Iceland moves to become the first country to replace fossil fuels with hydrogen for all its energy needs.
December 27, 2001 11:04 AM   Subscribe

Iceland moves to become the first country to replace fossil fuels with hydrogen for all its energy needs. I find it fitting that a society descended from Vikings will become the world's first hydrogen society.
posted by homunculus (31 comments total)
How much pollution is released by the process of manufacturing fuel cells?
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:12 AM on December 27, 2001

Only as much as it takes to produce the electricity needed for the electrolysis, if I understand it right. This is why it makes sense for Iceland, which has clean geothermal power generation, and not for California, which has to use fossil fuels.

It's the right question to ask though, definitely. Every time one of my friends extols the virtues of those wonderful clean electric cars, I ask them where the electricity comes from, and nine times out of ten they look confused and say "the battery."
posted by rodii at 11:21 AM on December 27, 2001

I find it fitting that a society descended from Vikings will become the world's first hydrogen society

Why? Were Vikings filled with explosive gas?
posted by MrBaliHai at 11:26 AM on December 27, 2001

Steven Den Beste: How much pollution is released by the process of manufacturing fuel cells?

if you mean the 'process of manufacturing fuel for fuel cells', that can vary greatly. if you indeed mean what you wrote, that's asking how much pollution is released in creating an engine. the fuel cell is an engine, not a fuel.

while studying mechanical engineering at the cooper union, i worked on a project called starfuel. we used electricity from solar arrays to turn tap water into hydrogen, which was stored locally and then used to power a fuel cell. this made the production of hydrogen essentially free, after the initial cost of the "production" machinery. there are other methods of "producing" hydrogen fuel, some examples include using natural gas, petrol, methane, water.

there are many competing technologies in this new field, and i find it very exciting that iceland wants to take this next step. their production costs will be near zero, since they already have 'free' geothermal energy, so they are a very good 'pilot' group to use this technology.

more power to them!
posted by particle at 11:39 AM on December 27, 2001

Were Vikings filled with explosive gas?

well, all those poisonous mushrooms might have side effects other than berserker-rages...
posted by kahboom at 11:47 AM on December 27, 2001

roddi, I used to think the same thing "you have to use fossil fuels somewhere", but I later found out that it's a lot more effecient and cleaner to make large quantities at a power plant than burning fossil fuels in your car. Of course using nuclear power would totally get rid of direct pollution.

The bigger concern shouldn't be about pollution as much as running out of energy and depending on foreign suppliers.
posted by geoff. at 11:55 AM on December 27, 2001

geoff. (that period drives me crazy), I agree. Of course, there are now transmission losses when you centralize electric production, so the advantages aren't as great as they seem. The point is, there are few methods of powering cars that don't pollute somehow. People confuse "no tailpipe emissions" with "no pollution," but it's not so. Iceland's plan comes as close as anything I've seen, because they are blessed with all that volcanically-heated water.

Particle, how much embedded energy is there is the solar cells themselves (meaning energy used in production)? How much toxic crap is generated as a byproduct of producing them? Solar cells are not an especially clean technology if you look at the whole life cycle.
posted by rodii at 12:07 PM on December 27, 2001

Why? Were Vikings filled with explosive gas?

I think that homunculus was referring to the urge towards exploration shared by the ancestral Vikings and the latter-day Icelanders (with regard to alternative energy sources).

Because Iceland already has access to clean geo-thermal energy, converting that energy to portable fuel-cells makes immediate sense. However, even though rodii's response to his friends' advocacy of electric vehicles is good and correct (the electricity has to come from somewhere), encouraging fuel-cell development and use in vehicles, households, and other users admits of the possibility that future clean, centralized power sources can be used to generate the electricity needed by the cells. The vast majority of existing internal-combustion engines can only use pertoleum-based fuels, with no forseeable generation of fuel via zero-emissions processes.

With regard to Steven's question, I think that you need to look at the life-cycle costs of both the use and manufacture of fuel-cells and internal-combustion engines, to use an example. This includes the environmental and economic costs of mining the metals needed for catalytic processes (in the case of fuel-cells), spilled oil (in the case of internal-combustion), and reuse/recycling possibilities at the end of the engine's life.
posted by Avogadro at 12:07 PM on December 27, 2001

two quotes from the article that are at odds with each other:

"They will be fuelled at a new filling station being built on the outskirts of the city by Shell, one of three major corporations putting money
into the project."

"So Iceland's next energy revolution will
be based on converting its own renewable energy into a form that can power its own
transport system, slashing those emissions and ending
its dependence on fossil fuels completely."

True-- they won't be using the fossil fuel, but it appears that they'll still be getting their energy (or at least their energy will be controlled by) Shell and other multinationals.

