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Community director with Pickens Plan. Hydrogen energy advocate.
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  • Natural Gas Fuel; A Bridge To....What?

    Last year T. Boone Pickens brought the concept of natural gas as a vehicle fuel into the national stream of consciousness when he launched his “Pickens Plan”. Since then the concept has evolved to the point where there are several pieces of legislation making their way through Congress (Natural Gas Act of 2009)and the Senate which will encourage the more widespread implementation of this “green” fossil fuel. Recent estimates of the natural gas reserves in the United States indicate that we have a 100 year supply which is equal to all of the oil in Saudi Arabia. Pickens and his supporters are calling natural gas a bridge fuel to a greener tomorrow but some critics seem unsure of how this could work.

    In this story I will attempt to answer those doubts by building that bridge in realistic terms from readily available information. In simplest terms Pickens CNG “bridge” can extend the time we have to transition to another vehicle fuel no matter what type. In a previous story (Why The Future of Transportation Fuel Is Hydrogen)I pointed out that hydrogen fuel is the logical choice as our eventual primary fuel because, when produced from water using solar or wind energy, it is 100% non polluting and 100% renewable. In addition, in the near term, it is the one fuel which can be produced from anything domestically available that we are currently using as a fuel including fossil sources and renewables. From my perspective Pickens has created the best, most viable option for a transition to 100% clean hydrogen fuel.

    Hydrogen energy has, to this point, faced a lot of obstacles because it requires a specialized storage and distribution infrastructure and, even though it can be used with our familiar, internal combustion engine powered vehicles (with the proper storage and fuel system), the cost of the infrastructure necessary combined with the fact that it is much better to use hydrogen with fuel cell vehicles in order to take advantage of its full potential and the cost of producing hydrogen have all served to keep hydrogen energy stalled at the verge of being implemented. In financial terms it is something of a chicken or egg scenario; do we build the infrastructure with no cars available or build the cars with no infrastructure or invest hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars into building both simultaneously?

    Pickens idea of using natural gas as the vehicle to transport us into an independent, green energy transportation future provides the only viable option from the perspectives of both economic viability and seamlessness of transition. In fact India has been quietly pursuing this same concept for at least the past 5 years or more and doing it from an angle that is not even mentioned as an option in the US.

    It started when the Indian government mandated that all public vehicles in Delhi be converted to run on CNG fuel in order to cut pollution in the city. CNG fuel produces 25% less CO2 pollution than gasoline vehicles and 90% fewer other pollutants. From there the concept evolved into one where the vehicles are running on a mix of CNG and hydrogen fuel. This mixture further reduces CO2 pollution by a percentage roughly equal to the percentage of hydrogen mixed into the CNG stream. In a press release from this past January it was revealed that all of the Indian car manufacturers are now working together to develop cars for retail sale which will be optimized to run on this fuel mix.

    There are the first two steps of the transition. First bringing natural gas fueled vehicles to market. There are many CNG vehicles available worldwide made by companies like General Motors and Honda but only one currently available in the US but the point is that it wouldn’t take much to bring CNG fueled vehicles to the American market.

    The second step is to create a retail market for hydrogen fuel where none currently exists by inserting hydrogen into the natural gas stream. By doing so we will foster growth and innovation in the hydrogen production industry by providing opportunity not tax dollars.

    This concept has been explored and tested by the US Department of Energy. The DOE says that; “Natural gas can be blended with hydrogen to make HCNG. Vehicles fueled with hydrogen/natural gas blends (HCNG) are an initial step toward the hydrogen-based transportation of the future. HCNG vehicles offer the potential for immediate emissions benefits, such as a reduction in nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions. At the same time, they can pave the way for a transition to fuel cell vehicles by building early demand for hydrogen infrastructure.”

    A recent study on the viability of this concept says that CNG/hydrogen mix, unlike straight hydrogen fuel ,can be distributed through the existing natural gas system in the US. This system reaches all of the heavily populated areas of our country and can be extended in some form to the rest of the country at a much lower cost than building out a whole new pure hydrogen infrastructure.


    The natural gas industry could partner with the auto manufacturers who produce CNG vehicles to install CNG pumps at all of their dealerships nationally. In this way we could have a national CNG refueling network in a short amount of time which would be financed by the gas and auto industries and their dealers as they would be the ones making a profit from the system in an ongoing manner. This transition could probably be at least 80% in place within the next 5 years and the greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced roughly 40% at that time (25% from switching to CNG fuel and an additional 15% from mixing that amount of H2 into the CNG fuel stream).

