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By Robert Rapier on Apr 23, 2014 with 27 responses

Renewable Hydrogen on the Big Island

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The Big Island

For the past five years, home for me has been on the northern end of the island of Hawaiʻi. For those unfamiliar with the Hawaiian islands, they consist of eight major islands. The biggest of these islands is the island of Hawaiʻi, also known as the “Big Island.” The Big Island has a land area of 4,028 square miles — bigger than the area of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and almost as large as Connecticut. It is also home to a couple of volcanoes that are over 13,500 high (and incidentally do see snow during the cooler months). But the population density of the Big Island is much lower that the other small states at 185,000 people, versus around a million in both Rhode Island and Delaware, and 3.5 million in Connecticut.

Hawaii has abundant energy resources from wind, the sun, geothermal, water, and biomass. Yet Hawaii relies on petroleum for 80 percent of its energy, making it by far the most petroleum-dependent state. One major reason for this is that Hawaii is the only state that still gets a large portion of its electricity from oil. Over the years the states on the mainland displaced oil with coal, natural gas, and nuclear power, and today are starting to displace some of these with renewables. But Hawaii doesn’t have coal trains or natural gas pipelines, so we continued to use oil for electricity even as everyone else switched. The cost of continued oil reliance to electricity consumers has been very high.

But because of the relatively low population density and the abundant natural resources, the Big Island has the potential to do something that will prove to be much more challenging elsewhere: Derive most or all of its energy from renewable sources. I recently visited a laboratory that is working hard to realize this vision.

Meet Henk Rogers

Last week I toured Henk Rogers‘ ranch (called the Pu’u Wa’awa’a Ranch) on the Big Island. I went there with my good friend, Big Island farmer Richard Ha. Henk Rogers is a fascinating character, best known for bringing the video game “Tetris” — the world’s most popular video game with over 125 million units sold — to handheld video game devices. Henk also holds the exclusive intellectual property rights to Tetris. Having made his fortune in the video gaming world, Henk turned his attention to sustainable energy with his Blue Planet Foundation. (Incidentally, Henk Rogers also supports the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog & Simulation, a long-duration simulated Mars exploration habitat 8,200 feet above sea level on Mauna Loa.)

Henk Rogers’ Energy Lab

Richard and I were shown around the ranch by Vincent Paul Ponthieux, who is the Chief Technology Officer for Blue Planet Research. They have built an energy lab at Henk’s ranch where they are experimenting with a number of technologies for producing and storing energy. They are testing seven different solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies, as well as various energy storage and fuel cell technologies.

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Testing Seven Different Solar PV Technologies at Henk Rogers’ Ranch

The roof over the lab is host to 360 solar PV panels with a capacity of 85 kilowatts (kW) — enough to power about 17 average homes in Hawaii. But where it gets really interesting is that they are also using the electricity from the solar panels to produce hydrogen, which then supplies the only hydrogen refueling station on the Big Island.

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The 360 solar panels on the roof of Henk’s energy lab

As I explained recently in One More ‘Free Lunch’ in Energy, it always takes more energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen than you can get back from burning the hydrogen. But such a scheme might make sense in some instances if the electricity is cheap, or if the hydrogen is desperately needed. At times renewable energy installations may produce more power than a home can use or than the grid can absorb, and it could be directed into electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen for later consumption. In this way, the hydrogen is acting like an energy storage device — which could then be used to produce power even when the sun isn’t shining.

Hydrogen can be used either directly in a combustion engine (where the combustion product is simply water) or, more efficiently, in a fuel cell that converts chemical energy into electricity. Fuel cells are still quite expensive, but they can be used to provide backup electrical power or to power a vehicle. Henk’s lab is experimenting with fuel cells from several manufacturers, including Plug Power (Nasdaq: PLUG) — which incidentally has seen its share price rise more than 40-fold over the past 12 months.

