Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Renewable Energy Storage Race

By: Eugene Wilkie

My first renewable energy system I ever installed was a small wind tower over 25 years ago. The sole purpose of this wind tower was to charge a battery that ran a DC water pump. This then pumped water up from a creek to the watering site for cattle. The rancher wanted to keep his cattle away from the creek as this water source supplied quite a few homes several miles downstream including his own. The area this was in had a great wind profile so we were supplied with 16 hours of wind generation which was plenty to charge batteries and power the pump. The cost of running grid power to the site was astronomical. He decided to do a second site on his vast property but the location was in a landscape depression and had very little wind so we decided to use solar to charge batteries. This was back when solar was $12.00 a watt but it was still more cost effective than bringing in grid power. If I remember right I think the utility wanted to charge over $200,000 to run power to the location.

The wind tower worked great although there were maintenance issues of replacing blades. The solar was the real winner as the panels are there to this day and still producing. The downside to these system configuration have been the charge controllers and the lifecycle of the batteries. There has also been the issue of battery maintenance.

Even with the downside of renewable energy storage at the time I was intrigued with the ability to produce electricity without the need of fuel but quickly understood the limitations of intermediate power sources. I spent some time in the northwest engineering and installing off grid systems that for the most part relied on hybrid systems involving renewable resources, batteries combined with fossil fueled generators. There were a couple of reasons that folks were willing to pay the price of renewable energy systems when they were so expensive. One was the pure convenience of reducing the amount of fuel and extending the time when needed. This was especially pertinent to remote locations. The second reason that folks requested renewable systems was their dislike of corporations and government.

It soon became clear to me that renewable energy systems in the U.S. was a very limited market. We did not have grid tied inverters back then. I decided to move the company to Central and South America to service resorts and expats operating and living in areas with unreliable energy sources. It was a great market and I was often the only solution provider. It was during this time that I really began to understand the true importance that energy storage needed to play if one was going to exclusively rely on renewable energy. 

During my stay in Central and South America I discovered fossil fuel was very expensive and I could justify the cost of solar and wind. The problem was the reliability of battery systems. Batteries were the weak point of renewable systems and often caused customers to scrap using them and return to expensive fossil fuel generators. Renewable energy systems, due to the batteries, were viewed as unreliable and it was hard to find someone with the ability to fix them. What I did discover was the resorts that ran generators were very interested in getting rid of the noise pollution during sunset hours. There is nothing worse than the constant noise of a generator when trying to have a romantic evening at the beach. For these we installed solar or wind systems that only operated for night time use. There were of course locations where getting fuel in and out was almost impossible. It required a large amount of fuel storage.

Two things happened in the U.S. that prompted my return. One was grid tied inverters were now available and California passed a solar energy bill. We had a temporary solution to renewable energy storage. The grid became our battery. Like a bank we deposited during the day and at night withdrew our funds. I was one of the many that begin to eye the utility scale solar and began to develop some of these systems. In the beginning of this mad rush to develop solar utility systems I begin to watch as we went from sole sourced PPA's (power purchase agreements) to a bid process.  The PPA price starting to drop  dramatically and still may have not hit the bottom. It was at this time I returned to the question of renewable energy storage. There has been a race to the bottom for the price of power generated from renewable energy resources due to its inability to provide constant reliable power. It is expensive for the utilities to manage when and how this source is integrated into the grid and they have consistently won this argument with the PUC.

During my career I have been involved in solar, wind, and geothermal. Geothermal is the hardest to develop but the easiest to obtain a nice priced PPA. The reason being is that it provides a base power that can be relied on. It is for this reason I have sought the holy grail of energy storage. I have of course utilized and installed battery systems and found them very limited and the loss when converting cost prohibitive, I have investigated where you pump water up from one source to a height and when released generates power through turbines (Michigan has a nice version of this) and found it to be too land intensive. There have been several others that would take too much time to explain why they were not feasible. There is one that I have always come back too and that was hydrogen produced from water but the cost of scrubbing the the two gases hydrogen and oxygen did not make financial sense.

My first introduction to the process of splitting water to produce hydrogen was through a guy named Stanley Meyer back in the mid 1990s. His claim was that he was splitting water with electrolysis to produce Browns Gas (a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen) that could run cars. He was hunting investment and potential dealers for his product. I met with him and was a little put off by his car salesman like quality of a personality and was not sure if I really believed him or if it was a parlor trick. I had read articles published about Jan Rudolph Deiman and Adriaan Paets van Troostwijk using in 1789 an electrostatic machine to produce electricity which was discharged on gold electrodes in a Leyden jar with water. Then in 1800 Alessandro Volta invented the voltaic pile, and a few weeks later William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle then used it for the electrolysis of water. When Zénobe Gramme invented the Gramme machine in 1869 electrolysis of water became a cheap method for the production of hydrogen. A method of industrial synthesis of hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis was developed by Dmitry Lachinov in 1888. Thus I knew there had to be some validity but the combination of both gases as a fuel source did not quite ring my bell.

It was during this time of being heavily involved in utility renewable projects that I stumbled on a pretty interesting hydrogen technology. We were living in Escondido CA and I ran into this gentlemen that was just getting out of the Navy. His job there was working in the electrical sector of submarines. He had become intrigued with the thought that if you ever witnessed a submarine in the water you see bubbles coming off it. He quickly understood that this was due to electrolysis. Electricity splitting the water molecule into 2 part hydrogen 1 part oxygen.

