Thinking Tech

The big challenge in wind energy portability

The big challenge in wind energy portability

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If you can turn wind power or solar energy into hydrogen or less-volatile ammonia, you can transport it and have it ready for use in fuel cells when demand develops far away. Both hydrogen and ammonia can go through pipelines. But that will take money. A lot of money.

Right now, viable wind energy projects around the country are being cancelled.

Why? Because while gas, oil and coal are portable, wind energy is not.

Politicians are busy pointing fingers, and electrical transmission companies are waiting for orders or guarantees before they upgrade.

Here is the problem.  

While the last century's energy came in the form of potential, goods that could easily be transported and stored, this century's energy comes in the form of electricity itself.

Our electrical grid was not designed to store and hold electricity. It was designed for an on-demand world. When demand rises, generation is increased. When power falls, plants are turned down.

This is where the power of the hydrogen economy should become manifest, if we can make the numbers work.

If you can turn wind power or solar energy into hydrogen or less-volatile ammonia, you can transport it and have it ready for use in fuel cells when demand develops far away. Both hydrogen and ammonia can go through pipelines.

But to make it all work we need a lot of expensive infrastructure, and you can't finance infrastructure unless investors feel some certainty that infrastructure will be used. Or unless someone is willing to guarantee the loan.

Electric utilities say they want to do this. This is what all the talk about a "smart grid" is all about -- moving power across large distances, buying it as well as selling it.

But that may not be enough. Battery technology is not moving as fast as the demand for storage-and-forwarding of energy. The cost of storing enough wind energy in batteries to make a difference seems prohibitive.

This means we're talking about hydrolysis plants. Turn electricity into hydrogen (or hydrogen-heavy ammonia) and transport that to where it's need, transforming it at the other end into energy and water. In theory they could run on any water source -- even the "water wash" from agriculture.

We are also talking about dedicated pipeline systems. This could start by extending the existing ammonia pipeline into a national system. (Right now it mainly goes from petrochemical plants on the Gulf Coast to farms needing fertilizer in the Midwest.)

Want to make good use of federal loan guarantees? Instead of wasting them on nuclear plants in Georgia, how about putting them into extending our ammonia pipeline infrastructure?

Another way to go, of course, is through a hydrogen pipeline. The architecture is similiar to existing natural gas pipeline systems, but the two gases can't travel together. We could start such a system with retired pipelines, or start building new ones from major "wind fields" to major population centers.

Either way we go -- batteries, ammonia, hydrogen -- we are going to need money for infrastructure. I personally prefer ammonia or hydrogen, because "burning" those fuels leaves water as its pollution, and creating water alongside energy solves two problems at once.

But what do I know? I'm just a reporter. All I do know for certain is that whatever course we choose, we need to choose one, and put money behind that choice. Or wind power will continue to be left by the side of the road.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure