ISTANBUL, Turkey—At the end of June, Henry Puna, prime minister of the Cook Islands, a 90-square-mile archipelago in the South Pacific, traveled more than 11,000 miles on an unusual fact-finding mission to Turkey's Bozcaada island in the Aegean Sea.
Puna came to see Bozcaada's hospital and the house of its governor — two of the only buildings in the world partially powered by hydrogen-generated electricity. The unique prototype technology, which sounds like a back-to-the-future experiment, has been churning out zero-emissions power for the past few months.
At the governor's house a 20-kilowatt rooftop solar array and a free-standing 30-kilowatt wind turbine generate clean electricity, which is run through an electrolyzer that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen gas gets compressed and stored in tanks on the island and is later converted back into electricity whenever extra power is needed. The gas can also fuel hydrogen cars or vessels.
Currently, Bozcaada's system supplies all the electricity at both buildings, as well as a boat and golf cart. Combined, it's equivalent to powering about 20 households in Turkey.
That minuscule amount is emblematic of the uphill battle that hydrogen technologies face in becoming a solution to reckon with in the contest for alternative fuels. Still, experts say the facilities on the small Aegean outpost, 175 miles southwest of Istanbul, illustrate some of the more promising uses of hydrogen as an energy carrier — especially its potential to fill crucial niches within a larger clean energy economy.
Today, Istanbul is home to some of the world's most cutting-edge research and development of hydrogen energy applications. That's because the UN International Development Organization located its International Center for Hydrogen Energy Technologies (ICHET) here eight years ago. Turkey was chosen for its proximity to both rich and poor countries.
For Puna, the visit to Bozcaada was a glimpse at the energy future of his own country. ICHET is currently installing a similar system on Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. Hydrogen energy is particularly suited to islands, which generally have abundant renewable resources but are removed from main grids.
But can the technology ever reach the mainland in Turkey or anywhere?
For now, no one can deny that hydrogen energy is still a peripheral technology. In the United States, Pres. Obama slashed financing for hydrogen technology in his 2012 budget by roughly 40 percent, or $70 million, of its $174 million allocation in 2010, angering proponents.
But across parts of Europe, enthusiasm for hydrogen remains steady, primarily among automakers, as countries move toward cleaner-burning cars. Several companies continue to invest in experimental models with fuel cells — electrochemical devices that generate electricity — such as the three Mercedes Benz hydrogen fuel-cell hatchbacks that toured the world this spring. Used in a fuel cell, hydrogen emits only water, no carbon dioxide.
In Germany, renewable energy utility Enertrag is building a 500-kilowatt hybrid wind-hydrogen power plant, the world's first.
ICHET's Progress to Date
Hydrogen is not a primary energy source like coal, but rather an energy carrier. It is generated through the conversion of another fuel source, such as natural gas, usually by electrolysis, and can be stored for later use and reconverted into power. In fuel-cell cars, for instance, the energy from a hydrogen cell is converted into electricity to power the engine.
According to ICHET managing director Mustafa Hatipoğlu, hybrid electric-hydrogen cars could be cruising Turkey's streets as early as 2020. But before that can happen, he said, the public must be aware of, and buy into, the potential value of the fuel source.
To that end, ICHET is building a hydrogen fueling station in the center of Istanbul on an estuary of the Bosphorus Strait called the Golden Horn. The station, which is expected to be finished next May, will be Turkey's first hydrogen-fueling station and the first one in the world that can supply hydrogen to both land and sea vehicles.
Its first customers will be a 142-kilowatt hybrid hydrogen-battery bus and a 48-kilowatt hybrid passenger boat that ICHET is currently building for the Istanbul municipal government.
The center's most high-profile creation, the Ekokaravan — a RV-type vehicle that requires no refueling — has already toured 10 Turkish cities and visited energy summits in Abu Dhabi and Vienna since its completion last year. It produces all of its energy through four combined renewable energy systems: a 17-kilowatt battery storage system that requires no recharging for three days; a 1,200-watt hydrogen fuel cell; a 1,710-watt solar array; and a 1,000-watt retractable wind turbine.
"It can be used in emergency situations, or as a touristic caravan, a mobile health center, a mobile power unit," said Hatipoğlu. "There are so many potential usages."
The Case for Hydrogen
"Granted, producing hydrogen is not so efficient yet," conceded Hatipoğlu. "But one kilogram of hydrogen contains three times the amount of energy in gasoline. This is a big advantage."
Petroleum has an energy storage density of about 12,000 watt-hours per kilogram, while one lithium-ion battery stores just 200 watt-hours. Hydrogen, in contrast, can store 33,000 watt-hours per kilogram, allowing a fuel-cell car to driver farther than it can on batteries alone.
The longest-range electric vehicles on the market prove this point.
Tesla's two-seat Roadster is the electric car currently on sale with the longest range at 245 miles. The five-seater Nissan Leaf has a range of about 100 miles.
The B-Class hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle from Mercedes Benz — the same five-seat hatchback that toured Europe this spring — has a range of 250 miles. The hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle that Toyota plans to start marketing in 2015, a Highlander SUV, has a U.S. Department of Energy-certified range of 431 miles.
And, whereas electric cars typically take hours to recharge, a hydrogen fuel-cell car can refuel on hydrogen in minutes.
