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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Glenn Beck Falls for the Hype

After the Olympics last night I briefly flipped to Glenn Beck (why do I do this to myself before bed?), and though I was expecting him to say any number of astonishingly ignorant things, I didn't expect him to talk about the BIG HUGE BREAKTHROUGH IN SOLAR ENERGY THAT WILL REVOLUTIONIZE EVERYTHING!

I couldn't resist a little debunking, in case anyone else has heard of this.

The short version is this. MIT researchers led by Dr. Daniel Nocera made a genuinly interesting and important discovery in electrocatalysis. Their discovery was an electrocatalyst for water electrolysis that uses more readily available elements than platinum, is about 70% energy efficient rather than sub 50%, and is self-healing (ie can be used without being replaced) and it surely has important applications.

However, MIT put out a press release hailing this discovery as a "revolutionary" breakthrough in solar energy. It's not. First of all, not to put too fine a point on it, but it isn't a breakthrough in solar technology at all. It's an advance in energy storage technology, but solar is sexier to the PR people at MIT. When Dr. Nocera says in the above clip "Yep, it makes hydrogen power." he is being simplistic to the point of inaccuracy. It's not generating any power, it's converting power, and doing so at a significant cost of energy. The claim is that this electrocatalyst makes distributed solar a practical energy choice where it wasn't before. This is baloney.

The idea presumes that people install enough solar capacity to more than meet their daily needs, and that the excess can be stored by conversion to hydrogen and fed through a fuel cell to power homes at night. This is foolish for a number of reasons.
  1. This system will be expensive, despite reduced costs of the electrocatalyst. Fuel cells are expensive. Significantly more expensive than batteries. This system requires people to purchase not just the solar panels, but a reformer, a fuell cell, and a hydrogen storage tank.
  2. On top of that, the sub 50% energy conversion efficiency of PEM fuel cells makes the round trip storage and use about 25% efficient.
  3. PEM fuel cells are not only expensive, but have limited lifetimes. Automotive PEM fuel cells need working lifetimes of about 5,000 hours, but this proposed system would require a much longer duration use. Many tens of thousands of hours of useful operating lifetime would be needed to last 5-10 years. (Fuel cells can degrade by impurities in the gas supply or particle coalesence.)
  4. Most residential solar installations don't meet 100% of household energy consumption, and there is nothing magic about 100%. Solar panels that meet 50% of your energy will cost you about half as much as meeting 100% of your consumption. Being grid tied is much more efficient than investing in distributed storage.
Since peak power loads (and costs) are during the day, when solar is available, it makes much more economic sense to generate and consume solar power during the day, complimenting it with baseload (nuclear, biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric) or intermittent (wind, kinetic hydropower) from the grid at night.

Why would you want to store valuable peak energy, throw away 75% of it, and use it or sell it back to the utility at night when power is cheap?

This isn't to say that fuel cells aren't worthy of further research, but the technical capability for what Nocera and Beck are claiming just isn't there. Furthermore, the usefullness of such a distributed storage system is highly questionable. A quasi-distributed storage network for intermittent distributed generation is surely more practical, technically and economically.

Beck can be almost excused for his ignorance, if only because it's so expected. Dr. Nocera, however, is making what a lot of people are considering exaggerated claims about the importance of this research.

I couldn't help but laugh at Glenn Beck, though, when he said
"This story broke I think what, last week? I haven't seen anybody on this story yet. I haven't seen congress, I haven't seen Al Gore, I haven't seen RFK Jr., I haven't seen you know, Barack Obama or John McCain or anybody say 'This is it.'"
Well, Glenn, when you don't hear anybody say "This is it." there are three possible reasons. 1) Nobody is paying attention like you are (unlikely) 2) There is a conspiracy of silence (unlikely) 3) It's not "it." I think the answer is the latter.

PS: Glenn, nobody wants your whiny voice on a ringtone.