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Change in Nomenclature: “The Renewable Electron Economy” July 2, 2007

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Green Activism, Green Marketing, Green Transport, News and Events, Renewable Energy.

I’ve been devoting this blog for the last 4 months to talking about the “electron economy”, how most of our energy needs can be satisfied by using electricity and electrical devices with minimal damage to the planet and our future well-being. I am somewhere in the middle of my series of posts on the technical, marketing and political issues related to clean electric power and efficient electrical devices but a string of events in the real world and the world of ideas has highlighted for me the need to change terminology. Rather than advocate for an “electron economy” I am raising the stakes in the nomenclature department by adding the word “renewable” or “clean” (with and without parentheses) to the “electron economy” catch phrase. So henceforth I might use “renewable electron economy”, “clean electron economy”, “(renewable) electron economy” and “(clean) electron economy” interchangeably.

Ulf Bossel, the fuel cell engineer and sustainable energy advocate who invented the electron economy phrase and concept, brought an analysis of the relative energy efficiencies to bear on the choice of hydrogen, biofuels or electricity. He concluded based on electricity’s overall efficiency and availability of renewable sources of electricity that an electric energy delivery and conversion system would be the only system that has a reasonable chance of being the energy backbone of a future carbon-neutral economy. Biofuels and energy recovery from waste would be parts of a clean energy economy but would play smaller roles. Electricity has not enjoyed some of the marketing hype of biofuels or hydrogen but is the solution to most of the energy questions that are raised by climate change.

I’ve adopted the electron economy concept but have come to realize that forces and tendencies in the fossil fuel industries (primarily the coal industry), the electric power generation and electric manufacturers industries might easily twist the concept to serve shortsighted goals that increase our dependence on fossil fuels. As conceived by Ulf Bossel and adapted by myself, the electron economy concept has at its heart the use of contemporary renewable energy flux, not that of the Jurassic period, to generate electricity.

In the United States and in other coal-rich countries in an age of uncertain petroleum and calls for energy independence, coal will continue to function like crack (cocaine) for electricity generators, electricity consumers, and legislators who leave carbon emissions out of the picture. This was brought home graphically by recent attempts by the coal lobby in the United States to get support from Congress for subsidies for Coal to Liquid (CTL) as a substitute for petroleum. As I’ve discussed earlier, coal is the most carbon-intensive means of generating electricity, much more than even petroleum or natural gas, so coal to liquids will compound our climate woes while, as it is intended, reducing oil imports.

On the marketing front, General Electric has brought down its green marketing credentials a notch in my book by linking its Ecomagination brand with coal: in its latest commercial we see a lump of coal with legs claiming to the words of an old country song that it “will be a diamond someday”. Investigation on General Electric’s website indicates that this is the public face for Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) coal power plants. On the website there are some slightly misleading claims that IGCC will reduce carbon dioxide emissions without adding that to reduce carbon dioxide emissions one would have to integrate an IGCC plant with, as they say in the car business, an optional carbon capture technology AND an optional carbon sequestration repository like an old salt mine (CCS). IGCC in and of itself will not reduce carbon emissions and those two options limit the siting of IGCC plants and raise the technical challenges and costs of use considerably. As of this moment in time, there are no existing large scale coal powered plants that are sequestering carbon dioxide.

Though I’m quite sure an IGCC plant would be a big contract for GE and I accept that coal with carbon capture and storage may play a transitional role to a fully renewable energy economy, not adding that carbon capture is an additional set of steps dumbs down the message unnecessarily. Furthermore, General Electric has an already established business in wind and hydroelectric turbines as well as photovoltaic that are in and of themselves carbon neutral means of generating electricity. Why not push ahead with innovations as well as publicity in these areas? General Electric, if it continues to position itself well, will be a key player in the renewable electron economy and will profit handsomely from efforts to mitigate carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency. To advertise IGCC in this manner tends to further an “addiction to coal” and coal-generated electricity.

Jeff Goodell in his recent book “Big Coal” now in paperback, highlights how important coal producers are to the US electric industry and by extension to power consumers. With the US’s substantial coal reserves and the political power of coal producers and coal producing states, there exists a considerable danger that we will continue to rely on coal long past the time that we have the capability to generate electricity much more cleanly and even more cheaply. These coal advocates are also underestimating the inevitable price that carbon-dioxide emissions will carry.

