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updated to include using hydrogen in place of natural gas/gasoline, instead of solely to produce electricity.

Note that while this question is somewhat about law, lawyers cost money, and I don't intend on trying this. I find this subject fun to think/argue about, and I figured others might too. My goal is to obtain some logical ammunition for my pursuit in convincing a friend, and not necessarily to find real legal information (I doubt it exists anyway).

A friend of mine is convinced that it is against the law to build a hydrogen burning car, or a small hydrogen power plant to power your house for "free." His reasoning is that, because fuel and energy are such a large part of the economy, the government doesn't want everybody becoming the wiser and cutting their power lines and converting their cars to hydrogen (I don't know anything about the feasibility of burning hydrogen gas in an internal combustion engine, or of converting an electric car to use fuel cells) and avoid paying fuel and electrical taxes forever. I mention his reasoning because he framed it like a conspiracy-cover-up magnitude "law," where it's not really a law, but that The Man will swoop down and lock you up if you try this, to keep the idea quiet.

I think the premises that energy taxes are extremely valuable to the government, and that governments wish to protect this resource, are true. But the conclusion seems absurd.

He referred to this as "free" energy -- and since in many cases producing hydrogen is expensive, I assume he was referring to a cheap method of obtaining hydrogen such as electrolysis which can have somewhere between 50-70% efficiency according to some reports. His reason for believing that this method was so illegal (instead of say, wind generation) is that water can be readily obtained from any creek or lake and is untaxable, and that hydrogen gas could be produced by electrolysis by another freely available energy source such as solar or wind.

He cited a case (which I couldn't find a record of) in which a farmer set up a makeshift hydrogen power plant to save money. He was thrown in jail shortly thereafter for producing hydrogen for the purpose of generating electricity. I argued that if this is true, the arrest was probably for other reasons, such as not being qualified to engineer such a beast, not having a licence (if one is required in this case) to operate a power plant, or having built it in an way which is dangerous. He assured me it was because of the hydrogen.

I would assume that you do need a licence of sorts in order to generate lots and lots of power, to use the equipment necessary to build a hydrogen power plant, or to own equipment which has been re-tooled to run on hydrogen gas. Since hydrogen has such a high energy density, and electrolysis is relatively simple and cheap, this would be a worthwhile endeavor for a hobbyist. I again argued that it would be extremely dangerous for people to do this and therefore of course illegal, but he maintained that they would be arrested even if they were qualified and had proper equipment. I said that I doubted you could even run such an operation in a residential zone, but he said it would only serve a single household, so wouldn't need a special zone, and referred again to the case of the poor farmer where neighbors would be few and far between (and I believe people do operate wind generators on farms).

Does this idea hold water? Is the government even concerned with how much they can tax you vs. how much energy/fuel you are able to obtain?

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You need more energy to get the hydrogen gas out of water than you get back by using it for a fuel cell, so the idea to generate cheap electricity from water fundamentally contradicts basic thermodynamics. Your question about comparing energy from hydrogen to wind/solar doesn't make any sense (not your fault) as the important part is where you get the hydrogen from. If you get it by electrolysis, you're not producing energy, but destroying it. –  Fabian May 31 '11 at 19:10
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The energy is all in the bonds. Pure H2 and O2 have a higher energy than H2O, you're going downhill thermodynamically in the fuel cell and gain energy. If you use electrolysis to get H2 and O2 from water, you go uphill and have to supply external energy to make it happen at all (more than you get back in the fuel cell, that's the 50-70% efficiency). –  Fabian May 31 '11 at 19:21
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@Carson The energy you get is similar, not matter if you use a fuel cell or burn it. They have different efficiencies, but the theoretical maximum you can get out is the same. –  Fabian May 31 '11 at 19:23
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@Carson Electorysis creates hydrogen and oxygen from water by breaking the bonds, using the energy from electricity. Combustion of hydrogen creates water from hydrogen and oxygen by reforming the bonds, releasing the energy as heat. If you performed these actions with perfect efficiency you would get back in the combustion the energy you put in with the electroysis. Since the processes are (much) less than perfect, you end up getting considerably less back. –  DJClayworth May 31 '11 at 19:23
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The question remains: How do you get the water into oxygen and hydrogen? By electrolysis? Fine. Where do you get the power for electrolysis from? From somewhere else. Solar, wind, nuclear or fossil. –  Lagerbaer May 31 '11 at 19:35

3 Answers 3

up vote 15 down vote accepted

No.

At least not in the U.S.

Utilities must buy your excess power.

The Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act of 1978 (PURPA) requires power providers to purchase excess power from grid-connected small renewable energy systems at a rate equal to what it costs the power provider to produce the power itself.

Specifically...

(11) Net metering Each electric utility shall make available upon request net metering service to any electric consumer that the electric utility serves. For purposes of this paragraph, the term “net metering service” means service to an electric consumer* under which electric energy generated by that electric consumer from an eligible on-site generating facility and delivered to the local distribution facilities may be used to offset electric energy provided by the electric utility to the electric consumer during the applicable billing period. - TITLE 16 CHAPTER 46 SUBCHAPTER II § 2621

*The term “electric consumer” means any person, State agency, or Federal agency, to which electric energy is sold other than for purposes of resale.

Implementation is left to the individual states (as usual). In Missouri you get the money that would have gone to the evil fossil fuel producers. No spendy. No taxy.

If during the billing period, the customer generates more power than is used, the utility provides the customer a 'credit' for the surplus power. The credit is based on the cost the utility would have incurred to purchase the fuel consumed to generate an equal number of kilowatt-hours.

As long as you produce your hydrogen from a renewable source Missouri is cool with it.

To be eligible, electricity must be produced from wind, solar thermal sources, hydroelectric sources, photovoltaic cells and panels, fuel cells using hydrogen produced by one of the above named electrical energy sources, and other sources of energy that become available after August 28, 2007, and are certified as renewable by the Department of Natural Resources. - Missouri Net Metering and the Easy Connection Act

Federal, state and local codes apply. In general the standards are not much different than those concerning propane, CNG, et al.

Fire safety under NFPA 55 and Compressed Hydrogen should be memorized if you go this way.


The Bottom Line...

Hydrogen is not a special case under U.S. law. Follow the appropriate building codes and you're all good.

Did I mention...

Fire safety under NFPA 55 and Compressed Hydrogen should be memorized if you go this way.

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9  
Fantastic, especially the last quote. That'll be huge firing power in this argument: "According to US law, if you generate electricity with hydrogen, they won't arrest you, they'll pay you." –  Carson Myers Jun 1 '11 at 4:12
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@Carson Any results ? Did you make him cry ? –  Rusty Jun 4 '11 at 18:44
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whoops, never saw your comment. No, he sort of conceded, with a "I dunno." But having no denial that my evidence was staggering –  Carson Myers Jun 28 '11 at 23:28
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"Fire safety under NFPA 55 and Compressed Hydrogen should be memorized if you go this way." - "I said it twice because it's important!" --- Nice answer @Rusty! Funny too! [+1] –  TheLima Nov 14 '12 at 20:02
    
In some places you many also need to follow hazardous material handling standards. Also zoning may be an issue in some communities. Even solar and wind generation is prohibited by some local ordinances. –  Chad Nov 14 '12 at 21:45

Several points to answer here.

First is that the whole physics basis of your friend's scheme is fundamentally flawed. Electrolysis creates hydrogen and oxygen from water by breaking chemical bonds, using the energy from electricity. Combustion of hydrogen creates water from hydrogen and oxygen by reforming the bonds, releasing the bond energy as heat. If you performed these actions with perfect efficiency you would get back in the combustion the energy you put in with the electroysis. Since the processes are (much) less than perfect, you end up getting considerably less back. In other words the electrolysis to generate the hydrogen will always take more energy than you get back from the combustion.