    From that point the next step would be the introduction of fuel cell vehicles. Most of us think of fuel cells as running on pure hydrogen fuel and while those are the types of vehicles that have been built and tested most often as prototypes there are other types of fuel cells which may be better suited to this transition. Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFC) operate on the same principle as pure hydrogen fuel cells but can run on a variety of fuels such as natural gas or the CNG/H2 mix being discussed here. The advantage is high operating efficiency (60%) as compared to internal combustion vehicles (30%). Introducing SOFC powered vehicles would then be expected to reduce CO2 pollution by an additional 50% since they double the efficiency of the vehicle and thus require essentially half the amount of fuel to do the same amount of work. The total CO2 reduction at this point of the transition would be 40% from steps 1 and 2 plus an additional 60% of that from step 3 for a total reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the US transportation sector by roughly 75% or very nearly the 80% asked for by the Kyoto Protocols and we can do it with the technology that is available today.

    The venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins of which former Vice President Al Gore is a partner is heavily invested in Bloom Energy, a startup who is said to be making a cheap, nickel based SOFC fuel cell which is capable of running on a variety of fuels including natural gas. A recent story says that;” In a successful test at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga over the past two years, engineers ran a Bloom box on natural gas for 6,000 hours and found it to be twice as efficient as a boiler burning natural gas, with 60 percent lower carbon emissions. Kleiner partner Aileen Lee told Gertner that the Bloom box can produce electricity using natural gas or a variety of liquid fuels, including ethanol.” So the SOFC fuel cell technology seems ready for market now and all that remains is for them to be adapted to light and heavy vehicle applications.

    The final step, when we are ready to take it, is to move to a totally clean, pure hydrogen from water economy. Until we can make that transition the Pickens Plan offers us a way to become both energy independent (thereby enhancing national security) and to reduce GHG emissions by the amounts that scientists say that we need to in order to avoid the worst effects of Climate Change. All of this being accomplished by using currently available technology and building off an existing infrastructure which will require minimal amounts of public investment in comparison to creating an entire new infrastructure to support technology which has been “not quite ready” for the last 20 years or so. All that is needed is a commitment by the American public and their leaders to take this logical, available route to a clean economy.

    Aug 03 11:27 AM | Link | 1 Comment
  • Will Toyota Corner The Hydrogen Vehicle Market In 2015?
     Recently Toyota announced that they would be introducing a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in 2015 which would "shock" the US auto market. Assuming that to be true one has to wonder more about how they are going to do it than if they are going to do it. Toyota isn't stupid and to evolve transportation in a new direction would be a marketing coup even bigger than what they achieved with the extremely popular Prius hybrid.

    The development of a cheap fuel cell vehicle that is priced competitively with internal combustion cars would be like achieving the holy grail of the current race toward a green energy economy. Even if they do that though a big obsticle still remains which is to develop a fueling infrastructure for the vehicles. Currently there are very few hydrogen refueling stations worldwide. Hardly enough to justify the introduction of a mass produced hydrogen fueled vehicle.

    It will be interesting to see how this evolves and how Toyota overcomes that single largest obsticle. If they do it correctly I think it is possible. I doubt that they would be comfortable in assuming that the US government will build them a fueling infrastructure in the next 5 years and I also doubt that Toyota will take on the job of building a national hydrogen fueling infrastructure on their own.
    Toyota Dealers Nationwide
    One alternative for them would be to partner with a maker of hydrogen fueling stations such as Stuart Energy (HHO) or Distributed Energy Systems (DESC). Then they could install a hydrogen fueling station at all of their car dealerships nationwide (map at left). This would create a national fueling infrastructure for their fuel cell vehicles while at the same time creating a new revenue stream for their dealers. In addition it would create a huge surge in the hydrogen market and the value of the hydrogen companies that they partner with.

    I don't know that this is the path they will take but it does seem to be the only viable one open to them to both introduce an alternatively fueled vehicle to the US market while at the same time creating a fueling infrastructure for those vehicles. I will be watching Toyota closely over the next few years to see how this evolves.

    Disclosure: No positions.

    Jul 27 9:16 AM | Link | Comment!
  • Why The Future of Transportation Fuel Is Hydrogen



    A recent television ad from Exxon/Mobil introduces the concept of an on-board fuel reformer for vehicles (view the ad here). These devices combine water and oil (or another feedstock) at elevated temperature in the presence of a catalyst to produce Hydrogen fuel for the vehicle. This sounds very complicated but it really isn’t that hard to understand.  I have written explanations of the process before so won’t go into a lengthy description of them again.  

