Friday, 2 January 2009

'Top Gear', Localism and energy security

Strange as it may seem to find those three topics in a blog post, they are connected, I promise.

In a recent episode the Top Gear team tested two non-petrol vehicles. The first was the battery powered Tesla, an incredibly expensive but fast sports car. Then James May tested the Honda FCX Clarity, powered by a Hydrogen fuel cell. The team had no doubts that the Honda was the future; the very point of a car is to be able to drive it continuously, topping up the fuel as you go, and not having to leave it on charge for half its life.

North Sea gas - essentially methane - is running out. Alternatives are gas piped in from elsewhere, including Russia, and LNG tankers bring in gas by sea from around the world. It is curious that I recall the conversion to natural gas of our cooker back in the late 60s, and that it may cease to be an economic and affordable energy source within my lifetime. As North Sea gas winds down, the UK will be far more exposed in terms of energy security than at any time in our history.

Before North Sea gas, in my childhood, we ran on Town Gas. Every urban conurbation had its own gas works, often operated by the local public corporation. Originally, town gas was the by-product of the coking process that provided the steel industry with fuel, but it was found that low grade soft bituminous coal could be used where coke was not needed. Town gas plants didn't have to be big to achieve economies of scale, and modern technologies could make them clean and highly energy efficient. The UK has over 190 billion tonnes of coal 'in place' of which around 45 billion tonnes are classed as recoverable, so there's no shortage of secure raw material.

Best of all is the composition of coal gas - generally as follows

Hydrogen - 50%
Methane - 35%
Carbon Monoxide - 10%
Ethylene - 5%

Honda, as part of associated research for their Hydrogen cars, have developed two prototype 'fuel stations' to make hydrogen. One of these is a home-sized plant (pictured below) that, insanely, converts natural gas - essentially methane - into hydrogen.

Coal gas could give us not only a sensible source of hydrogen to replace petrol, but a source of methane to replace natural gas without having to back-convert every appliance in Britain. If they can be separated. And if the dangerous CO can be removed; it was this that enabled so many suicides by gas in the old days. And because it can be produced on a small scale, perhaps even domestic or neighbourhood scale, it can be left to the market.

Even if the economics are not yet quite right for a comeback for coal gas, they may soon be so. Let's be ready.

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