A movement towards a moratorium on coal power plants without CCS is gaining momentum as now at least one of the 2008 US Presidential candidates (John Edwards) supports it as well as, as one might expect, Al Gore and the Live Earth initiative. Other candidates, like Barack Obama, have flirted with Big Coal though now appear to be backing down. The Democratic leaders of the US House and Senate, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, just recently signed Al Gore’s Live Earth pledge that calls for a moratorium on coal without carbon capture.

It is in this context that calling for a positive solution, for a renewable electron economy to be built, shows the way for government, stakeholders in the electric industry and investors, to direct their energies in an effective way. Just calling for an “electron economy” with the renewable or clean portion assumed, underestimates the power of inertia as well as motivated opposition to solving the climate crisis by shutting down or transforming certain industry segments in favor of others.

To create a renewable electron economy is doable within 25 years, with substantial reductions in our emissions within 10 years. But we need to act now within our industries, our personal lives, through investments of time and money and through exercising political influence. Al Gore’s Live Earth Pledge is one place to start:


In the upcoming weeks, I will continue to sketch the future of energy and how concretely we can take steps now to reduce our carbon footprints through building the renewable electron economy.



1. James Maxwell - July 15, 2007

I enjoy reading your blog, but one comment…

Be careful what you believe in Mr. Bossel’s writings – he deliberately picks numbers for efficiency etc that skew his results to favour electricity over hydrogen, especially for transportation solutions. As well, he bases a lot of his writings on the state of the hydrogen and fuel cell industry in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and has not kept up with more recent developments.

He says that electricity is 4x as efficient as hydrogen? Not true. 1.5x I will believe, but only if you are talking about pure electrons generated through renewables, and as attractive as that solution is, it won’t work everywhere, all of the time. For the remainder, we need hydrogen.

For instance, he deliberately shows liquifaction of hydrogen in his energy chain, when transporting gaseous hydrogen by pipeline or tube trailer is much much more efficient, and is being done in practice today. Yes, there is market need for liquified hydrogen, and that is being produced, but the vast majority of it is not used for transportation but industrial uses.

And in his energy chains, he does not show charging (86%) and discharging (86% again) for an EV battery. He also does not include self discharge effects of batteries. If you charge an EV battery to 100% SOC and let the vehicle sit for a week, it will be down to about 95% SOC. So what percentage of the time are people actually driving their EV? Maybe 5% of a day. So there should be a 5% self discharge factor for batteries in his chain. But he chooses not to include that.

As well, he shows fuel cell efficiency at 40%, with vehicle losses adding another 15% to 20%. This is not true today. Entire fuel cell vehicles (tank to wheels) show efficiencies up to 60% (Honda, Daimler, GM, as published by NREL and each automaker).

Furthermore, generation of hydrogen by renewables will increase the overall efficiency of the grid by leveraging the stranded and off-peak renewable generation, and reducing the need to keep fossil plants spinning in case the renewables go offline (wind dies down sometimes). In the US, fossil plants are kept running in case they are needed, and that is hugely inefficient. Mr. Bossel does not consider these points of view.

There are many problems with Mr. Bossel’s papers, and these are only a couple of them. There is a reason why his papers do not get cited in respectable scientific journals, and only on various weblogs, and that reason is that they are not academically honest.

I’m looking forward to both hydrogen and electricity being part of the transportion and industrial energy mix, and I think we’ll all be much better off for it. But we all need to be academically honest when discussing how best to achieve these goals.



2. Ulf Bossel - July 15, 2007

I really do not know from which part of our careful and thorough engineering analysis “The Future of the Hydrogen Economy: Bright of Bleak?” (www.efcf.com/reports/…..E02) Mr. James Maxwell has drawn his conclusions. We have applied the fundamental laws of physics to all important process stages of a hydrogen economy and listed the governing equations. The results were presented as curves to allow concerned readers to pick solutions for particular operating parameters. We do not arbitrarily selected numbers, but present answers for liquid hydrogen transport over (pick your distance) or compression of hydrogen (pick your final pressure) etc. Neither the equations, nor the results have been found incorrect by a large number of scientist and engineers of specialized in thermodynamics and energy engineering.

To illustrate the usefulness of our presentation we have applied the results to four typical hydrogen process chains. Mr. Maxwell has picked his numbers from one or the other of the four illustrative hydrogen process chains. However, the general conclusion of our study is not challenged or changed by such selective interpretation. There is no possibility to generate, package, distribute and convert hydrogen is such manner that more than 25 to 30% of the original energy can be recovered. A hydrogen economy is a wasteful scheme, in particular, as hydrogen has to be made mainly from renewable electricity or other sources of energy in a sustainable future. As electricity can be much better distributed by wires, Hydrogen has to compete with its own energy source, a task difficult to accomplish. Physics is not be changed by quoting embellished efficiencies of fuel cells or refers numbers of yesterday’s batteries.