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Richard Ha and I at the Big Island’s only hydrogen refueling station

Henk’s team is also experimenting with various battery storage technologies. They had a vanadium-redox flow stack, as well as a bank of lithium iron phosphate batteries from Sony. I discussed the problem of energy storage with Blue Planet Research’s Chief Technology Officer Vincent Paul Ponthieux, and we both agree that cost effective energy storage is a critically important enabler of a future powered by solar power, or by other intermittent power sources. I was really excited to see them focused on this problem.

But Isn’t That Expensive?

Given that this is a small experimental facility for hydrogen production, I didn’t expect it to be cost effective. However, it is worth mentioning the costs to keep things in perspective. To produce hydrogen from the solar PV panels at Henk Rogers’ ranch requires an electrolyzer that cost $125,000 (in addition to the cost of the solar panels). That electrolyzer is capable of producing 12 kilograms of hydrogen a day. Those 12 kilograms of hydrogen contain the energy content of about 12 gallons of gasoline. Thus, over the course of a year that $125,000 electrolyzer might produce hydrogen with the energy equivalent of $10,000 to $15,000 worth of gasoline. But these costs are expected to go down as the system is scaled up.

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Vincent Paul Ponthieux showing us the electrolyzer that produces hydrogen from solar power

Conclusions

During my career, I have come across some amazing things in the most unexpected places. Prior to my visit to Henk Rogers’ energy lab on the Big Island, I wouldn’t have guessed such a sophisticated facility existed anywhere on the island. The research team there is working on some critically important problems in the field of energy, and success for them will mean a cleaner energy future for us all.

The world must eventually move to a solar economy, and the work of the team there could help accelerate that process. The sun is being utilized to produce electricity, as well as hydrogen which can be used to produce backup power and as a power source for automobiles. The technology is there; it’s mainly just a matter of reducing costs.

I want to note in closing that we were told on our visit that they are not looking for attention, as that tends to take time away from work. Nor are they looking for investors. Rather they are engaged in this mission because Henk Rogers has a passion and a vision for a cleaner energy future. I wish the team great success in this mission. It is related to my own mission in Arizona, where I am also working to realize a hydrogen economy.

Link to Original Article: Renewable Hydrogen on the Big Island

You can find Robert Rapier on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

  1. By Richard_Ha on April 23, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    Glad you enjoyed the trip to Henk’s ranch. Our geothermal plant curtails-or throws away 70 Megawatts of electricity every nite. We should be able to figure out how to use that!

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  2. By Shoaib on April 24, 2014 at 2:10 am

    Good to see noble effort by Henk Rogers. Good luck !!
    Well written article – kudos to Robert

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  3. By Tom G. on April 24, 2014 at 9:02 am

    On your next trip Robert, why not throw in a little coverage of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion [OTEC] and maybe something about deep water air conditioning?

    I would normally end my posting by telling you to have a great day but how could you have anything but when you live in paradise.

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  4. By Forrest on April 28, 2014 at 9:07 am

    I’m thinking more that the future does belong to hydrogen fuel. The projected cost of fuel cell 2020 is 1/4 of batteries per kWh. They have piping and storage vessels with special treatments that minimizes leak rate. Current R&D and break through technology has low pressure hydrogen storage for autos within striking distance. Electric generation is very inefficient, hard to control/balance, fragile, and expensive. Gas lines just the opposite. Steam turbines probably will never be highly efficient hanging around the 30-40%. Hydrogen has a lot going for it. We may only need a hydrogen fuel line connection for home and refilling of auto use. Combined power and heat technology could push efficiencies to high 90′s% for fuel cell electric production and hot water heat. Electric grid less needed and probably utilized upon industrial parks for manufacturing of aluminum, steel, and high KWH users. Nuclear and wind set up for hydrogen production. High temperature hydrogen cracking of water with minimal electric may be a process for nuclear. Under increasing higher temps and pressures hydrogen disassociates increasing easier. Typical heat and pressure of ICE conducive to this process. One car company is experimenting with 4-2 engine where four cylinders operate as ICE engine and the other two cylinders produce hydrogen. The strategy is to utilize the hydrogen production to optimize the ICE side as hydrogen can cut down pollution stream and has higher octane for efficient engine operation. They could utilize ethanol, as well, a lot cheaper and practical.

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  5. By Optimist on April 28, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    “…including Plug Power (Nasdaq: PLUG) — which incidentally has seen its share price rise more than 40-fold over the past 12 months.”
    Careful, I think your bias may be showing. If a biofuel company had its share price going up 40-fold RR’s BS detector would be going ballistic. Fuel cells get a pass?

    Also missing the engineering analysis that usually accompanies these postings. For example, if your hydrolyzer is 50% efficient and your fuel cell is 50% efficient, then converting excess electricity to hydrogen (during low demand) and back to electricity (during high demand; assuming no other losses) means that 75% of the original kWh are lost. Does the remaining 25% pay for the scheme? From a system-wide POV: Would it make more sense to sell the hydrogen to a refinery to convert it into a liquid fuel?

    What about safety?

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    • By Robert Rapier on April 28, 2014 at 9:49 pm

      “If a biofuel company had its share price going up 40-fold RR’s BS detector would be going ballistic. Fuel cells get a pass?”

      I am not saying that it’s a great investment as a result. I personally wouldn’t touch it. I am just reporting a fact.

      “Also missing the engineering analysis that usually accompanies these postings.”

      It’s an R&D lab. It’s well known that the efficiency of going from solar to hydrogen and then back to power won’t be high. It’s a question of whether it will ever pan out economically. It doesn’t today; we know that.

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      • By Optimist on April 28, 2014 at 10:35 pm

        OK, it’s an R&D lab. But you still want to peer down the road to see whether it pencils out or not. How does it compare with alternatives, such as batteries and pumped-storage systems? Would it be more competitive at small scale or at large scale?

        Guess I’m not getting hydrogen fever just yet…

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  6. By Forrest on April 29, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Plug Power is betting on material handling market. A good choice as battery power is a problem with long recharge cycle and short range problems. Weight is not a problem for fork lifts as compared to auto. Extra weight actually an advantage. I was an engineer for Clark Equipment, a different division from material handling, but remember the incredible transition from N.G. engine to battery power. Just a few short years and since Clark was slow to convert they lost mightily. If ever the battery became cost effective for automobiles the transition would equally happen as fast.

    I read an stock analysis guy state the fuel cell was dead because he drove the Toyota FC car and achieved 0-60 in ll seconds whereas the Tesla could do 0-60 in 5.4 seconds. That’s a laughable benchmark. It reminds me of a high school that produced a super fast cart with super capacitors. No battery required, unlimited recharges, super fast recharge time, lower weight than battery. Oh, the cart good for several hundred feet of propulsion, but achieved top speed in seconds.

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    • By Optimist on April 29, 2014 at 3:15 pm

      Yeah that was dumb.

      FC is dead because of $1,000,000 per car. Period.

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      • By Clee on May 5, 2014 at 3:45 am

        That $1 million number is some years old.

        This is the most current production costs for fuel cell cars that I could find.
        http://www1.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/pdfs/fcev_status_prospects_july2013.pdf
        “Estimates of current production costs of $100,000 to $120,000”

        I don’t particularly believe their projections of about 50,000 euros ($62,500) for 2015.

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        • By Forrest on May 5, 2014 at 7:50 am

          Thanks for the link. The info very detailed and dovetails per my reading. So, much news and excitement for battery car or hybrids, I think the FC technology quietly gets pushed back. The auto companies haven’t forgot. Hyundai already announced a 2015 model for commercial FC car in the line up. FC durability, cost, energy density, cold start up problems solved. The biggest obstacle is fueling infrastructure and expensive storage tanks. The vehicle storage tank 1/2 cost of stack cost. Also, the batteries expense in material list reminds me the cost of batteries not expected to gain much on lower cost. The info depicts a formidable competitor to conventional powered vehicles with bright future. Many hurdles to overcome, yet the advantages to this fuel system pushing the technology forward. Nice to get rid of catalytic converter and all the pollution control equipment. Nice to have long range, quick refueling, and loss of weight. Best of all it would be nice to have backup power supply sitting in the garage with combined heat and power capability.

