Viewpoint: Basic principles need to be established before an agreement is made 

By Tom Rolfes 

Well, it looks like Mr. Fehlauer is proposing I lead the study for hydrogen buses for MDI (Islander, Dec. 3). 

Before agreeing to do such a study, I need to establish the basic principles I’m operating with, being a CAGW (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming) skeptic.  

First, there is no climate emergency, so there is no need to reduce/eliminate fossil fuel emissions. 

In fact, we need more CO2 in the atmosphere not less to improve photosynthesis and growing yields 

Second, the globe is not warming any significant amount. Latest satellite data (Nov. 2020) shows a warming of 0.53 deg C. since January 1979, or +0.14 deg C/decade (+0.12 deg/decade over the global-averaged oceans, and +0.19/decade over global-averaged land). 

Third, the sea level is not rising precipitously. Even Maine’s SLR is only 1.90 +/- 0.10 mm/year, or 7.47 INCHES/century, 1912 – 2020 average. To be fair, there are conflicting data, probably calibration related, that puts that figure at 3.08 +/- 0.93 mm/yr. or 12.12 inches per century (Portland). 

Fourth, 2020 was not a record hurricane season, ranking 15th of 121 years. NOAA is just now naming more storms that they would have done in the past. The actual data shows that hurricanes are getting less intense in average. 

Those facts are important to taking over the hydrogen bus issue, as the basic premise that I would be working on, is that the cost of the operation and maintenance of hydrogen buses must be no greater than the cost to operate the propane buses. 

As you will see, this becomes a critical issue, because approximately 85 percent of the cost of hydrogen fuel is the cost of electricity used in the production and storage/compression of the hydrogen produced. More on that later. 

So, if we have a local team working on this project there are a sequence of steps we would need to take, and in a particular order, to make it happen. 

The first of these, are the buses. Has the contract been let? A quote? How many, at what delivered cost/price? What are the specifications of the buses: dimensions, carrying capacity, weight, etc.? What is the current operating range of the buses or what MDI would buy? Weight of propane, miles per unit weight, etc. Our hydrogen buses must equal or exceed the range and be equal or lower operating cost to be feasible.  

Next, hydrogen supply. There are hydrogen filling stations on the East Coast, but only a few, and they only come as far as southern Maine, I think. But we would need to have someone contact the East Coast stations to see what the cost of hydrogen is. With automobiles, the range of FCEVs is approximately 300 or more miles per fill up, and that only takes three to five minutes, I’m told. So, what is the cost of a fill up for a FCEV auto? If this is feasible elsewhere, then we can move ahead with hydrogen for MDI. (It’s possible the hydrogen for other fueling stations is produced by other processes, but for MDI, we would be using electrolysis from excess solar power.) 

Next, we need to get information on electrolyzers. There are places on the East and West coasts as well as Canada that can supply these, but we need to find the right one for our use. It is possible to produce hydrogen from hydrolysis of water with systems that can operate on irregular supplies of electrical energy. I’m thinking specifically of using the excess electricity from solar panels when the amount of solar power generated exceeds the demand, such as midday to late afternoon, based on history of solar panel production in other parts of the world. Then, instead of sending this excess power back to the grid/power company, it gets sent to the hydrogen electrolyzers. These units can be purchased in different sizes, so we could add additional units as the need for hydrogen increases. We need to size the initial units based on the expected hydrogen demand for the buses as the first step, and then add units as more demand for autos, trucks, boats develop. Large trucking companies have FCEV systems, including Amazon, Busch beer and others. Some travel the eastern coast and could come up I-95 if there are filling stations. 

I’m not proposing we would supply these vehicles, but it does open the door to setting up a hydrogen filling station on the Island to supply the buses, and other vehicles as the demand grows. We need to determine how much hydrogen we will need to supply the buses. It is also possible to rent a portable filling station for some period until the size and demand for a permanent station develops. Someone needs to visit the few stations on the way up the coast and across Massachusetts to see what these look like and get some economics. 

Besides the first step to find out about the buses, there is the critical next step, which is the supply of excess solar power being generated and sold back to Versant right now. At the moment, the terms of the buy-back to the electric companies in Maine is not favorable to this project. The reason is that the power companies are required to buy back the excess power for the retail price consumers pay for power. That’s a subsidy to solar that is really not sustainable as the amount of solar generation increases, if it does. What will happen, is power companies will have to get the state power commissions to reduce this amount to the competitive pricing they use to purchase power from other suppliers. So, if I pay $0.068785/kWh for the standard offer >supply< right now, plus $0.095149/kWh for >distribution + transmission, etc.<, or ~16.4c/kWh total, which is the current consumer cost on the latest bill on the Island, it would not be cost effective to generate hydrogen for FCEV’s. 

But, if the state/power companies reduce the buy-back pricing to their purchase cost, this would be in the range of 3 cents/kWh. If consumers find their subsidy reduced to this, they wouldn’t tear off their solar panels, but could divert this excess to a hydrogen electrolysis unit, and this could make hydrogen production affordable. So, one task of the team would be to determine the cost electric power would need to be to make the hydrogen project feasible. 

I’m not proposing that the power companies make this reduction in buy-back pricing, but as the scale of the solar project on the Island increases, the power companies cannot really handle the excess generation at certain periods of the day, and this will disrupt the grid. So, buying it back for a reasonable/competitive amount will make it practical to divert the excess to hydrogen, yet still provide an outlet to consumers/the Island (future) solar systems.  

So, the Island Hydrogen Team would need to: 

  • Get the info on the buses, including timing, pricing, bus data. 
  • Find out the initial hydrogen requirements if these are FCEV’s.  
  • The economics of hydrogen generation.  
  • The cost that power needs to be to operate hydrolysis systems. 

Once we get that, we can put together a package for the Island. But bus contract timing is an initial key step. 


Tom Rolfes lives in Somesville and Cincinnati, Ohio 

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