Saturday, May 14, 2005

Clean Patagonian Energy from Wind and Hydrogen

Clean Patagonian Energy from Wind and Hydrogen

Marcela Valente*

BUENOS AIRES, May 12 (Tierramérica) - A laboratory situated in the southern Patagonia region of Argentina is producing hydrogen from wind energy to supply power to a village -- and prove that it is possible to replace the polluting fuels derived from petroleum.

At the centre of the project in the community of Koluel Kaike, home to 200 people, is a technology that combines wind and hydrogen energy. The goal is to achieve the capacity to meet the energy demands of 500 people by 2008 in this town 2,000 km south of Buenos Aires.

''The aim is that the development commission, homes, schools, cars, farm machinery -- everything in Koluel Kaike, will run on hydrogen,'' engineer Juan Carlos Bolcich, president of the Argentine Hydrogen Association, which is promoting the project, told Tierramérica.

The hydrogen plant is located 23 km from Koluel Kaike, in Pico Truncado, Santa Cruz province, and home to 15,000 people, a third of whom are already supplied by wind-generated electricity, despite the area's wealth of petroleum and natural gas reserves.

Patagonia has extraordinary potential for wind energy due to its strong and constant windy climate. With that power, the windmills of the hydrogen plant produce electricity that feeds an electrolyser.

Through electrolysis, water molecules are broken down into hydrogen and oxygen. The procedure permits the storage of hydrogen, already proven successful as a fuel for engines. The energy can be stored for use during windless days or for distribution within Argentina or sold abroad.

''Hydrogen is on its way to replacing petroleum. Fossil fuels contaminate, they are expensive, but hydrogen is inexhaustible,'' said Bolcich.

The Patagonian energy project is a candidate for inclusion on the list of what are known as Clean Development Mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change -- energy technologies that do not emit so-called greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

The ''Wind-Hydrogen'' project is the South American chapter of a broader programme of the International Centre for Hydrogen Energy Technology of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).

The international programme is under way in small scale projects on five continents.

China is producing hydrogen from hydraulic sources; in Libya the effort aims to complete the cycle with solar energy; in Turkey experts will test using the new fuel in public transportation; and in Oceania hydrogen is being produced from biomass (organic materials).

Hydrogen is the most basic and most abundant element in nature, and its combustion is totally clean. The problem is that hydrogen is not found isolated on its own, but as part of compounds, and production of hydrogen, through electrolysis, requires expending energy.

''The debate is centred on the energy utilised to produce it,'' says Juan Carlos Villalonga, an energy expert with the ecological watchdog organisation Greenpeace.

''If hydrogen is co-opted by the producers of nuclear energy or petroleum, then it will be 'dirty' hydrogen,'' Villalonga told Tierramérica. But the combination of hydrogen production with wind energy is ideal, he added.

''Hydrogen has enormous potential because it is easily stored. It will permit (Argentina's) energy matrix -- which today has only marginal renewable energy sources -- to make a jump towards relying solely on those sources,'' he said.

But how much more expensive than fossil fuels will it be to produce hydrogen from clean energy sources? For the moment it remains a costly venture, although the rising petroleum prices contribute to reducing that gap.

Bolcich believes that the rise in the price of crude and looming depletion of oil reserves are creating a scenario in which wind energy is increasingly competitive. ''By 2009 the two energy sources will be competing throughout all of Patagonia,'' he predicts.

But that future requires local effort and international cooperation.

The objective of the Pico Truncado hydrogen plant is to produce the gas in compliance with all safety regulations, prove that it can work as energy for electrical equipment, vehicles, and industrial machinery, and evaluate the costs involved in its widespread use.

Furthermore, the laboratory will work to optimise each stage of production, experiment with managing the fuel for storage and transport, and train specialised staff in this technology and its inputs.

The project also seeks to disseminate the use of hydrogen as fuel. ''Petroleum production is very concentrated (in the hands of a few), but this would be more democratic because hydrogen belongs to everyone,'' says engineer Bolcich.

(* Originally published May 7 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)