In summary, a sustainably organized energy future must be based on energy from renewable sources coupled with the highest efficiency from source to service. An “electron economy” can satisfy these criteria much, much better than a “hydrogen economy”. Fortunately, the World finally realizes that hydrogen is not the solution. Hydrogen is only an energy carrier like buckets are used to carry water. Only fools would suggest to distribute buckets as a solution for the water problems in dry Africa. It is time to end the hydrogen dreams.

Ulf Bossel

3. James Maxwell - July 21, 2007

Mr. Bossel,

I agree – your engineering analysis is very complete and thorough.

My questions for you are: Did you start this analysis with the result in mind? Which assumptions in your own analysis would you consider assumptions on the margin? Which numbers did you choose deliberately to make your case?

I know from my own laboratory research and field experience that some of your analysis is incorrect. I would like to know which parts you think may be incorrect.

For instance, currently tube trailers used for transportation hydrogen (in the US) operate at 50MPa, not 20MPa as you claim, for a >2x volumetric energy density than your analysis shows.

Your electrolyzer voltages and efficiencies do not include recent developments in catalysts, PEM stack electrolyzers, high pressure electrolyzers, and direct compression (pump stack) electrolyzers.

Your automobile fuel cell efficiencies do not include pressurizing the fuel cell stack to above atmospheric pressure (the parasitic losses from the compressor are smaller than the efficiency gain of the stack).

You pick numbers for pipelines as same-as-methane flow rates for pipelines rather than optimally size systems for hydrogen.

You do not consider the much higher efficiency chains of biomass gassification (with steam shift) to hydrogen. If you consider gassification of woody biomass to hydrogen vs fermenting to ethanol vs burning for heat (for electricity), you will find the hydrogen chain to be highly efficient, even with your transport losses.

You do not consider the use of industrial waste hydrogen (from chlorine manufacturing and coke oven gas among other processes) that can be utilized for transportation purposes.

There are other items as well…

I completely agree with you that hydrogen is more difficult than liquid hydrocarbons to transport. No argument. That is why so many engineers and scientists are working on mitigating the difficulties. You say it’s a fool’s errand, but it is a fool’s errand to maintain the status quo.

What hydrogen does enable is generation of a fuel from feedstocks that are not currently used for industrial or vehicle fuel – petroleum coke, biomass, landfill gas, stranded renewables, off-peak renewables, and many others. It enables generation of electricity without the inefficient chemical-to-thermal-to-mechanical energy step. It enables transportation solutions with long range, low weight, convenient refueling, and zero point of use pollution (which is extremely important, even moreso than pure efficiency in many people’s minds). Pure renewable electricity and biofuels don’t address these issues.

Will pure renewable electricity have a role in the transportatin future? Of course! This is clearly the lowest CO2, highest efficiency route. But it won’t work for all of our needs.

Will there be chemical synthesis of hydrocarbons from biomass and hydrogen? Probably – it only makes sense.

But hydrogen enables these as well, and your strict boundaries of consideration in your papers blurr the overall positive environmental and energy sustainability impacts of developing hydrogen as a transportation fuel.

That is why your analysis are at odds with those of the US DOE, Natural Resources Canada, EU, Germany, Japan, and others, who have taken wider boundaries into account when perfoming analysis on and deciding to fund research and development of a hydrogen economy.

I appreciate that you are deeply passionate, extremely knowledgable, and engaged in the world of energy engineering. But I do find your analyses to be in contrast with my own experience, and the experience of my colleagues today in the field.

Thank you,


4. Michael - July 21, 2007

Please share your laboratory analyses or a link to them. Also any links that support your assertions are important. Otherwise you appear to be spreading innuendo behind what I presume to be a pseudonym (James Clerk Maxwell was a great physicist and a Google search of “James Maxwell” and “hydrogen” yields nothing). Ulf is a target for hydrogen advocates and I would assume that those who have committed themselves to hydrogen would stop at very little to spread doubt about his conclusions.

