Posts Tagged ‘oxygen’

The Short Sightedness of US Energy Policy

October 17, 2012

When was the last time you lost electricity in your home or office? Our household power is “bumped” about once a month and lost for more than an hour about three or four times a year. It should be 3-9’s reliable – on for 99.9% of the time – that allows about 8 hours and 45 minutes of outage time per year. I’ll tolerate about 8 hours of outage a year and a power “bump” about monthly, but not much more. Currently, my power meets my minimum expectations, but it is getting less reliable when the forward march of technological innovation should make it more reliable. Some locations around the country suffer brownouts and blackouts dozens of times during the summer months and outages with winter storms that last days or weeks. The US Government is relatively unconcerned about reliable electricity today. More broadly, I think that the US Government is relatively unconcerned about energy policy today.

I have been looking at fuel cells for my home – not solar panels, and not a windmill, but fuel cells. There are only a few companies in the US that are trying to manufacture affordable fuel cells for residential applications. Fuel cells have been used in highly specialized applications such as space vehicles since the ’60’s. Fuel cells are just now being used on a massive scale by Apple and Google to power data centers, for example. But I am looking at fuel cell applications on a “micro” scale for a home – or, perhaps my car!

The classic approach to fuel cells combines hydrogen and oxygen at a minimum temperature under a minimum pressure in a anode-electrolyte-cathode assembly to produce electricity (the desired output) and water (a byproduct) through a process that is the reverse of electrolysis.

One contemporary approach to fuel cell design passes a hydrocarbon such as natural gas or methane through a catalytic membrane to separate out the hydrogen and produce heat. Oxygen from the normal atmosphere is utilized in the cell to produce electricity. This modern cell yields water and carbon as byproducts, and the carbon accumulation may require periodic removal from the catalytic membrane depending on the cell design.

To make a fuel cell useful for my home, the electricity produced must be “converted” to AC, “conditioned”  to steady the voltage under dynamic power demands, and combined with the electric power infrastructure to sell excess power generated by the cell to other consumers on the “grid” during my low usage conditions and supplement power generated by the cell with power from the “grid” during my high usage conditions.

I am looking for a fuel cell that generates 3KW continuously and accommodates demand spikes as high as 5KW from my home. It would be fed by natural gas, should be about the size a microwave oven, should not be a fire hazard, should pass the water byproduct to a reservoir for household use, and use the waste heat to heat my water and even my home in the winter.

So, why am I even thinking about this? I am concerned that this country’s current energy policy is limited in scope today and likely to become even foolish in the future. The day may come in the not too distant future when the conventional electricity infrastructure (the grid) is so unreliable and so costly that my quality of life will decline. My concern is much broader than electricity – it extends to gasoline, coal, natural gas, nuclear materials, wind, solar, thermal and water – it includes efficiencies – it includes the components to convert and condition electricity to make it useful – it includes how energy is used by society at home, at work, for transportation of goods and people, etc. Energy is critical to our lifestyle here in the US, and it is costly – it will surely become more costly in the future. Today, and in the near term, it is my opinion that natural gas is not only sold through a more reliable residential infrastructure compared to the “grid”, but it may be a generally more efficient energy source for the home, and it is likely to be a less costly energy source to heat and cool my home in the future.

Current US energy policy relies on tax credits to encourage generation diversity and consumption efficiencies, and investments in alternative generation and consumption techniques through grants and loans. On a more global scale, energy policy relies on a “cap and trade” strategy to encourage reduction in emissions (but not necessarily to make better use of energy). I fail to see much attention paid by the US Government to future objectives other than gas mileage for cars, and that disturbs me.

Current political forces I see focus on production strategies – to become less reliant on foreign oil production and more reliant on domestic natural gas and coal production. Coal and petro-deposits are like a savings account in a bank – consume it today, and it is gone forever – you may need it in the future more than you need it today. If its value appreciates over time, it has more value in the future – consume it today, and you sacrifice the future appreciation in value, too. Coal and petro-deposits are nonrenewable – they become scarce goods – when it is all consumed, there is nothing left to put in that “savings account” in the future. When it is all gone or no longer accessible, you are at the mercy of someone else who has the natural resource for sale – you are hostage to the terms and conditions imposed by the other party, and they may not be generous T’s and C’s. The political forces today are encouraging us to “eat our seed corn”, so to speak, to consume our own natural resources today rather than someone else’s, and that is likely to make the future even more uncertain, and that disturbs me.

Me? I am all for using up the petro-deposits in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Venezuela rather than our own deposits here in the US. On that course, when it comes to “crunch time” for global oil supplies to feed the US, European and Asian economies – when supply fails to meet demand, the US would have the advantage of being the most independent country in the world in that respect, rather than the most dependent one. I am all for keeping as much US coal, oil and gas in the ground as possible today by consuming someone else’s for as long as possible to secure our future security. I am afraid that the present course secures a future disadvantage for the US for the sake of a more comfortable present, and that disturbs me.

For now, I like foreign oil in lieu of American oil, but there is much more to the energy equation. So, I am looking at a fuel cell for my home – and perhaps for my car! And I am hopeful that someone more intelligent than I will implement a prudent comprehensive  US energy policy soon.

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