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          • By Forrest on May 5, 2014 at 8:12 am

            Also, when comparing efficiency of FC, nice that the range is high 50′s to high 60% for all levels of output as compared to narrow range of typical ICE operation. So much technology and expensive equipment put into these auto’s in attempt to run engines within efficient operation zone i.e. using fuel when producing no valuable energy output such as down hill, stop light, or slowing down. Cold start appears more efficient and less polluting w/ FC auto. Battery car have major inefficiencies with cold operation environment.

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        • By Optimist on May 5, 2014 at 3:58 pm

          From the (short) abstract to said report: “Costs have been dramatically reduced over the past decade, yet are still about twice what appears to be needed for sustainable market success.” Emphasis added.

          I seriously don’t see the point of a FCV: current hydrogen is produced from natural gas, which means that CO2 emissions just migrate from the tailpipe to the hydrogen producer. Only due to all the inefficiencies, there is much more CO2.

          True. someday somebody might develop a renewable way to produce hydrogen. Much harder is getting around hydrogen’s properties: low volumetric energy density, difficulty in storage and transportation and the large range of concentration that forms an explosive mixture with air.

          Much more likely: produce renewable energy in another form, and keep it in that form. For example, make renewable electricity and store it in a battery.

          And in the unlikely event that somebody did figure out a cost-effective way to produce renewable hydrogen, it would most likely make sense to combine it with carbon to produce -CH2- for easy storage, transportation and use in existing vehicles.

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          • By Clee on May 5, 2014 at 6:46 pm

            Optimist, I agree, even though fuel cell car prices have dropped an order of magnitude and will continue to drop, and other technical factors have improved, I suspect battery electric cars may stay ahead of FCVs on the cost-reduction curve. But as fuel cell cars no longer cost $1,000,000 per car, that part is no longer the problem. They are now in the price range that Tesla Roadsters were when they first came out.

            Infrastructure is a bigger obstacle. Any property owner can install an EV charger in their garage, but hydrogen fuel pumps are expensive so few are willing to build them before there’s demand for them. There seems to be only a niche market for fleet vehicles and forklifts that don’t travel far from their dedicated H2 fueling station.

            Maybe the Hawaiian Islands are small enough that they could build relatively few fueling stations so one would never be too far away from one. I have doubts about the cost effectiveness of it though. If the point of it is to convert excess solar photovoltaic electricity in the middle of the day that would otherwise have to be thrown away, then the expensive electrolyzers might only run a few hours per day. Instead of taking 8 to 13 years to pay for themselves, it could take 25 or more years to pay for themselves, which means if you pay for them with a loan, they may never pay for themselves or even enough to cover just the interest payments.

            The physical properties of hydrogen, as you mentioned, are what make me question if hydrogen would be a good idea on a large scale even if it could be cost effective. It probably would be better to continue on and convert the hydrogen to a more storable more energy-dense fuel despite the added conversion losses.

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        • By Forrest on May 6, 2014 at 8:54 am

