Last month on a flight to San Francisco, I happened to sit next to a gentleman who works for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. He is a materials scientist who works with many different renewable energy methods.
Needless to say, he and I talked for the whole eight-hour trip!
I asked him what the newest renewable energy trends were and how long it would be before they possibly hit the mainstream market.
He told me about a new method of using photovoltaic panels. Instead of using the solar energy directly to power an inverter, these panels use the energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. When it’s nice and sunny, the PV panels turn water into hydrogen gas that runs an electrical generator. The only emission is moisture and oxygen from the used hydrogen. You would install enough panels to produce sufficient hydrogen gas to run through the day and night, as well as extra panels to supply enough hydrogen for the system to keep working during a few days of inclement weather.
The biggest problem lies in storing the hydrogen, which is very flammable. Remember the Hindenburg? Also, hydrogen gas cannot be compressed, so it requires a lot of storage capacity, and it also permeates many kinds of metal. So all piping and storage tanks need a special lining to stop gas seepage. He explained that most hydrogen storage facilities are buried underground to help keep the gas cool and also keep people away from the tanks.
I told him that I had seen such a site in North Cape, Prince Edward Island, Canada. They have about 16 large wind turbines, which produce about 660 kilowatts of power each. When it is windy, they use some of the wind energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Then the hydrogen is stored to fuel electrical generators when there is no wind. This wind farm began operating in 2011 and supplies about 7% of the island’s total power.
(Why are we not doing this in the USVI?)
My seatmate explained that we will probably see more sites using wind and solar power to split water. Over time, he explained, we will move away from big power generation units and into more micro-grids. Each house would have its own PV solar panels and storage capacity, and when your system gets low, it would use the micro-grid to help recharge your home’s battery bank.
“How far away are we from this really happening?” I asked. He estimated about 20 to 30 years to see it become commonplace.
I have to say, it was one of my more enjoyable flights!
For a greener tomorrow,
Dan Boyd of Island Solar is a Virgin Islands Energy Office authorized vendor. For more information, call Boyd on his cell phone at 340-626-9685 or by email at [email protected]