The Electron Economy: the Energy Future is nearer than you think …

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by: Michael Hoexter

As the reality of global warming dawns for even the more resistant deniers of the problem, there are now a bunch of proposals and ideas regarding how we are going to tap into energy sources and do work in a future sustainable society.

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The current U.S. administration is at least giving lip-service to replacing our dependence on fossil fuels, particularly those fuels that are sourced from overseas. Corn-based and cellulosic ethanol as well as, to a lesser degree, the plug-in hybrid, fueled in part by electricity and by fossil or renewable hydrocarbons, have gotten attention from the President and administration officials though there have not been substantial increases in funding.

While biofuels are the flavor du jour from official circles, not as much has been heard lately from advocates of hydrogen-powered fuel cells, still another contender for the future of energy and transport. News occasionally filters in from vehicle manufacturers who publicize the latest phase of their efforts to commercialize hydrogen vehicles: just a few days ago Honda announced that it has leased one of its multi-million dollar FCX hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to a 17-year old actress and environmental activist. If the net effect of current publicity is summed up, it is difficult to discern a clear picture of how we will proceed in a very short time window towards a carbon-reduced or carbon-neutral energy future. It is then left to partisans of one solution or another to advocate for their favorite solution to the climate crisis/dependence on fossil fuels.

I believe the picture is not really as complicated as it is made out to be, that in fact, the immediate and middle-term solutions are in certain respects more mundane than we have come to expect in a society used to rapid technological change and flashy marketing. On the other hand, technical innovation and even virtuosity will be required for us to equal or surpass our current standard of living in a more sustainable manner.

The Electron Economy: What is it?

The Swiss-based fuel-cell engineer and entrepreneur Ulf Bossel coined the term and concept “electron economy”. In my conversations with him, Ulf says that he came up with the notion of the “electron economy” to counteract the influence of Jeremy Rifkin’s “Hydrogen Economy” concept. In 2001-2002, Rifkin had been touring Europe gaining the attention of governments and environmental groups in support of using hydrogen as the energy carrier of the future. Despite being heavily invested in fuel cells as a technology, Ulf and the conference he organizes, the European Fuel Cell Forum, have repudiated hydrogen as a fuel for fuel cells (favoring other fuels like alcohols etc.) due to the net inefficiency of isolating and storing hydrogen (maximum efficiency of 25%). The end product of all fuel cells is electricity so with hydrogen fuel cells you would lose at least 75 joules of energy to generate the equivalent of 25 joules of electricity at the point of use.

Ulf explains the electron economy concept here in a paper from 2005.

Here in summary are the main aspects of the electron economy:

  1. Electricity, it turns out, is a highly efficient and flexible carrier of energy.
  2. Electric motors are highly efficient energy conversion devices (85 to 95% efficiency vs. 15-25% for typical gasoline engines).
  3. Newer (hydrogen) and older competitors (fossil fuels) to electricity are less efficient and/or have environmental drawbacks.
  4. We already have over a century of experience with electricity
  5. Renewable energy sources (wind, sun, tides, geothermal heat) can usually most efficiently be converted to electricity rather than to other carriers like biofuels (solar cells, though currently expensive, are up to 400 times more efficient in converting sunlight into energy than plants).
  6. We should focus on transitioning to a largely electric energy infrastructure with the probable exception of fuels for aviation and shipping, where biofuels will have advantages.
  7. Increasing the energy-to-weight ratio and usefulness of electricity storage devices (batteries, etc.) is largely a technical and economic issue that will change for the better, as has been already witnessed in the portable electronics industry. Setting today’s battery capacity as an upper-limit to what can be done with batteries and electricity storage is a political move, not based on reasonable expectations for even modest technological improvements.
  8. Even an economy fueled in part by fossil fuels can be made less environmentally damaging by increased use of electricity as an energy carrier and using electric energy conversion devices like electric motors.Using fossil fuels in highly efficient fuel cells and combined-cycle power plants to generate electricity is second-best to electricity generated by renewable sources but may play transitional roles to a carbon-neutral economy.

The Electron Economy: Why is this concept useful?

For some the notion of an electron economy will appear to be a re-statement of the obvious while for others it may appear to be a tendentious bit of advocacy for one set of technologies and energy sources over others. I believe however that using the “electron economy” concept can be a helpful guide for handicapping what will and should happen in an economy that takes sustainability and efficient use of resources seriously.

It is true that we already partially live in an electron economy as much of the energy we use comes to us via electricity. The areas where electricity is not the primary energy carrier are transport and heating, so an advancement of the electron economy would mean advancing the use of electricity in these areas where feasible and desirable. The primary focus of the electron economy concept is largely the transport sector but could also have applications in heating applications as well.

The concept is useful because it highlights how theoretical and actual energy efficiencies will eventually favor electricity over its two competitors within the arena of clean energy solutions: biofuels and hydrogen fuel cells. Currently, in the marketplace of ideas in places such as Treehugger or in the mainstream media, it appears as though it is a horserace between these alternatives, that it is just a matter of taste or arcane insight into technology that favors the choice of one over the other. And as indicated above, biofuels and even hydrogen may have a place in a sustainable energy future but they are not nearly as well developed nor as efficient as electricity and electric motors.

Even in the area of heating, where electricity has historically been more expensive and less efficient than the use of combustible fuels, the use of induction heating in cooking and ground-source heat pumps in space heating are two examples of how largely electric-powered solutions can either compete with or surpass heating from combustible fuels in the area of efficiency. And of course, generating electricity does not necessarily release greehouse gases into the atmosphere..

I’m intrigued to see what other solutions (biofuels from algae, highly efficient alcohol or biodiesel fueled fuel cells) come up, but the electron economy would appear to be the central energy infrastructure in a sustainable economy. Perhaps if you favor a more exotic solution, within the next century a newer,“sexier” energy carrier (plasma streams? Bose-Einstein condensates?) may arise.

In a future post I will highlight some of the marketing challenges that face those who seek to advance the electron economy or individual products that support its growth, as it is a concept that is both commonplace and yet based on technical principles that are slightly arcane.

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