          The trend line for fuel cell stack cost projected to drop rapidly to year 2020. This is based on current R&D attainable goal efforts. DOE goal for $37/KWH in six years for FC. Compare this goal to battery storage power goal of $4x more per KWH. This tells me the science community thinks they can achieve more with FC. Also, the stock market appear bullish per FC company stock value, another barometer of future.
          Plug Power just received FC forklift order from Walmart for 1,700. FuelCell energy company CEO claims 2016 the year his company will be on parity with achieving economies of scale to produce grid power on par cost without need of government subsidy. Demand is high for reliable power of FC generators.
          Hydrogen storage tanks are expensive, but don’t wear out, meaning they can be easily recycled. Also, some tanks have active catalyst to store chemical hydrogen at greatly reduced pressures. Nano technology appears to be at work. Natural gas pipeline utilized for FC energy source.
          The advantage of FC being 2-3x better utilization of energy. First the FC power plants adapt themselves nicely to CHP technology for added benefit. Compare a FC CHP power running at 85% and up efficiencies to average below 20% for auto, steam turbine of coal/nuclear at 33-36% or the most advanced combined cycle natural gas turbine plants at 50%. Also, the FC is scalable for shipping, defense, and truck transport needs. Finally, the FC hydrogen fuel can be produced from multiple sources of coal, solar, wind, biomass, hydro, and nuclear. I do think if FC lives up to potential the device will be exploited for home use. Efficiencies are to attractive as compared to costly fragile grid power. Also, hydrogen could be piped much like natural gas delivery for home energy needs and auto. A fuel cell hot water heater?

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          • By Forrest on May 6, 2014 at 9:56 am

            A star attribute of hydrogen and FC; stored energy for use even if wind stops, cloudy weather, or grid goes down. Also, the storage of energy and FC characteristics naturally balance production and consumption of efficient power. While the cost to store hydrogen is much higher than gasoline or corn kernels it is way cheaper than chemical battery storage of electric power. For the production of hydrogen fuel, the high temperature and pressure electrolysis process comes to mind wherein the recouperator maximizes ease of electrolysis per electrical requirements. So, in theory a pellet stove apparatus recuperator, water, and photovoltaic system could generate household hydrogen needs for negative carbon energy foot print.

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  7. By Tom G. on April 29, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Could someone please tell me WHY it is better to use this solar PV array to produce hydrogen that is then burned in an Internal Combustion Engine [ICE] than it is to use the kWh’s produced to charge and drive an electric vehicle?

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    • By Forrest on April 29, 2014 at 2:36 pm

      What RR posted on ability to store energy, i.e. when the car is gone.
      The PV doesn’t have to be connected to grid.
      The PV output doesn’t have to be balanced with grid production.
      Hydrogen would be best utilized by fuel cell 60% efficiency vs ICE 23%
      Fuel cell has heat co product with electric. No electric heater required.
      Fuel cell car has more range
      Fuel cell car quickly refilled
      Fuel cell 1/4 cost of battery pack 2020
      Fuel cell is much lighter than battery
      But, to your comment on wisdom of utilizing PV for hydrogen production? My guess is it will only make sense upon remote areas much like justification of PV power. The beauty is to generate power and fuel at remote location and do so at maximum utilization of PV power.

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    • By Optimist on April 29, 2014 at 3:21 pm

      More to the point: what makes hydrogen a better storage medium than: batteries, pumped-storage, compressed air, etc. etc? Hydrogen is a real pain in the @$$ when it comes to storage, handling and transportation. And then there is safety concerns.

      People seem to get emotionally attached to hydrogen, for whatever reason. My reply would be: Remember the Hindenburg!

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    • By Russ Finley on April 29, 2014 at 10:09 pm

      It’s just an experiment to store solar energy. It isn’t anywhere near feasible at this time.

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    • By Tom G. on April 29, 2014 at 10:59 pm

      So OK then; we have comments. All are very good and spirited responses. However from my perspective there is a lot missing from this story. How many vehicles on the island are fueling with this hydrogen? What make and model are they and how often do they refuel? How is the hydrogen being stored in the vehicles and what is their range? Is there any excess hydrogen? If there is; how is it used or stored for later use? Are we looking at the vapor storage tanks in the picture? What is the current or potential equivalent cost of this experimental hydrogen? And finally; what unique strategies are being tried at this facility to increase efficiency?

      I also found Forrest’s comment about fuel interesting which said in part; “The beauty is to generate power and fuel…”.

