Riversimple have an interesting hydrogen car model that seems to promote Open Source design of the car to free up the information market and not have important designs being locked away by the one car company. This is an interesting development in its own right.
However, as far as I can tell most experts seem pretty consistent that hydrogen takes your more expensive renewable electricity and turns it into about (rule of thumb for illustration purposes only, don’t quote me) 10% of that in forward motion. It simply requires more energy because of the laws of physics in splitting the water, compressing the hydrogen, pumping it into the car and then running it through a fuel cell only to get electricity again!
Electric cars just charge the battery in the first place, so you get something like 50% of your energy back for forward motion. Also, hydrogen fuel cells seem to require expensive and increasingly rare materials such as platinum, etc, but they are always experimenting on new materials.
So hydrogen seems to be a simply more expensive way to squish your more expensive wind energy into forward transport, bringing the overall costs up, by the very laws of physics required in the manufacturing of hydrogen. Also, we don’t have a hydrogen infrastructure while we DO have a fairly adequate electricity infrastructure. The grid needs to be constantly upgraded ANYWAY, and electric cars that can talk to a ‘smart grid’ might be part of an energy smoothing system. Most cars sit in a driveway or car park 22 hours a day, and only drive maybe 2 hours a day. The rest of the time the car might be interacting with a “smart grid” energy system where part of the time it is charging, and at other times the internet connected interactive energy grid might actually pay you to get some of that energy back. That is, your car is acting as a battery for the grid, and when peak demands kick in your car might be programmed to sell a certain amount of energy back, not dropping below the minimum amount needed to get you back home if it is selling to the grid at work, for example. Now imagine it is just one of many hundreds of thousands of battery cars, and you can see why Professor Peter Newman thinks that the electric car has great synergies with a future renewable electricity grid. (Listen to this ABC Radio National Science Show podcast to learn more).
Having said all that, I always have to come back to the main issue: there are many more synergies behind simply designing better living arrangements that don’t require “as many” car trips as other living arrangements. So back to the hydrogen car plan above: they recommend individuals not owning yet another depreciating asset. It’s about coming to a new arrangement with the car, one where it is not necessarily something we have to OWN but is something our local councils and car-clubs might hire out to us cheaply when we need it. Yes, sometimes cars seem individually necessary, but on a societal level surely there’s a larger conversation to be had about how to “highly discipline” our use of the car (as Kunstler would say).
Don’t read that as a “greenie-Nazi” statement. I’m not about outlawing car use altogether (as much as I’d love to!) but am more about developing an alternative town plan that facilitates most of the business of life in a more economical, more convenient, more human scaled, more socially connecting and interwoven fabric of local village life that can pretty much do away with 80% of our car use. If you actually need one, walk outside your intimate no-car village (of 500 people) and hire it outside the village walls! While I’d prefer it if you used the train, tram or trolley bus to the next “Village Town” you were heading to (which many people would probably do given a frequent, safe, and cheap enough system of public transport and city design), there will be those occasions where you just need to go pick up that bit of furniture, or rush some products from one business to another.
Sure, there are still service vehicles and plumbers and electricians and Australia Post and various delivery vehicles of one type or another, but the overall car use could easily decline if we started to introduce some of the New Urbanism plans I’m talking about. And this is where it gets really interesting. According to that Peter Newman podcast I linked to above, this trend has already started in city centers around Australia. For the first time there were more city re-developments than there were sprawl developments. While I think Australian apartment design has a long way to go before it is truly reflecting New Urbanism principles, town planners are starting to realise the economic benefits of redeveloping the town center and adding a mix of commercial, residential, and other zoning codes to revitalise a town center. Hopefully we can beat this trend towards sprawl.
And, as Kim Beazley said as opposition leader in one of the most boring, non-event, failed election campaign slogans ever, “That’s what I stand for!” 😉
(He was talking about $20 off your electricity bill… what a dull election that was. There are many things I admire about Kim Beazley, but that was not one of them. A subsidy to home owners so the end result would be using more electricity… ? Anyone remember which election was that again, I think it was pre-9/11. I don’t remember any ranting about an “illegal war” etc.)