And that is the real reason why there is sudden interest in Hydrogen as a fossil fuel replacement. Hydrogen can be controlled like oil, because Hydrogen is complicated to deal with.

I don't hear a lot of people rallying behind mandatory solar hot water heating and solar space heating in all new residential construction. That is a possible goal with today's technology (it's actually been possible for a long time)-- but it doesn't make people rich. So it's boring.

Don't use different energy. Use less energy.
posted by squinky at 12:28 PM on December 27, 2001

I think that homunculus was referring to the urge towards exploration shared by the ancestral Vikings and the latter-day Icelanders

Yes, exactly.
posted by homunculus at 12:40 PM on December 27, 2001

I don't hear a lot of people rallying behind mandatory solar hot water heating and solar space heating in all new residential construction. That is a possible goal with today's technology (it's actually been possible for a long time)-- but it doesn't make people rich. So it's boring.

This is a good point, squinky, and one that requires a drastic shift in how we personally measure quality-of-life. There are folks out there (this is a company that I have just come across) that are working on using both new technologies and time-honored ways of building that take advantage of passive solar radiation, renewable building materials, and household geo-thermal energy. There are also sustainable building and zoning codes that are being crafted and used by communities around the world. However, there is also a lot of intertia from communities and elected leaders that look suspiciously on anything that deviates from the norm, from corporations that (as you put it) stand to profit less from simple solutions than from proprietary processes, and from consumers who aren't fully informed.

What is happening in Iceland is not the total answer, but rather an incremental step towards wisely producing and using energy. It does need to go hand-in-hand with the way we design our lives, else the benefits will be short-lived.
posted by Avogadro at 12:51 PM on December 27, 2001

I am sure many of you have traveled to Iceland as a result of Air Iceland's amazing prices when flying to Europe if you're willing to visit Rechykevic for 3 days (where a disposable cigarette lighter costs $4.00).
I am a car/truck phanatic and offroading has been something that's boiled my blood for years. The roads, or lack of roads in Iceland results in enormous pedestrian vehicles, mostly equipped with gas guzzling v-8's
I have many digital pictures of these monsters, I will post a link as soon as I can find and upload them.
Are they planning to produce electric vehicles with enough power to navigate the rough terrain? If not they're gonna be floating enormous infrastructure projects.
posted by Eric Lloyd NYC at 1:14 PM on December 27, 2001

Maack says "It's about being independent and relying on ourselves to continue the way we live."

That pretty much sums up the Icelanders' ideology. Iceland was practically stuck in the middle ages until they gained status as a sovereign nation from Denmark, so in 40 years' time, these people have fucking violently exploded in terms of technological advances and standard of living.
posted by Modem Ovary at 1:29 PM on December 27, 2001

I meant the fuel cell itself, not the fuel it burns.

And all the wiring which carries the electricity created by the fuel cell.

And all the appliances and equipment which use that electricity. They don't come out of thing air. They get made somewhere.

Operating power is only the tip of the ice berg. Manufacturing power and pollution are a much bigger issue than most people realize.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:48 PM on December 27, 2001

Um, yes, right. I missed that, sorry.
posted by rodii at 2:54 PM on December 27, 2001

Manufacturing power and pollution are a much bigger issue than most people realize.

Great point. Any scientists in the house who can calculate how much power it takes to manufacture a 9 volt battery, vs. how much power the battery provides? Would that be a valid example of fuel/fuel cell battery production?
posted by th3ph17 at 3:21 PM on December 27, 2001

The energy required to produce a product is called 'embedded energy' (at least in the circles I travel in). The embedded energy of a fuel cell is likely to include transportation costs, mining costs, manufacturing, etc.

There's some talk of using micro-fuel cells to power portable devices, so yes, 9v batteries would be a good example. The question is: How does the energy expended in producing, distributing and using a 9v battery, plus the total amount of energy stored in it over it's life time compare to the same energies involved in using a fuel cell for the same application.

The concerns radiate from here out, however. How much energy (probably in terms of cash) is involved in marketing the 9v battery? (I hear the Bunny (tm) makes as much as Michael Jackson!). What about the cost of the infrastructure that supports batteries? Fuel cells worth wanting pretty much need new infrastructure to make them work, so do you figure that into the cost?

The most relevant question for this discussion is how does Iceland's use of geothermal energy effect their ecology? I mean, the energy they are extracting wasn't just sitting around doing nothing. Now it's driving busses around and what not, but what did it used to do? Will we miss it? Will somebody (or something) else miss it? We may not know in advance (example: maybe extracting heat from geothermal wells actually heats the oceans, causing the ice-shelves to melt faster. ouch!).

I think the question Steven was raising is: Fuel Cells sound great. But, what if making them gives you cancer? How great are they then? Being an optimist, I still think they're pretty great, but it's not a simple calculation.

