Lake Tahoe Fuel Cell Conference
By Gary Flo
 <Gary@innevations.com>
 
The 2nd annual Lake Tahoe fuel cell conference, Hosted by Nevada's Desert
Research Institute (DRI), was apparently a side show to the main conference
held earlier in Palm Springs.  Few of the major fuel cell companies were
represented, including co-sponsors Ford and Ballard.  Most of the 100 or so
attendees were from government, utility companies, or academia, and it was
held at the overpriced Granlibakken Inn in Tahoe City.
 
Nevertheless, there were some interesting highlights including
presentations by power companies and the military on stationary fuel cell
experience, excellent reports on progress in Canada and Japan, and Amory
Lovins on Hypercars.
 
Dr. Alan Lloyd, recently appointed head of California Air Resources Board
(CARB), former researcher at DRI and director of SCAQMD opened the
conference with welcoming remarks and spoke about the CA fuel cell
partnership which includes energy companies, car and fuel cell makers.
 
The session on policy was given by former congressman Robert Walker, a
longtime technology supporter who explained the importance of communicating
to policy leaders the adventure and excitement of fuel cells.  He explained
that funding to companies was created by a cycle of public pressure on
policy makers, who influence Wall street, who then provide funding to
companies.
 
Richard Bradshaw of the DOE followed with remarks basically stating that
the DOE had diametrically opposed mandates and departments regarding fossil
fuels and fuel cells, and was therefore dysfunctional and incapable of
generating any leadership.
 
Dr. Tappan Bose gave a thorough overview of Canadian activities which are
extensive.  Their program includes centers of excellence at the
Universities of Victoria, Toronto, and Quebec with $30 million of funding
for the next five years including the Vancouver Energy Center.  Several
major fuel cell companies are located in Canada Including Ballard, H-Power,
Global Thermoelectric, and Hydrogenics.  Direct methanol and ethanol fuel
cells are also being investigated.  Canada's demonstration program includes
the worlds first fuel cell bus lauched in Vancouver in June, 1993, and a
full size 40 foot transit bus which went into service in March, 1996.
 
Takefumi Aoyana explained the Japan plan for a 3E society of Economic
Growth, Environmental Protection, and Energy Security.  Japan apparently is
taking the Kyoto climate protocol very seriously (Unlike the US).  Their
1998 carbon emissions were 3% less than 1997, although still 6% higher than
1990.  6% less than 1990 emissions are their target under the Kyoto
agreement for 2010.
 
The most surprising talk of the whole conference was the representative
from Shell Hydrogen.  Shell Oil company is making a major investment in
hydrogen of $500 million over 5 years.  They project a 100% transition to
renewable energy over the next 80 years or so, and want Shell to continue
to be a profitable energy provider throughout the transition.  Shell is
working with the country of Iceland to explore turning Iceland into the
world's first pure hydrogen economy.  When a major oil company is making
the same energy projections as the most radical environmental groups then
things are getting interesting!
 
The insurance industry provided some fascinating statistics:  From 1987 to
1993 the insurance industry experienced its first billion dollar losses,
and there were 16 of them!  Eleven of them were windstorms.  It noted that
1992 losses ran $27.1 billion, up 87% from 1991.  The 10 year period from
1983 -1992 showed 10 times the insured losses of the period of 1960-69
adjusted for inflation.  They were promoting the concept of
"Electrofinance" where insurance companies provide annuities, insurance,
and renewable energy to help reduce carbon usage and therefore help the
climate problem.
 
Glenn Rambach of the Desert Research Institute summarized their research
programs including  utility and vehicle applications.  Their utility
research includes a unique project in Kotzebue Alaska where windpower
generates power used to make hydrogen and then generates electricity on
demand from fuel cells.  Their vehicle research includes a scooter and
pickup truck powered by fuel cells.  The scooter uses a variable reluctance
drive system from EMB in Sebastopol, CA and also uses Maxwell supercacitors
for acceleration needs.  DRI is evaluating many forms of energy storage
including Hydrogen-ICE generator, Halogen fuel cell, Zinc-air fuel cell,
Zn-FeCN fuel cell, flywheel, compressed air, pumped hydro, battery, and
grid.
 
The California Fuel Cell partnership now includes carmakers
Daimler-Chrysler, Ford, Honda, and VW. Energy companies on board are ARCO,
Shell, and Texaco.  Other members include Ballard, CARB, SCAQMD, and CEC.
The 2000-2001 program includes 15 passenger vehicles and 5 busses.  The
2002-2003 program calls for 30+ cars and 20 busses.  The busses are
supposed to operate over normal routes as regular fare busses.
 
Hopes were high at this conference that the fuel cell will be the
equivalent of the microchip for the energy industry, or even be as
transformational as the internet.  David Haberman, the conference chairman,
injected a dose of reality by talking about risk for the fuel cell industry
and how 25 different factors could cause it to fail.
 
My first doubts about fuel cells surfaced when Amory Lovins spoke about the
future of Hypercars as if this future of passenger cars was already a
fait-accompli.  Hypercars as defined by Lovins Rocky Mountain Institute are
very low mass composite body vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells,
driving electric motors.  When questioned about the recycling of composites
compared to current metal cars, Amory had no good answer other than
"they're working on it and it shouldn't be a problem."  Further questioning
about the massive amounts of toxic epoxy or polyester resins used in
composites was also evaded.  These are two major drawbacks of Hypercars
that must be addressed.
 
Matthew Fairlie of Stuart Energy Systems discussed the hydrogen
electrolyzers made by their company.  These are commercial units already in
production generating hydrogen from electricity.   He stated that their
efficiency including compressors and parasitic losses is about 65-75%.
 
Fuel cell efficiencies are generally agreed to be about 35-65%.  So if we
assume an average number for electrolyzer and fuel cell efficiencies. We
might use 70% for electrolyzer and 50% for the fuel cell.  So if we
generate hydrogen from renewable electricity the overall system efficiency
is:
electrolyzer (70%) x fuel cell (50%) = 35% overall system efficiency.
Compare this to the turnaround efficiency of about 80% for battery chargers
and batteries using the same electricity.
 
Most of the short term projections for fuel cells assume that hydrogen will
come from existing natural gas wells, where electrolyzers aren't used.
This does nothing to address atmospheric carbon, unless we adopt dubious
plans for "reinjection of CO2" into the ground after removing the hydrogen
from natural gas.  But for a long term renewable energy system hydrogen
will have to be generated from electricity or biogas.  Then electrolyzer
and fuel cell efficiencies will become important.
 
In this one area of efficiency it looks like batteries still have an
advantage.  But the true believers at the conference were having none of
this.  Fuel cells are the future and there is no question about it in their
mind.  Personally I would like to see the efficiencies of zinc-air fuel
cells, flywheels, advanced batteries, and other energy storage systems
before I put my vote on fuel cells as the future of energy.