Personally, I think there MAY be a subsidiary role for hydrogen when we have, many decades from now, an abundance or superabundance of renewable electricity available. The emphasis NOW on hydrogen has the net effect of a stalling tactic and has been used as a way to quash the development of direct-electric solutions (Calfornia CARB 1997-2005). There are powerful interests with which you appear to be aligning yourself, interests that have not shown the guts or foresight to take a leading role in the efforts to build a climate-friendly civilization.

If we had many decades to figure out the climate crisis, it might make sense to take hydrogen more seriously. Climate scientists and satellite observations of the ice packs at the poles indicate that we probably don’t have that luxury. Therefore, I would suggest that you re-orient your focus on the renewable electricity that you agree is more efficient than the detour of generating hydrogen. Why not do the right thing from an engineering AND a moral standpoint?


5. Ulf Bossel - July 22, 2007

I cannot but thank Michael and respond to the opening of James. Our hydrogen analysis was done in 2002 with only one thing in mind: put physics behind the hydrogen hype. It seems that James has still not realized that we have to solve an energy problem, not one of intelligent technology. With all we do to implement the necessary changes we have to make certain that the precious energy we retrieve from the ground and from above ground renewable sources is used with highest efficiency. Without doubt, hydrogen technologies have been improved since 2002 as James pointed out, but this does not significantly improve the lousy energy balance of a hydrogen economy.

Here are my arguments again: We all want to establish an energy future based on clean renewables. Most of these are harvested as electricity. Electricity can be distributed to users by wire with highest efficiency. Why then suggest converting electricity into hydrogen, have all the energy losses of hydrogen packaging and transport, transfer and storage before converting it back to electricity. Depending on the chosen path, only 20 to 30% of the original AC power can be put back to useful AC power behind a fuel cell.
Unfortunately, the “Hydrogen Initiative” of President Bush was announced before scientist were able to go through the energy analysis of the hydrogen chain and identify the scheme as one of the most absurd suggestions for solving the energy problem.

We need energy from renewable sources to meet the energy demand of the future. But lasting solutions demand that renewable energy technologies are considered with a high EROI (energy returned on energy invested). Depending on site wind power produces up to 100 times more energy than invested in the installation, PV has reached a ratio of 10 while biomass farming is at +/- one.

Some governments of the cited countries have already changed their views on hydrogen. It is time for DOE to focus on the support of the energy harvest from renewable sources before spending more money on energy carriers. Unfortunately, scientists of all levels are urged by their institutions to bring in research grants. As long as public money is abundantly available critical views are not welcome.

Fortunately, I cannot be accused to present biased views, because I am totally independent and refuse to accept funding for any one of the players in the field. My income does not depend on my position to the hydrogen economy. No wonder, people receiving salaries for working on hydrogen do not like my views.

Ulf Bossel

6. terraverde - July 26, 2007

Dear Readers,
James Maxwell has told me by email that he is posting under his real name and given me some particulars about his life that mesh with his postings. I wouldn’t have cared so much except he has made ad hominem arguments against Ulf Bossel who is an important figure on this blog. If people stick to the issues and don’t take swipes at individuals’ characters or histories, it is less important who you are here. He seems from my exchange of emails with him to be someone who is sincerely interested in these issues but is a partisan of hydrogen. We can agree to disagree on this point!


7. 20 Technologies to Save the Climate: Are Breakthroughs Mandatory or Icing on the Cake? « Green Thoughts - April 9, 2008

[…] carbon emissions. The analysis below is represented in chart form <== or here. Following the Renewable Electron Economy scenario that I believe has the highest probability of success, I have ordered these in […]

8. Carbon Pricing is Just One Piece of the Puzzle: Towards a Comprehensive Climate and Energy Policy - Part 2 « Green Thoughts - February 4, 2009

[…] as an equivalent to existing polluting technologies.  We see this in many elements of building the renewable electron economy and/or the Repower America plan.   The carbon pricing model seems most appropriate to increasing […]

9. Olinda Primes - December 15, 2010

Great job on this article!!

10. Marcus Taylor - April 27, 2012

In my opinion, one of the big attractions of a hyrdogen economy is that it overcomes the intermittency of renewables such as wind and solar. How does an electron economy deal with this problem if there is no energy carrier for cases when supply does not meet demand? Even if hydrogen it is less efficient, surely it is still a neccessity to provide an energy supply to homes and buildings that meets demand at that time of day. Are there any other alternatives that could do the same thing?

Excuse me if I’m misinformed about anything, I’m just a student interested in your discussion and where energy may take us in the future.



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