Yes, it's a slow day at work.
posted by daver at 4:14 PM on December 27, 2001

Great post, daver. This is the big picture question I never see answered fairly for many things, and without it it's really hard to make fair assessments of any technology: what are the costs of a technology, all the costs over the entire life cycle, including disposal? And who pays them? I would love to have a comprehensive assessment for cars, instead of the biased Wild-Ass Guesses we usually get. This would include (to pick an example at random) highway salt, and thus salt mining, and thus salt mining equipment... etc. And it goes on and on.
posted by rodii at 4:29 PM on December 27, 2001

It's quite tricky to do. So tricky, the last post I made on it seems to have crashed mefi. Oops.

Anyway: what it comes down to is a really Wild Ass Guess vs. a Scientific Wild Ass Guess. Every issue you pick up exposes more beneath it, and they kind of snowball.

To do this effectively, come up with a general list of categories and agree upon a unit of quantification for measuring each of the categories. Dollars turns out to be an excellent unit of quantification, except that it only measures things of value to humans. But, we're a fairly selfish species, so don't let that stop you. Here's a good list to get started with if you're thinking about energy devices:

Infrastructure, manufacturing, marketing, manufacturing, total energy dispersal (how many kilowatt hours come out of 1 rechargable 9 volt?), disposal, ecological.

To make things tricky, remember there are costs we don't currently know about.

In many cases, to quantify in dollars you'll need to measure not the item itself, but rather it's impact on people. For example: coal burning pollution can be measured in tons of particulate matter, but that's hard to compare to nuclear waste (which we very much hope does not come in the form of dispersed particulate matter). Rather, compare the costs of treating, storage, health effects, and environmental effects. I'd put the whole thing under ecological effects.

Also, be sure to figure in the costs to future generations. For example: figure in the cost of having to abandon fossil fuels in 100 years in a panic (since they'll all be gone) vs. the cost of gradually switching to nuclear fuel...

Ready? Meet you back here in 15 minutes with graph paper. ;-)
posted by daver at 5:53 PM on December 27, 2001

While Steven's point is a good one, that operational energy is far from the whole picture, do not let that discourage you from the whole idea. It's true that appliances and equipment will still have to be built, and that costs energy, but not more, and probably less, than the amount of energy being spent on manufacturing appliances and equipment now. Home electrical appliances will not change at all, and an electric engine powered by a fuel cell is far less complex than an internal combustion engine, and cheaper in resources (though the platinum catalyst required may mean it is more expensive in dollars for now). That leaves energy generation equipment, and someone will have to help me with that one because I have no idea of the relative costs, but I would be very surprised indeed if it is so much more expensive that it outweighs the savings in electric versus combustion engine manufacture.

What I'm trying to say is, that while it's definitely not as big a savings as it's made out to be, it's still a step in the right direction.
posted by Nothing at 9:36 PM on December 27, 2001

Interesting: A free course on fuel cells and future energy at

The big deal with fuel cells is delivering the fuel. You can use gasoline to power fuel cells, but they make a fair bit of pollution, and are based on petroleum products. Or, you can run them on hydrogen or methane. Better, but they require massive infrastructure changes. Hydrogen in particular is so small (as molecules go) that most of the 'plumbing' currently used to distribute fuel isn't tight enough to effectively contain it. Then, there are largely irratioinal (but very popular) views about the safety of hydrogen....
posted by daver at 8:22 AM on December 28, 2001

I would love to have a comprehensive assessment for cars.... This would include (to pick an example at random) highway salt, and thus salt mining, and thus salt mining equipment... etc.

To get as comprehensive an assessment as you're describing, wouldn't we really end up trying to survey the entirety of human economic activity? Which might not necessarily be a bad thing (if you could do it accurately), but it might not be particularly informative about cars. It seems you have to draw lines somewhere, don't you?
posted by nickmark at 8:28 AM on December 28, 2001

Yes, you would--that's partly my point, that totally accurate comparisons of technology costs are impractical (though we should be able to draw lines at some point we can agree is negligible). The other part of my point is that whatever cars or fuel cells cost, it's a lot higher than just the cost of purchasing and operating them, and those costs have to get covered somehow (in the US, by taxes to pay for roads and cleanup).
posted by rodii at 8:39 AM on December 28, 2001

Granted my crystal ball has already been a bit cloudy, but I wonder how much of this is influenced by the projection of increasing gasoline costs when we hit the break point where production can no longer keep up with projected consumption. In other words, it is quite possible that Iceland is looking ahead to the next energy crisis, and developing the next generation in technology.

