Sustainable Iceland: The Hydrogen Dilemma
By Bill Moore
Brita Gross stepped up to the hydrogen dispenser at the Shell Hydrogen station on the outskirts of Reykjavik, pushed a button and began refilling the HydroGEN3 fuel cell car. As a gaggle of journalists teased her (see the 45 second WMV video below), the pump ticked off the quantity. In the brief demonstration, she refilled the car with 0.7 kilograms of hydrogen, enough for about 30 miles of driving range, and roughly equivalent to about $7.70US by Iceland New Energy's calculation.
General Motors had flown the modified Opel Zafira to Iceland from Washington, D.C. as part of its "Hydrogen Pathways" program to demonstrate to members of the automotive press various ways to generate the hydrogen needed to fuel the fuel cell vehicles of the future.
Just ahead of the HydroGEN3 sat one of three Mercedes buses -- also powered by fuel cells -- that is currently in active service with Reykjavik's public transit agency. This particular bus had over 42,000 km ( miles) on its odometer, which according to Jón Björn Skulason, represents some 2,200 hours of fuel cell operation.
The station itself, which occupies a fairly large footprint, much of it consisting of long, blue, cylindrical compressed hydrogen tanks, generates 120 kilograms of gas per day through the process of electrolysis. Electricity breaks the hydrogen-oxygen bond of water in a Norsk Hydro electrolyzer. According to Skulason, who heads up the Iceland New Energy consortium, the station could support 100-120 vehicles a day, assuming each vehicle only utilizes 1 kg of hydrogen. That should translate into about 45-50 miles of travel per day if we assume each fuel cell vehicle gets about 45 miles per kilogram. He also noted that this station, which has been in operation just a little over two years, is now considered "old technology" along with the buses. A state-of-the-art hydrogen station would occupy a much smaller footprint and support 10 times the number of vehicles, he contends.
The challenge for Skulason and Iceland New Energy is finding the vehicles to use the energy the current station generates; and that is proving a daunting task for a number of reasons, but before I discuss them, let me jump forward a bit in time.
Her response is that GM plans to have a competitive, production-ready fuel cell drive system by 2010. By competitive, she means with the internal combustion engine. That's less than four years away, but according to Scott Fosgard, the most senior General Motors executive on the trip, the company is confident it will make that deadline, though that doesn't mean they will have cars ready to sell. Infrastructure and storage remain key issues.
They have the beginnings of the infrastructure in Iceland and the will to make it happen. To permit and construct the Shell station in Reykjavik took just 8 weeks and the cooperation of two government agencies. The Shell Hydrogen station in Washington, D.C. took 18 months and required permission from 49 different government agencies.
Iceland New Energy has not only calculated they could provide all the car owners of Reykjavik with hydrogen for their cars from just six of the $1.5US million refueling stations but they've also identified the exact locations of those stations. 15 such stations would cover the entire nation, which is approximately the size of England. In addition, they have calculated they could provide all of the island's transportation fuel needs, including for its trawler and marine fleet with 4-5 terrawatt hours (TWh) of electric power annually, less than 10% of their total energy potential based on current hydroelectric and geothermal technology.
Iceland's dilemma isn't the energy, the political will or the infrastructure: it's the vehicles. First there's the three hydrogen buses: now considered obsolete, their stacks are finally beginning to show signs of degradation after more than 2,000 hours of operation. Although the initial CUTE program has officially ended, the Icelanders have worked out an extension to keep the buses through 2006 until they can be replaced with new generation technology.
The problem is too few people are riding them; or any of the buses in Reykjavik's excellent transit system. I was impressed by several things about the city's bus system: its frequency, cleanliness and how few people were actually riding in them. Three, four people at most.
I had an interesting conversation with the gentleman who oversees the day-to-day operation of the three Mercedes hydrogen buses. He explained to me that when he first started driving buses for the city some twenty years ago, all the buses were full. People simply couldn't afford cars. But as the island grew more prosperous, more and more people began to buy cars, abandoning the buses. Today, only people who can't get a driver's license or have had theirs suspended, ride the bus, he lamented.
His account was verified by another Icelander intimate with the program who explained over dinner that when he and his wife got separate jobs, they had to decide whether one would take the bus while the other drove the car versus buying a second car. When they calculated the time saved by operating the second car compared to the bus ride to and from work every day, they opted to buy the car despite $6.50 a gallon gasoline and import duties that roughly double the price of any automobile brought into the country.
While hydrogen buses are a great idea, it would seem they aren't resulting in the kind of savings planners had hoped.
So, if only a few people are benefiting from the hydrogen buses -- the rest of the fleet is powered by diesel engines burning imported oil -- and everyone else drives cars, then why not get more fuel cell vehicles like the GM HydroGEN3 or DaimlerChrysler F-Cell or Honda FCX or Ford Fuel Cell Focus, etc.?
Sitting in a riverside restaurant not far from the Icelandic coast, we asked Brita Gross why GM didn't provide a car to Iceland New Energy. Like the old real estate adage, the answer is location, location, location when it comes to where to allocate GM's small fleet of prototype test vehicles. It's not just a matter to shipping a car and handing over the keys. Each has to have some level of technical support and that means feet on the ground in Iceland and not just rubber. Besides, explained Ms. Gross, she has to figure out where the cars can have the most impact from a economic, political and public relations perspective; and while if it were up to her, she'd be happy to provide Iceland with a car, the cold, hard, reality is Iceland is just too remote.
I suspect the same rationale drives the decision making at the other manufacturers who have fuel cell car programs. And this also explains Skulason's present inability to get the cars he needs for his program.
So, why not use cars with internal combustion engines converted to run on hydrogen, I asked him? They are not as clean or efficient, but they might be a good interim step. He replied that he's considered that, but that before he can acquire them -- and it's unclear if he means purchase, lease or accept gratis -- they'd have to be TUV-certified and to date, he's not found any. TUV is the German-based engineering evaluation and testing agency with offices worldwide.
EV World readers will also be wondering why the preoccupation with hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles? In part, the reason is political. Using the island's vast renewable energy resources to crack hydrogen from water isn't the problem it would be in, say the United States, which is heavily dependent on dirty coal. Still, some people in Iceland recognize the importance of electric vehicles. When I returned from Iceland, a representative of Reykjavik's power company contacted me asking about the current availability of highway-capable battery electric cars: few and none was my reluctant reply. I suggested the possibility of doing EV conversions and offered to help. He said he'd get back to me. I am still waiting. So, despite vast sources of clean energy, a small population of relatively wealthy, educated people and an earnest desire to be less dependent on petroleum, Iceland finds itself caught on the proverbial horns of a dilemma: it is dependent on other people's expertise and technology and when those people have other priorities... Well, you get the picture.
Now here are a few more...
PHOTOS: Reykjavik's Shell Hydrogen Station
GM HydroGEN3 fuel cell car with Mercedes Benz fuel cell bus refueling at Reykjavik‘s Shell Hydrogen station.
Hydrogen storage cylinders. The station can create 120 kilograms of hydrogen a day.
Mercedes Benz hydrogen fuel cell bus. Not entirely noiseless, it is non-polluting, emitting only steam from its exhaust stack.
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