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Published on May 29th, 2014 | by Tina Casey

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Nuke Leader AREVA Adds Fuel To FCEV Fire

May 29th, 2014 by  


We’ve been having a lively debate about FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles) over here at CleanTechnica, but if the latest move by the global nuclear energy corporation AREVA is any indication, the point may already be moot: FCEVs are here to stay. AREVA has been dabbling in non-nuclear renewable energy and it has just announced a new joint venture aimed at manufacturing hydrogen for the FCEV service station market.

Without a crystal ball at hand we’re not predicting anything about the success (or lack thereof) of  this particular new hydrogen joint venture, which teams AREVA and the company Smart-Energies with the French government through the Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME). However, when you apply the force of a national effort with a global supply chain, you’re bound to get an uptick in the availability of hydrogen to gas up your FCEV.

FCEV concept

FCEV (cropped) by Shelby Asistio.

The FCEV Challenge

Leaving aside the obvious — FCEVs are already on their way to cementing a place as specialty vehicles, for example in warehouse operations — part of the aforementioned lively discussion has covered the technological challenges and cost-competitiveness obstacles to mass adoption of FCEVs for personal mobility as street vehicles.

As these obstacles fall by the wayside, though, the other part of the problem becomes more clear. That is the current reliance on fossil natural gas as the primary source of hydrogen for fuel cells, resulting in a gigantic greenhouse gas footprint for supposedly zero-emission FCEVs.

Greenhouse gas emissions are far from the only problem with fossil gas sourcing. With natural gas fracking (short for the non-conventional drilling method called hydrofracturing) and horizontal drilling accounting for thousands of new wells in the US every year, local impacts are also growing apace.

The impacts of fracking and the fracking supply chain include everything from water and air contamination to traffic hazards and earthquakes (yes, earthquakes). That’s on top of the unsightliness of introducing new industrial activity into formerly quiet, rural areas. How unsightly? Well, when the CEO of ExxonMobil (aka world’s leading natural gas fracker) joins a lawsuit to stop construction of a fracking-related water tower near his home, that’s gotta be unsightly.

Solving The BEV Greenhouse Gas Problem

The bottom line is that right now, FCEVs have the same problem that BEVs (battery electric vehicles) have when you charge them off a grid source that mixes coal, natural gas, or (to a far lesser degree) oil. They are all ultimately relying on fossil sources, therefore all of these supposedly low or zero-emission solutions have a fairly substantial greenhouse gas profile.

The good news is that BEVs are rapidly solving that problem as more renewable energy comes into the market, both in a small-scale, distributed form (think solar-enabled home or workplace charging) and in the form of utility-scale grid supplies of wind, solar, and other renewable sources.

Solving The FCEV GHG Problem

So, why can’t the same problem be solved for FCEVs?

I dunno, why can’t it? Here at CleanTechnica we’ve been following the development of methods to produce hydrogen by “splitting” water. This process is energy-intensive and it currently relies on, yep you guessed it, fossil fuels to power the operation.

However, new solar driven hydrogen production processes are already well under way, and here in the US researchers are already adding on sustainable hydrogen twofers, such as producing hydrogen as part of a wastewater treatment process that could run on renewable energy.

 

As for the AREVA venture, it’s aimed at manufacturing the specialized membranes used for the electrolysis-based process by which hydrogen is produced from water.

That, in turn, is part of a national roadmap for mainstreaming FCEVs in France by 2050, which has a heavy emphasis on renewable, low, and zero-emission hydrogen sourcing. Here are some snippets from four scenarios ADEME developed for attaining an FCEV goal for France, with the service station angle mentioned last:

…One is based on the centralised mass production of “low-carbon hydrogen,” in other words a production method whose greenhouse gas emissions are reduced or zero…The other scenario prioritises decentralised hydrogen production from renewable sources alone (renewable electricity, biomass, biogas).

…The remaining two scenarios prioritise widespread uses such as transport, small-scale and medium-scale cogeneration, mobile objects, emergency back-up generators and auxiliary power supply units…One of the scenarios considers powering these uses via the mass production of low-carbon hydrogen within the scope of national grids

…The remaining scenario proposes the installation of a local hydrogen economy throughout France via decentralised production means located close to hydrogen use facilities, associated with urban or county distribution microgrids, local natural gas circuits, service stations, production means installed on private property and storage units throughout France…

If you blinked, you missed the reference to natural gas in this equation. As much as we fangirl/boy/whatever over non-combustion sources of energy here at CleanTechnica, the reality is that fossil fuels will continue to play at least a modest role in the foreseeable future, and it seems that the French plan for FCEVs takes that into account — at least for now.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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