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Renewable Hydrogen on 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.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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