When I met Ron he had solar panels all over his yard he had picked up on Craigslist and this bucket of water with a contraption in it. He grabbed one of the solar panels and hooked two wires (that went down into this bucket of water which made me nervous) with a hose coming out of it. On the end of the hose there was a cutting torch. He lit it with a lighter and I could not see the flame until he put it close to a one inch thick piece of metal (a true sign that it is hydrogen burning). It promptly burned a hole completely through the metal. As he was demonstrating this to me I noticed a huge black burned area on the wall of his garage and nonchalantly backed up to where I was standing just outside of the garage. I asked him about the burned mark and he kind of chuckled and said that he had not realized he was producing pure hydrogen (not Browns Gas) and had lit his cigarette and came to laying on his back outside of his garage staring at the sky.

Ron explained to me that he had tested this on demand production of hydrogen from water first on his weed eater and it ran like a champ. He had an old Pinto in his yard and he then ran the hydrogen into the injection of it for several months. He said when he took the engine apart it looked brand new as all the carbon had been burned out. What made Ron' hydrogen generator unique was it was the first one I had witnessed that did not require a scrubber to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen which can be expensive and requires high maintenance.

He built a very professional looking prototype of it and we had decided perhaps this was something to take to market. Like I said at the time I was heavily involved in the development of renewable projects, Ron needed to make a living for his family as he had retired from the Navy, and to be honest it was too early in the market of hydrogen.

 Renewable energy storage is the key to the ability of renewable energy taking their place in the energy economy. After careful consideration I decided to reach back out to Ron and see if he or the product was still available. During the time that had passed from us speaking I had moved to Washing State to participate in their amazing solar rebate program. To my astonishment I found that Ron had also moved to Washington State. We spoke to several industry folks that I trust and admire who have been successful and decided the timing was right to launch a company and provide the perfect solution to renewable energy storage.  Hydrogen is not just applicable to renewable energy storage but also enjoys the markets of hydrogen cars, fertilizer, and fuel cells to name a few.

The company we formed is NOW! HYDROGEN It is a subsidiary of our Washington State company NOW! SOLAR  We have finished our prototyping and now need to trudge that road of financing. I have spent a vast amount of my career in financing our large projects as well as several lesser technology companies such as an inverter company. I had actually swore that I would never go through financing a project or company  again but  this one is phenomenal in its ability to impact several markets. I have watched several companies try the crowdfunding approach and we decided to at least give it a shot for our pre investment costs. The one thing that I have learned is that the more equity you have invested in the company the better your valuation when negotiating terms with potential investors. Here is some excerpts from our site about what we do and where we see markets available.

NOW! HYDROGEN has developed a "electrolyzer" that MECHANICALLY separates the two gases, hydrogen and oxygen, without using scrubbing technologies when "cracking" water.
NOW! HYDROGEN substantially reduces the cost and enhances the reliability of producing hydrogen from water.

The wind industry currently produces hydrogen from water using traditional electrolysis with expensive scrubbers. When they produce electricity at night there is not a demand for power. Hydrogen allows for storage of energy and then when needed in the daytime it is utilized with fuel cells or hydrogen gas fired generators. NOW! HYDROGEN can greatly reduce wind energy storage cost while substantially increasing the reliability.

Solar combined with NOW! HYDROGENS generating fueling stations for the emerging hydrogen car industry is a great application. NOW! HYDROGEN is absolutely intrigued that one can generate a clean burning fuel right at the location needed from nothing but electricity and water. NOW! HYDROGEN has engineered how to do this with our low cost hydrogen production technology. It is an exciting time.

NOW! HYDROGEN believes that utility scale solar will also be a viable market. NOW HYDROGEN envisions utility solar joining the wind industries jump into hydrogen production. The wind industry is obtaining PPA's by offering a base power generating profile thus not having to fit into the whole grid balancing scenario that has hampered the industries acceptance in the energy market.

Producing hydrogen and oxygen has been known for many years. Jan Rudolph Deiman and Adriaan Paets van Troostwijk used in 1789 an electrostatic machine to produce electricity which was discharged on gold electrodes in a Leyden jar with water. Then in 1800 Alessandro Volta invented the voltaic pile, and a few weeks later William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle then used it for the electrolysis of water. Then Zénobe Gramme invented the Gramme machine in 1869 Electrolysis of water became a cheap method for the production of hydrogen. A method of industrial synthesis of hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis was developed by Dmitry Lachinov in 1888.

The process of of separating hydrogen from oxygen utilizing scrubbers has been cost prohibitive. Currently, industrial production of hydrogen relies overwhelmingly on fossil fuels to power the electrolysis process. The most advanced method of generating hydrogen using renewable power uses a method known as proton exchange membrane electrolyzers (PEMEs). To reach optimum efficiency, PEMEs require precious metal catalysts to be held in high-pressure containers and subjected to high densities of electric current, which can be difficult to reliably achieve from fluctuating renewable sources.

NOW! HYDROGENS new method allows larger-than-ever quantities of hydrogen to be produced at atmospheric pressure using lower power loads, typical of those generated by renewable power sources. NOW! HYDROGEN also solves intrinsic safety issues which have so far limited the use of intermittent renewable energy for hydrogen production.

The link between the rate of water oxidation and hydrogen production has been overcome, allowing hydrogen to be released from the water 30 times faster than the leading PEME process on a per-milligram-of-catalyst basis.

Around 95% of the world's hydrogen supply is currently obtained from fossil fuels, a finite resource which we know harms the environment and speeds climate change. Some of this hydrogen is used to make ammonia fertilizer and as such, fossil hydrogen helps feed more than half of the world's population.

NOW! HYDROGEN is a electrolysis hydrogen generator producing pure hydrogen without the need of traditional, expensive and high maintenance scrubbers. While there have been major breakthroughs in the application of hydrogen NOW! HYDROGEN is the first to engineer a non scrubbing electrolysis stack that produces pure hydrogen from water.

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