Of course, the entire reason why we use petroleum came about because of a previous energy crisis. Petroleum was formerly considered useful only for lubrication and snake oil medicines until all of a sudden our supplies of whale oil no longer could keep up with consumer and industrial demands. The coal age was started when charcoal could no longer keep up with industrial demands, the petroleum age started when whaling could no longer keep up with household demands, and I suspect that solar and fuel cell age will be started when petroleum can no longer keep up with transportation demands.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:00 AM on December 28, 2001

It seems like there is agreement that if the primary source of energy is fossil fuel-based, fuel cells provide a negligible (if any at all) improvement over existing widely-used technologies, and that the only way fuel cell use would be better is if you make the life-cycle production, use, and disposal benefits greater than present methods.

That said, I don't mean to hijack the thread, but skallas's comment: "There's also the benefit or first worlders paving the clean way for third world countries begining their mass industrialization programs." struck me as interesting, because it seems in opposition to squinky's assertion that we should "(not) use different energy. Use less energy."

Perhaps we would be better served to not rely on technology as the sole means to a sustainable future, but adapt the time-honored methods practiced in less-developed societies as a means of using resources more efficiently. I believe that producing a one-way knowledge pipeline from first-world countries to third-world countries will result in the same problems (sprawl, car-based societies, high-energy consumption) being replicated globally, and will make us lose the indigenous knowledge attained over the course of centuries.

The bottom line? For communities already blessed with clean, abundant power and accustomed to a "western" standard of living, fuel cells make sense. For energy inefficient societies (be they first world or third world) using dirty methods to produce energy, fuel cells are jus another way to transmit energy, unless they can be used in conjunction in the future with clean energy and efficient modes of consumption.
posted by Avogadro at 10:35 AM on December 28, 2001

Skallas, the trouble is that hydrogen is energy-intensive to produce. If you get hydrogen by electrolysis, you end up using more energy than you get out. This is not a problem in itself, we do this all the time to convert energy into a more usable or more portable form. But where does the input energy come from? Iceland has a huge energy surplus at this point, but the US doesn't, so we would have to use fossil fuels or nuclear to make hydrogen. This was my original point above: fuel cells in the US aren't emission-free, they just shift emissions from tailpipes to power plants--or, in the case of nuclear power, nuclear waste. There are advantages to this (power plants can run cleaner and more efficient), but it's not the pollution-free panacea we might wish it was.

(That's my understanding, anyway. Is there a cheap, clean way to produce hydrogen?)

Also want to attach a hearty "me too" to Avogadro's post.
posted by rodii at 10:59 AM on December 28, 2001

Is there a cheap, clean way to produce hydrogen?

PS. Farting doesn't count, Avo.
posted by rodii at 11:11 AM on December 28, 2001

PS. Farting doesn't count, Avo.

posted by Avogadro at 11:27 AM on December 28, 2001

The inefficiency of solar panels strikes me as being something of the Catch-22. Solar panels are not used in high numbers because they're not that efficient (the break-even comes if you live at least a half a mile away from the grid) but at the same time, research in mass production and improving the efficiency of solar panels advances at a snail's pace because there is not a large market demanding improvements in efficiency. Ironically, one of the biggest markets for solar technology is in fact the Third World were household power consumption is low and the infrastructure doesn't exist yet for centralized power.

I suspect that improving solar power will follow the same path as the improving microchip. The efficiency will increase once manufacturers start engaging in a performance war to produce the most efficient solar panels. Certainly the know-how exists for massive gains in improvement, however getting that out of the lab and into the factory will require a more robust market.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:05 PM on December 28, 2001

One of the major benefits to fuel cells and hydrogen may be the ability to decentralize energy production. It's not terribly feasible up here in cloudy seattle, but it's quite plausible that you could be in a position to produce and use your own hydrogen at your house.

Sunny climates may have it easier with more effecient solar cells. (One can only hope). Another alternative that's gotten some attention recently is production by biological methods (not farting, as you mentioned). Some bacterial (artifical and natural I believe) actually produce hydrogen as a by product of metabolism.

So, you keep a little soup in your basement that produces hydrogen as long as you feed it every few days or so.

There was a time when most power was decentralized in the U.S., but I think the last time was when windmills were popular. Who knows, they may be again.
posted by daver at 1:20 PM on December 28, 2001

For those who--like me--aren't knowledgable about fuel cells, a resource:

"According to many news reports, we may soon be using the new energy-saving technology to generate electrical power for our homes and cars. The technology is extremely interesting to people in all walks of life because it offers a means of making power more efficiently and with less pollution. But how does it do this? In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll take a quick look at each of the existing or emerging fuel-cell technologies. We'll detail how one of the most promising technologies works, and we'll discuss a few potential applications of fuel cells."
posted by Carol Anne at 5:29 AM on December 29, 2001

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