Seeking to make a business case -- Wind generated hydrogen

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The exhibition that was the first in the world to be lit with electricity has given fairgoers a look at a future with wind power as a transportation fuel. Wind-generated hydrogen was used to fuel a forklift truck, a John Deere commercial work vehicle and an electric mini-car during a demonstration at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) in August.

Toronto's Exhibition Place turbine, a Lagerwey 750 kW unit that has been operating on the CNE grounds since early 2003, provided the juice needed to extract hydrogen from water in a process known as electrolysis. "We believe we've demonstrated the first fully renewable refuelling station in that there is no carbon participating in the production of hydrogen," says Pierre Rivard of Hydrogenics Corporation, Mississauga.

future plans

The company is also hoping to demonstrate that the future for wind-generated hydrogen fuel is closer than many think, at least in some very specific applications. Rivard points to urban-based courier services whose vehicles are either left idling or are shut down and restarted as many as 80 times a day, the least efficient operating regime for internal combustion engines. Fuel cells operating under similar conditions are as much as four times more efficient. Factor in a hydrogen production cost of C$5 a kilogram -- which has the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline -- and, says Rivard, "you can have a price per kilometre travelled that is competitive with the recent prices of oil."

The company's goal now is to prove its business case. The hydrogen "refueler" will remain on the CNE grounds where Hydrogenics will gather data on the electrolyser, the vehicles running on the hydrogen it produces, and the economic efficiency of using wind to drive the process. "If the price of oil remains in the range it has been at for the last two or three months, we believe we have a pretty good case right now," says Rivard. "If oil comes back down to the historical average, or the $20 a barrel range, the case would evaporate fairly quickly."

subsidising costs

An additional challenge is that while the market Rivard envisions for hydrogen is in the cities, the wind resource generally is not, adding transmission and distribution to the cost equation. He sees a role for governments in helping subsidise the cost of green power from the grid to help encourage the transition. "If you could make the refuelling station or fleet operator harmless for using green electrons derived from remote regions when it is specifically applied to refuelling vehicles, you would get a lot more operators looking at the numbers."

Several companies are already working with Hydrogenics to begin using hydrogen fuel in their operations. General Motors Canada and FedEx are installing demonstration hydrogen refuelling stations to power forklift trucks at facilities in the greater Toronto area. And in September, Hydrogenics unveiled a fuel cell van it developed for Purolator.

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