wasted.
My house is not alone. Most homes in the world – hundreds of millions of them – DON’T have solar panels. And homes are just one kind of building. Office buildings, warehouses, big box stores, industrial plants, shopping malls all have big flat roofs that could be generating energy to store in the wee hours of the morning.
The early morning is not the only time that good clean energy is gone to waste. Nine-to-five, 5 days-a-week business operations have additional energy storing opportunities: the days known as the Weekend. Nearly a third of the week, 2 days out of 7, businesses that are shut down could be storing generated power that isn’t consumed because the closed businesses don’t need it.
And solar energy isn’t alone in its ability to provide energy for storage. How many areas on the planet have wind that blows all night that can generate power at midnight that could be stored? Geothermal energy operations run 24/7 as do hydroelectric dams. Is the unsold power being stored? Not likely.
Then there are conventional baseload power plants like coal and nuclear. These plants operate at a steady state of power generation around the clock even if in the predawn hours energy isn’t being consumed. (You’d think that coal plant operators would jump on the energy storage bandwagon. Storing unsold energy would actually reduce their carbon footprint.)
The renewable energy industry fully understands the need for energy storage. According to ABI Research, utility-scale energy storage worldwide will increase to nearly 150 GW (150,000 MW) by 2015. That’s a small fraction of the renewable electricity generated around the world and a very small fraction of all the electricity generated. Still it’s a substantial business opportunity for those interested.
Energy storage comes in more technologies than batteries and hydrogen from water of course: molten salt thermal energy storage, pumped hydroelectric storage, compressed air energy storage (CAES), supercapacitors, flywheels, flow batteries and zinc-air fuel cells are a examples. While low cost is certainly a desirable factor in determining the best energy storage technology, it’s not the only one. Another factor is which is the best match for source of the energy being stored. Pumped hydroelectric storage only works when there are hills to build storage reservoirs is an example.
Of all the energy storage possibilities only one has multiple uses: hydrogen split from water. Hydrogen, sometimes called a carrier of energy since it takes energy to make it, can be combusted as a fuel, electrochemically reacted to make electricity in a fuel cell, or used in industrial applications. Its multiple uses make it additionally attractive as an energy storage medium: If you don’t need your hydrogen to generate power, then sell it to the chemical plant across the street.
Further, of all the energy storage possibilities it’s the only one (at least being considered by mainstream thinkers at this point in time) that can be put into a tank and transported by truck, railcar or ship.
Hydrogen, made by splitting water through electrolysis, not extracting it from natural gas, has been a distant point on the radar screen for a long time. Two recent breakthroughs may brighten its prospects.
GridShift, of Marietta, Georgia, has announced that it has developed “ a new method for hydrogen generation produces four times more hydrogen per electrode surface area than what is currently reported for commercial units today. This means that an electrolysis unit using the GridShift method would produce at least four times more fuel in the same sized machine, or require a unit four times smaller than normal to make the same amount of hydrogen,” according to a press release.
The company uses readily available nano-particles made of non-precious metals for a catalyst that is coated on all surfaces of robust electrode to make hydrogen at a lower cost than gasoline.
“Hydrogen is a critical piece of America’s future renewable energy policy,” said Robert Dopp, CEO of GridShift, Inc. “Our new water electrolysis process generates carbon neutral hydrogen that is cheaper than gasoline at a fraction of the cost and size of currently available water electrolysis hydrogen generators. We are now on the path to a truly viable hydrogen fueled future.”
The company offers a white paper that details the development, procedure and the discovery of its electrolysis method.
GridShift is not alone in hydrogen breakthroughs. Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have also discovered an inexpensive metal catalyst to generate hydrogen from water. Inexpensive means 70 times cheaper than platinum, the most popular metal used to coax the breakup of water. The molybdenum-oxo complex, with the chemical name of (PY5Me2)Mo-oxo, is so good at its job that it can split dirty water or even sea water into hydrogen and oxygen,with residues of course.
Hemamala Karunadasa, is one of the co-discoverers of this catalyst. White paper authors of the discovery include Christopher Chang and Jeffrey Long.
Energy storage is a must to make intermittent renewable power generation, like the solar panels I wish had on my roof, functionally equal to fossil fuels. All technologies are on the table at this point.
ABI Research Report: Renewable Energy Storage (must be purchased)
White Paper High-Rate and High Efficiency 3D Water Electrolysis
Berkeley Scientists Discover Inexpensive Metal Catalyst for Generating Hydrogen from Water
mostly by Bruce Mulliken, Green Energy News