- Electric vehicles versus the power grid…
- Will nuclear fusion remove the need for solar and wind power?
- Hydrogen fuel cells will happen in our lifetimes
Welcome to our weekly mailbag edition of The Bleeding Edge. All week, you submitted your questions about the biggest trends in technology. Today, I’ll do my best to answer them.
If you have a question you’d like answered next week, be sure you submit it right here.
Is your home ready for renewable energy?
First is a question from a reader wondering about the power infrastructure for electric vehicles (EVs)…
Hi, Jeff, I read and invest based substantially on your three newsletters. You did a great job covering the power generation question on electric cars. How about the distribution? Are most homes equipped with adequate electric service? If not, is the grid ready to bring them up to speed if there is rapid adoption by 30/40/50% of the population? Thanks.
– Ernest B.
Thanks for writing in, Ernest. And thank you for being a reader and for following my research.
For those who missed it, in last week’s mailbag, we discussed how EVs may not be as “green” as many believe.
After all, most of the electricity that powers these vehicles is produced by burning fossil fuels or by hydroelectric sources that damage natural waterways.
Even in a state like California – which is aggressively pursuing renewable energy sources – only about 22% of electricity comes from wind or solar. The rest comes from sources like natural gas, nuclear fission (which produces radioactive waste), and hydroelectric dams that harm freshwater ecosystems.
What really needs to happen is this… Each country needs to build new infrastructure for clean energy production. That includes solar and wind where it makes sense and nuclear fusion (not fission), which has no radioactive byproducts.
As for your question about power distribution and the physical electrical grid… The upgrade to EVs will be manageable for one simple reason. The transition from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles will occur over the next couple of decades.
And on top of that, the emergence of very low-cost shared autonomous vehicle networks will decrease car ownership. This means that large electrical fueling “centers” will be built and managed by companies serving this new industry.
This will lessen the burden on last-mile utility infrastructure.
As for homes, the answer usually depends on when your house was built. I’m now living in a house that was built in 1959, and it only has a 100-amp line running to it.
A Tesla wall connector is connected to either a 60- or 80-amp circuit. This means that if I were to charge my car at 60 amps and turn on the stove, which draws 40 amps… I’m in trouble.
More modern homes might have a 200-amp line to the house, which is reasonable to support a wall charger for an EV.
So for those who want an EV but live in an older house, it may be necessary to upgrade the power line to the house to support the power requirements.
The clean energy of the future…
Next up is a question about what kind of clean energy will power the future…
With fusion reactors just a few years away, how much longer do you think solar and wind power will be promoted?
– Michael R.
A great question, Michael. And I’m happy to see that readers like you are taking an interest in nuclear fusion technology.
Hardly any analysts are covering this exciting technology. And even experts in the field don’t even realize how much progress is being made toward commercial reactors. Readers of The Bleeding Edge are definitely ahead of the curve.
As a quick refresher, nuclear fusion is very different from nuclear fission technology. In short, nuclear fission produces energy by splitting a nucleus of an atom into two – or several – smaller nuclei.
When most people refer to nuclear power, this is what they mean.
Of course, this has tradeoffs that we should be aware of. Fission creates nuclear waste that – without proper storage – can poison our soil and water.
And history buffs will know about high-profile nuclear meltdowns from fission reactors… This is a topic near and dear to me, as I was living and working in Tokyo at the time of the three nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. I had to send my family to the southern part of Japan to be safe while I led my company through months of crisis management.
However, nuclear fusion is very different from fission.
We can think of nuclear fusion as the power of the sun. And I’m on the record saying that I believe we’ll see the first net-positive energy production from a fusion reactor within five years – and I made that prediction last year.
But going back to your question, it’s not an either/or for nuclear fusion and wind and solar power. All three provide clean energy. Where they differ is in how they interact with an electrical grid.
Nuclear fusion will be used for baseload energy. It will produce constant, limitless clean energy no matter whether the wind blows or it’s raining, cloudy, or nighttime.
Wind and solar will be used to supplement this clean energy production. And residential solar energy can empower consumers to reach a net-zero or near net-zero energy consumption from the grid (depending on where we live and how much energy we consume).
But in most cases, solar energy makes a lot of sense now for rooftop deployments. And they’re not big and ugly anymore. Tesla is now installing its Solarglass Roof systems, which are impressive.
Time is a consideration as well. Once the industry commercializes the first compact nuclear fusion reactors, it will still take decades to build new reactors to replace the existing carbon-based energy production around the world.
So we’ll be using solar and wind to supplement our energy production for decades as well.
Will hydrogen fuel cells disrupt the EV market?
Our third question comes from a reader wondering about the future of hydrogen fuel cells…
Dear Mr. Brown,
While I have seen a lot of information about the EV market and its players from you and others, I have heard very little about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. As they are supposedly not using electricity, are they not only more environmentally friendly but perhaps an even more disruptive technology than EVs and Tesla? And have you reviewed the growth rates and production increases in the main manufacturers of these products? I would love to hear your thoughts.
– Gary D.
Hi, Gary. Thanks for writing in. Hydrogen-powered vehicles have been a popular topic among readers. After all, hydrogen seems to be a perfect “green fuel.”
Hydrogen as fuel is an exciting prospect because there are no carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The only output is a little bit of water. And you’re correct; hydrogen would be a much cleaner energy source than battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs).
Better yet, hydrogen fuel cells can be manufactured without the toxic materials used in today’s lithium-ion batteries. Plus, we still largely generate the electricity used to charge them by burning fossil fuels. Worse yet, in the process of transmitting this fossil fuel energy to power plants and then to our homes and cars, we lose about 7% of the energy produced.
So hydrogen as a fuel source is attractive. But the problem is that hydrogen is very expensive to make. The cleanest way to produce hydrogen is to extract it from water through “electrolysis.” But the amount of energy used in this process far exceeds the amount of energy stored in the hydrogen.
However, new possibilities are on the horizon…
As I wrote about in January, researchers at the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia just used inexpensive magnets to double the output of oxygen from the electrolysis of water. That also doubled the output of hydrogen… making the process twice as efficient.
And just earlier this week, I shared another possible solution. Researchers at Ohio State University successfully used a rhodium molecule and sunlight to make hydrogen, opening up a new avenue for hydrogen production.
While both discoveries will need further development and scale before they can become widely used, I’m confident we’ll see a team of scientists crack the code for hydrogen fuel for cars in our lifetimes.
But the key point for us to understand is that hydrogen fuel cells are simply not economical yet. Because electrolysis isn’t efficient, current methods of production often use large amounts of fossil fuels to produce hydrogen for hydrogen fuel cells. This is also not ecological.
But once we crack this problem, hydrogen is sure to gain rapid adoption. Hydrogen fuel cells would let our cars drive farther than current EVs before needing to recharge. And “filling up” at the station wouldn’t take 30 minutes… It would be just like filling up with gas today.
I’m keenly interested in this technology for many reasons. I’ll be closely watching any companies – private or public – working in this space.
And as for Tesla, in the current landscape of players in the EV industry, I can’t think of anyone else who would be more aggressive in implementing hydrogen fuel cells – as long as they are economical for consumers – than Elon Musk and his team.
Editor, The Bleeding Edge
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