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What do chickens, hydrogen cars and the smart grid have in common?

We all know the old puzzle about which came first, the chicken or the egg.  Well, this could be a real conundrum if you were thinking about poultry-related food production.  Would you get some eggs in order to produce chickens? Or would you get chickens in order to produce eggs?

This chicken and egg problem has effectively stumped the hydrogen vehicle industry (and may see off electric cars too) because nobody can figure out which needs to come first, the vehicles of the refuelling infrastructure.  All of the major car manufacturers have now produced prototype cars that run entirely on electric motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells.  They have also developed fuel pumps that can deliver and meter compressed hydrogen which can be economically extracted from natural gas (but not by electrolysis).

So why, given climate change and popular demand for green energy, have we not switched to hydrogen vehicles?

The main reason is that nobody wants to shell out £50,000 for a hydrogen car until they can be sure that they will be able to fill up in the same way as they can with a much cheaper petrol or diesel powered car.  Given consumer reticence, fuel companies are in no hurry to invest in hydrogen storage and delivery systems that hardly anyone wants to use.  A secondary problem is that nobody is sure if battery-powered electric vehicles might prove to be the green(ish) alternative to petroleum vehicles.  Of course this works the other way too, limiting investment in a battery-recharging/replacing infrastructure.  A lot of capital could be wasted in investing in the wrong technology, so almost everyone is sitting back waiting to see who wins.

This brings us to the seductive idea that we could save vast sums of money and be much more energy efficient if only we were to invest in the so-called “smart grid”.  The idea is that all of our electricity consuming devices will be wired up to the grid using in-built smart meters that can switch to the cheapest energy provider on a minute-by-minute basis; switch themselves off if they are consuming unnecessary power; and be switched off remotely in the event of the Grid failing to generate sufficient power.

This all sounds as superficially beneficial as hydrogen powered cars.  But you can’t buy a smart fridge freezer, washing machine or hi fi yet.  Why would you want to when the energy companies have yet to invest in the grid infrastructure that would make such a purchase worthwhile?  Indeed, even if the Grid infrastructure was upgraded – an unlikely prospect given that the energy companies are currently making losses – we are not about to throw away a lot of perfectly good, and expensive household goods simply because they are not “smart”.  As with hydrogen and/or electric cars, it is going to take a couple of decades to upgrade… and this assumes that smart household goods are already on the shelves waiting for the early adopters to purchase them.

In practice, the only way we are going to have a smart grid is if the government stumps up a massive subsidy – both to manufacturers to develop smart appliances, and to the Grid companies to upgrade the infrastructure.  Given that the government refuses to invest in new power stations in the face of an increasingly urgent energy crunch, this looks unlikely.

Like renewable energy and tackling climate change, we might have had a smart grid if we had invested in it twenty years ago.  Today, with an economy-shattering oil shortage looming just over the horizon, smart grids (and hydrogen cars) are just another item on the tick box list of things that we know how to do in theory, but that we will never build in practice.

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