Hydrogen also possesses advantages over other options in construction vehicles. ICHET completed an 8-kilowatt forklift powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, with the ability to lift 1.5 tons. Using batteries to power heavy trucks is not practical, experts say, because of how frequently batteries must be swapped out and how the vehicles' lifting power decreases as the charge wanes.
Hydrogen's Market Viability
Many physicists and energy consultants, however, remain unconvinced that hydrogen will ever be viable on a large scale.
Ulf Bossel, a fuel-cell consultant who regularly heads the annual conference series of the European Fuel Cell Forum, acknowledges hydrogen's potential advantages. But he sees little promise in hydrogen fuel-cell cars, especially when pitted against electric vehicles.
"Range in electric cars will not be an issue, because every garage and parking lot will have automatic recharging stations," said Bossel. For the rare occasions when an electric car's range is insufficient, Bossel adds, diesel-electric hybrids can be used.
"No one's going to stick hydrogen into their car for some modest additional capability," said Joseph Romm, former acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy during the Clinton administration and the editor of the Climate Progress blog.
Romm, who is the author of "The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate," said hydrogen faces a typical chicken-and-egg dilemma. The technology won't catch on without refueling infrastructure. But without wide demand for hydrogen cars, building the infrastructure to fuel them is too costly a gamble.
"There's simply no way to bootstrap your way up to a hydrogen economy, just because it's so expensive to build all the infrastructure and all the capacity," he told SolveClimate News. "The nice thing about electricity is that it's everywhere. So the possibility of completing the infrastructure is going to be considerably cheaper and more practical."
But advocates of hydrogen energy maintain that it is a potentially game-changing solution in the family of alternative fuels, and could even be a complement to, rather than a substitute for, electric cars.
"It's not as if both technologies shouldn't be valid in parallel," said Marieke Reijalt, executive director of the European Hydrogen Association. "The longer range and greater capacity of hydrogen fuel cells make them suitable to power buses and larger vehicles."
Reijalt acknowledges that breaking into the market will prove an "enormous challenge" but she says that hydrogen deserves the support of governments worldwide so that it can compete on the commercial market.
"The introduction of the vehicles should really be pushed by public policy support and public funding," Reijalt told SolveClimate News.
Hatipoğlu of ICHET points out that electric cars would also require significant government subsidies to gain traction. He said he hopes that for hydrogen's sake the Turkish government will start subsidizing electric vehicles soon. "They will see that the range of battery-operated vehicles is not sufficient, and they will be asked for more distance by the customers."
Over the next several years, Hatipoğlu envisions the green car market first transforming from battery-electric to hybrid vehicles and finally to hydrogen fuel-cell cars, assuming that both costs and inefficiency plumment.
Criticisms: High Costs, Low Efficiency
It currently costs approximately $8 to produce one kilogram of hydrogen, which has the energy equivalent of 1 gallon of gasoline. For now, it is cheapest to generate hydrogen from other fossil fuels, such as natural gas. The process releases 30 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions emitted in conventional natural gas power generation, according to ICHET figures.
Hatipoğlu points out that as soon as clean energy resources such as solar and wind are cost-effective, 100 percent renewables-hydrogen systems will be as well. The commercialization of these clean hydrogen generators could also bring the production costs of hydrogen down to $2 or $3 per kilogram, he said.
In countries with high petroleum prices like Turkey, where prices at the pump hover around $12 per gallon, hydrogen fuel could make economic sense, said Hatipoğlu.
A quick comparison of currently available electric battery and hydrogen fuel-cell cars suggests that the costs of each vehicle may depend more on the make than on the energy technology.
The Tesla Roadster costs $1,658 per month to lease, or $100,000 to buy. The Mercedes Benz hatchbacks aren't being sold yet, but leasing began in the United States in December for $845 per month. The Nissan Leaf is sold for $30,000, or leased for $435 per month. Toyota's hydrogen fuel-cell Highlander will be sold for approximately $50,000; no leasing price has yet been quoted.
Still, critics argue that hydrogen cars will never enter the mass market unless the efficiency of the overall process improves.
"Only 25 percent of the original electricity comes back to the user from a hydrogen fuel cell," said Bossel, the fuel-cell consultant. "Whereas if you transport the electricity directly from the source, 80 or 90 percent comes to the user. So you're losing four times more energy in transportation with hydrogen."
ICHET Plugs Away
To boost the efficiency of hydrogen production, and to increase private sector interest and public awareness, ICHET holds R&D competitions in which teams from universities and private companies compete for funds to help develop their technologies. These contests produce some of the most innovative work that ICHET supports.
For instance, a design for a solid oxide fuel cell that can co-generate 3 kilowatts of heat and electricity with approximately 90 percent efficiency won an ICHET competition that ended in December. The winning team will complete a prototype of this fuel-cell system in two years with the help of a $500,000 grant from ICHET. It is expected to enter the market shortly thereafter.
As a result of a separate ICHET competition, a team is currently converting four spark ignition engines to run directly on hydrogen or mixtures of hydrogen and conventional fuels — a less-developed alternative to fuel cells, but one which could also fuel vehicles and electric systems.
For Turkey and other emerging economies, where rapidly increasing demand for energy makes the search for cost-effective alternative fuels especially pressing, the stakes are high in these hydrogen contests.
"We have the most developed hydrogen fuel-cell testing lab in Europe," said Hatipoğlu. "We are the only center in the world aiming to help leapfrog developing countries from conventional energy technologies to hydrogen technologies, and we are well-equipped to do so."