Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Hydrogenesis – or hydrostasis? Remember, this is Bristol

Stasis, n. a state of inactivity in which no progress is made. 
Hydrostasis:  dead in the water

Let's start by looking beyond the harbour walls at the big wide world. (Feel free to skip this bit if you're already convinced of the need for hydrogen fuel)

The IPCC has just published yet another, ever more certain warning of man-made climate change bringing “severe, pervasive, and irreversible damage” to our world unless we stop emitting carbon. 

But how to get by without it? Britain's winds have managed to keep the lights on recently, with turbines even outperforming the baseload 5GW provided by the eight working reactors (of fifteen total) of the national stockpile of 
nuclear power stations. 

The CPRE in the southwest was dismissive. “It doesn’t matter how many wind turbines are built, if you don’t have wind you don’t have power” 

Which is true, of course. Fair enough, the more turbines there are, the more likely it is that some will be producing energy, but you wouldn't want to rely totally on their output at any given time. And so far as I know, no-one pretends that you could.  

That variability of supply is not just a problem wind energy. While consumer demand varies, it's hard to find any (non-carbon) fuel that can respond to that changing demand. Gas and (up to a point) coal and biomass power stations are quite demand-responsive; wind is anything but. Same goes for wave energy and the other generating sources that are equally ineffective at tracking the changing demand.

At the other end of the scale, nuclear energy provides fairly predictable outputs that bear little relationship to what consumers actually need at the time they need it. Solar has the advantages - and disadvantages - of both these extremes, while tidal needs big-scale civil engineering to even approach demand responsiveness. 

The big problem isn't finding renewable energy sources – it's finding ways to store the energy produced for where and when it's needed. That's where hydrogen comes in.

Back in Bristol a couple of weeks ago, while yet another trainload of Hinckley Point's radioactive waste was trundling through the city towards an uncertain future in Cumbria, a bunch of councillors at City Hall were discussing our innovative, but stalled, project involving hydrogen fuel. 

I think hydrogen is brilliant. As an energy store, it's just like coal, gas, and oil, available when needed. But unlike them it's emission-free, it's freely available anywhere there's water (no geopolitical energy security worries there, then).  Put it in a fuel cell, and all you get out is energy and water, with a conversion efficiency way above orthodox engines, and no climate change, no radioactive waste, no killer local air pollution. And you can make it at the times when power plants of every kind aren't having to meet immediate consumer demand. 


We've had just such a hydrogen system here in Bristol over the last couple of years. Hydrogenesis, the specially designed and built harbour ferry, wasn't a totally new technology, but it did require the enthusiasm and cooperation of the council, local designers and businesses, and at least one major corporation, each putting up some of the cash. That was the difficult bit – and it happened. It worked. Apparently there's even an official report to say so (though it's defeated my efforts to find it) 

But now Hydrogenesis is moored up without any role, without any known future, in the harbour. It's life support machine, the hydrogen fuelling station has been removed at the end of its hire term. 

The councillors, in the shape of the 'Place' Scrutiny Commission, couldn't find much cause for optimism.  Bristol might have introduced the the UK's first fuel-cell powered ferry, there might be every reason to think the initial investment had succeeded in showing it worked, but the human part of the whole project cannot get its act together. 

There's serious ill-will between rival ferry companies, certain councillors, and the mayor – so much that co-operation seems impossible. And without that co-operation, the whole project, the whole investment by all the parties, becomes a failure, a waste of money, a waste of a huge opportunity to kick start decarbonisation of local transport. 

What it needs is a commitment to a permanent hydrogen source; the £10k-a-month temporary unit served its purpose but clearly isn't a long term solution. 

Over in Swindon, Honda have just commissioned a commercial scale filling station where solar energy is used to separate the H2 from the O, and deliver it to vehicles. So it's perfectly possible. 

In Bristol, a harbourside production unit (why not at the Feeder Road basin,. in the TQ Enterprise Zone?) could provide not just for working craft like Hydrogenesis but for road vehicles too. Powered, perhaps, by renewable electricity from the Avonmouth wind turbines, from the tidal flows of the Avon, or the solar panels that will doubtless cover the new Arena. 

There's national funding on offer too, if the bid's right. Last month £11 million was allocated toward setting up as many as 15 hydrogen refuelling stations and for public sector fuel-cell powered vehicles. 

The brief report before 'Place' scrutiny did mention looking for funding – but it looked half-hearted and unconvincing. With the different parties only too ready to slag each other off (and there was some of that at the scrutiny meeting), it leaves the feeling that this terrific opportunity (the sort of thing that's essential if we're to respond to the threat of climate change) will be lost because the egos involved couldn't bring themselves to co-operate. 

George, do something.