      As a young boy growing up on a farm in Minnesota; fuel to me was gasoline, diesel and propane. Many year later my view expanded to include fuel rods for Nuclear Powered Submarines. After a few more years, fuel took on an even broader definition since I was working at a public utility. Fuel at utilities arrives in many different forms. Rain at hydro facilities, oil at tank farms, natural gas for turbines, as coal trains at coal plants and nuclear fuel bundles at nuclear power plants. My definition of “fuel” seems to keep growing as each year passes. But in every case; each of the “fuels I have mentioned have the ability by themselves to produce electricity.

      There is one unique thing about each of the above fuels. After the facilities or components have been constructed or manufactured every single one can create electricity without assistance from any of the other types of fuels. Hydrogen on the other hand can not. It must first be obtained by using ONE of the above fuels like the reforming of natural gas or by applying electricity to water or by some other chemical means. Which by the way leads me to renewable energy.

      Hydrogen by itself while plentiful is not very usable in its natural state to move our behinds from point “A” to point “B”. Oh sure we can compress it, bind it with something else or sub-cool it. But I just don’t have a very clear vision of how grandma is going to pull into a filling station and lock up a 2000 psi connector to her fuel tank. Recently I also added wind, solar, geothermal and hydro-kinetic to my definition of fuels and every one of these fuels is also capable of producing electricity. They can also be used to produce hydrogen but again as a secondary product.

      So where I am going with this. Hydrogen can’t do much of anything until we use some other form of fuel to obtain it. It is my belief that it is this use of some other form of fuel that has kept us from becoming a hydrogen economy. Will this change in the future, maybe and maybe not.

      We should ask Robert to gaze into his crystal ball and tell us what he sees. What role will hydrogen play in our future? Lets use nice even numbers like in 20 years or in 2034?

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      • By Robert Rapier on April 30, 2014 at 12:02 pm

        “How many vehicles on the island are fueling with this hydrogen?”

        Just a handful of experimental vehicles. The thing is that energy storage is the biggest challenge facing renewable energy. For that matter, cost effective energy storage could help the efficiencies of fossil-fueled power plants as well by enabling them to run at steadier rates. There are lots of different approaches to this storage problem, of which this is one.

        They are also experimenting with batteries and flywheels. It’s just that this is the first time I have seen anyone take something that I have seen mentioned as a theoretical energy storage possibility and actually do it. Whether it can be done competitively with other storage options remains to be seen, but that is further down the road. What we have here is a guy with financial resources who wants to experiment. But he doesn’t have tunnel vision on a hydrogen outcome.

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        • By Tom G. on April 30, 2014 at 12:11 pm

          Thank you Robert.

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          • By Forrest on April 30, 2014 at 3:24 pm

            Plug Power not the only competitor attempting to convert fork lifts to fuel cell.

            Green Car Congress-

            Sandia National Laboratories and Hawaii Hydrogen Carriers (HHC) are partnering to design a solid-state metal-hydride hydrogen storage system for forklifts; the storage system can refuel at low pressure four to five times faster than it takes to charge a battery-powered forklift. The tank will be combined with a fuel cell system to create a fuel cell power pack.

            Plus, they no longer have to purchase battery rechargers or dedicate space for recharging. Instead, companies can simply purchase and store hydrogen tanks as needed.

            —Adrian Narvaez, Hawaii Hydrogen Carriers (HHC)

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  8. By interested guy on May 2, 2014 at 11:31 am

    Interesting article Robert. One important part missing was how much electricty is used to produce the 12kg of H2 per day and, related to that, how much the Solar PV installation cost to set up. If you could share the amount of electricity used that would be very valuable information to get a better grasp of the economics (of course keeping in mind that scaling up will reduce costs and increase efficency)

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  9. By Zee Knapp on June 19, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Robert..mahalo for your very interesting article. I missed getting Paul’s business card at his recent NELHA presentation. I have a brilliant student who is interested in creating hydrogen from solar power. Could you email: inventionteam@aol.com, mahalo.

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    • By Robert Rapier on June 20, 2014 at 7:19 pm

      I forwarded this message to Paul. Hopefully he responds.

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