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Not the answer to our energy problems, but a nice stopgap for our crumbling electrical grid

60 Minutes is running a clip on a new invention called the Bloom Box, where they make it clear that the phrase “green energy” is essentially devoid of meaning.

They’re calling it the “holy grail” of green energy: inexpensive, clean, and no emissions. Halfway through the video, they finally cease the hype and take the wind out of our sails by explaining how it actually works.  It’s not the holy grail.

It’s a fuel cell. The main advantage it has over other fuel cells is that it can use natural gas, not hydrogen gas. That’s basically it.

So why do I have to piss in everyone’s cheerios? Why shouldn’t we be excited for it? Let’s start by reviewing why anyone cared about hydrogen fuel cells.

A hydrogen fuel cell is a device that takes hydrogen and oxygen gas and combines them to make water and electricity. Water vapor is the only byproduct of this reaction — it really is almost 100% clean, producing no net greenhouse gases. So what’s the problem? The problem, basically, is that hydrogen gas isn’t naturally occurring in large quantities. To get it, we have to make it (normally with water electrolysis), and it costs energy to make. What this means is that hydrogen fuel cells aren’t an energy source; they’re a means of transforming fuel (hydrogen gas) into energy (electricity). The big problem is that this fuel is really, incredibly difficult to store and transport because of its quirky tendency to explode in a massive fireball.

So if it’s that difficult to store this form of energy that you use electricity to make in the first place, why not just store the electricity in big batteries? Yes, why indeed.

This brings us back to the Bloom Box. Its fuel is natural gas, which, as the name implies, is naturally occurring. More importantly, most homes in this country already have it piped in. What the inventor claims is basically accurate: you’ll be able to attach one of these babies to your gas main and have it generate all your house’s electricity. Your gas bill will go up, of course, but your electricity bill goes away entirely.

Only problem is, we’re running out of natural gas. It’s a fossil fuel.

Besides which, whether you burn it to power a gas turbine (which is how we make much of our electricity today), or you pass it through a fuel cell, you’re still adding CO2 to the atmosphere. They make big talk about using carbon-neutral gases like landfill gas, but these can by their very nature only ever make up a minute portion of our energy consumption.

This is as good a time as any to point out that “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl, when being told that the Bloom Box can run on any gas fuel, asks “solar?” The inventor says “yes,” but I think he’s just responding to the level of his audience.

The good news is that this technology probably will replace a lot of our electrical generation, and since it’s more efficient that means less greenhouse gases. Google is saying it’s about a 2:1 ratio, compared with burning the same methane to power a turbine. For really heavy electrical users, such as data centers, this represents a huge economic win, at least as long as natural gas stays cheap. But if a bunch more people are all of a sudden using more of a finite resource, what does that imply about its price trend?

CBS makes a point in its report to reiterate how dumb the whole “solar panel” idea is, contrasting acres of rooftop panels with a couple modest Bloom Boxes the size of fridges. It really underscores the fact that, in the public energy debate, the one thing people do not understand about energy is the only thing science knows about it for certain: it cannot be created or destroyed. The Bloom Box sounds like our savior if you don’t understand this basic fact; likewise, solar seems like a pipe dream. Problem is: all the energy this planet now has or will have in the future came from one of three sources.

  1. The sun
  2. Geothermal (caused mostly by gravity, we think)
  3. Nuclear decay

That’s it. Notice what’s not included on this list: natural gas. It’s just a form of stored energy caused by a few billion years of organic life, fueled by the sun, dying and being cooked for millions of years underground. It’s going to run out.

What’s not going to run out is the sun, which we can convert to electricity directly using the technology they pooh-pooh as quaint. The chart above shows the size of solar installations necessary to replace the world’s energy use, including all fossil fuels, using 8% efficient photovoltaics. If we can get the efficiency up to 30%, which current trends suggest is feasible, those circles shrink by 75%. They’re still massive, but they’re ultimately the only feasible way we know of to provide civilization’s power requirements in the longer term. And of course, we could start building them now, with immediate payoff.

So now I’m confused — should we be excited about this new technology or not? Of course we should, yes. It’s much more efficient, which is pretty green, even if it still produces greenhouse gases. Maybe more importantly, it takes pressure off our stressed-to-capacity electrical grid, which we haven’t seen fit to invest in since Eisenhower. All those electric cars people are going to be driving need to get their electricity from somewhere, and if they can get it from natural gas and bypass the grid, there will probably be fewer resulting blackouts.

At least until we run out of natural gas.

Posted in Technology.

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