    The main point here is that this is a time tested way to produce clean hydrogen fuel and the one that major oil companies seem to be getting behind. Steam reforming at oil refineries is the way that almost all commercially available hydrogen is produced today. I think that this process will end up as the way that we go with vehicle fuels. It may not be on board reforming but it is the logical choice for several important reasons.

    First off because it keeps traditional fuels like oil and natural gas in the game for the foreseeable future while at the same time bringing all of the new, green fuels into the market without the need for specialized fuel systems for each. Another TV ad from Exxon describes their construction of a hundred million dollar facility which reforms natural gas and water into hydrogen and sequesters the CO2 produced in the process (view ad here).

    Hydrogen is the only fuel which can be produced by essentially the same process from a variety of domestically available feedstock's. These would include oil (petroleum) , vegetable oil, biomass, alcohol, natural gas, and biodiesel. Even sugar and coal become players in the transportation fuel sector in this scenario.  I included the hyperlinks for each feedstock to show that the process is already in existence to reform each into hydrogen fuel.

    The coal industry is already developing this technology to produce hydrogen fuel for power plants. They are building their FutureGen plant now outside Mattoon Illinois. This same process could just as easily produce hydrogen fuel for vehicles which makes the coal reserves of the world into another vehicle fuel resource.

    Second, it also allows us to transition to one fuel (hydrogen) which will be able to be used with currently available technology in any vehicle from passenger cars to heavy trucks and is the necessary fuel for fuel cell vehicles in the near/long term future. I recently asked someone who follows the hydrogen industry how soon fuel cell vehicles could be on the market at a price comparable to internal combustion vehicles and he said that the current estimate is as soon as 2015 assuming mass production of them.

    Third, the transition to hydrogen fuel produced from multiple feedstocks would create a whole new environment of competition within the vehicle fuel sector. All of the hydrogen producers would be competing for market share and this situation could be expected to drive the development of better production technologies as producers are forced to compete with each other to deliver their common product at the lowest cost possible. No longer would a few global corporations be able to set and manipulate the price of transportation fuel because regional and even local producers would be there competing with them.

    Fourth, hydrogen fuel produced from water using energy from clean energy sources such as wind, solar or concentrated solar is the ultimate evolution of this fuel and at that point becomes endlessly renewable and 100% non polluting. In the meantime any hydrogen fuel produced will create less CO2 than is currently created by burning fossil fuels. Petroleum, natural gas and coal have carbon sequestration to dispose of the CO2 they produce and while there may be a lot of argument over the wisdom of using this method of disposal these energy giants have the financial and political muscle to accomplish their goal of using it and to then market their hydrogen fuel as 100% green. I think that it will be readily accepted by the average American consumer because it can be portrayed as both “green” and at the same time will allow them to transition to a new fuel without changing their daily lives or giving up their SUVs.


    Hydrogen produced from renewables such as biomass, alcohol or vegetable oil are already considered carbon neutral and the CO2 they produce will be seen as “acceptable” by the greens. So it will be a transition to a green economy that evolves along a line of less and less pollution as a natural result of the process instead of a forced transition with unpredictable outcomes. It allows the free market to determine the evolution and final outcome of our transportation infrastructure along normal, time tested lines without the huge public investment that is necessary for “forced” manipulations of the market that can never guarantee consumer acceptance. For these reasons it seems obvious that hydrogen, produced from all of these readily available domestic resources will be the only logical choice for the future.

    I originally became involved with the Pickens Plan because I thought that it represented a good starting point for this evolution. Switching heavy trucks to natural gas is a step toward hydrogen in that it puts gaseous fuels into common usage and in addition it is really the only readily available alternative fuel for the freight transportation sector since electric or fuel cell trucks are further off than passenger cars. From that standpoint it is easy to see it as a “bridge” to a hydrogen fuel future and I think it is the only financially viable path to take.

    In fact, according to a representative from a company who produces natural gas fuel systems for cars, a natural gas system can also run on hydrogen fuel with different storage tanks. Besides that Pickens introduced some new aspects into the debate. He pointed out that it is in our best interest to move toward energy independence as a nation from a national security perspective as well as an economic one.






    Jul 10 3:08 PM | Link | 4 Comments
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