If your friend has a source of hydrogen other than electroysis that is a different matter. One of the scenarios in which Ballard Power recommends fuel cells is for chemical plants that already produce hydrogen. (Thanks to Randolf Richardson for that link)

To move on to the legal question, most jurisdictions have no laws about generating your own electricity. I can't speak for the various US states, but in Canada plenty of off-grid homes have their own generating equipment. However there certainly are regulations about what you can connect to the grid, and you need some kind of approval in order to put power into the grid.

Another aspect is that storage and use of flammable gasses in any quantity requires permits (for what I hope are obvious reasons if you think about the consequences of untrained and irresponsible people handling them) and there are rules governing them. Your friend would have to abide by them in order to get his scheme working. See here. If the farmer in the story was arrested because he had lots of hydrogen stored in an unsafe way, then that was nothing to do with 'free energy', and was probably a good thing for his neighbours.

Finally, as Randolf Richardson points out, there are certainly installations of fuel cells which have been approved. See the Ballard link above. The Men in Black have so far not come to arrest any of the installers for reducing the profits of Big Power.

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that youtube link is extremely awesome. It's also funny that at the end of the video it suggests converting your car to hydrogen :P That'll solve the problem! –  Carson Myers May 31 '11 at 20:01

In Canada we can get this technology here, and our government hasn't shut it down:

  Ballard - Residential fuel cell cogeneration systems
  http://www.ballard.com/Stationary_Power/Cogeneration_Fuel_Cells/Fuel_Cell_Benefits.htm

(I find that many conspiracy theorists worry a lot about what they think their government might do to them if they do something that they think is outrageous.)

The important thing for your friend to do is to get the required permits to build whatever he/she wishes to build. Since it involves major electrical work, there will likely be many permits involved.

When it comes to electrical products that involve the use of 110 VAC and higher power in any way, there are certain standards that must be met and organizations like the CSA provide testing for these things. If your friend wishes to build their own power generation equipment, they may be required by law to adhere to some standards like this, and if I were living next door I would want to be assured that there was no danger to me or my family (which is part of the reason why these regulations are in place). I would be equally concerned if your friend was installing a new gas fireplace without first obtaining the proper permits.

Regarding motor vehicles, there are many strict safety regulations that have to be adhered to that can be very limiting on how vehicles can be designed.

I find that the main reason people don't get permits, workers' compensation coverage, etc., is to save money and reduce paperwork. Unfortunately for them the government sometimes uses a heavy-handed approach in dealing with them. On the flip-side a "slap-on-the-wrist" (e.g., a small fine only) also isn't appropriate when peoples' lives could be put at risk because it doesn't send a strong enough message that these regulations are important.

So, I suggest that your friend take that product from Ballard Power (or one like it) and go ask the local government "What permits do I need to install and use a product like this?" If your friend genuinely wants to do this, then they'll be very happy if they can get a list of permits and other requirements they have to meet (because then they can proceed with a plan). If your friend just likes to spout off conspiracy theories, as a lot of people do, then there will probably be a wide variety of excuses for not doing it along with continued talk about the conspiracy.

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+1 because I'm nakedly pillaging your links. –  DJClayworth May 31 '11 at 19:52
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For the record, there are no plans to actually build this. While this friend does like spouting off conspiracy theories, it's not for the purpose of "WHY WOULD YOU TRUST THE GOVERNMENT!?" Like so many are. He and I like to debate :) W.r.t the part about motor vehicle regulations, there are hydrogen burning internal combustion engines which involves a cheap re-tooling of a regular engine. I think the "conspiracy" part comes in if you do this yourself rather than buying a taxable engine and buying the hydrogen. –  Carson Myers May 31 '11 at 19:53
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@Carson A simple substitution of the word 'safe' instead of 'taxable' explains why this isn't a conspiracy. –  DJClayworth May 31 '11 at 19:56
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@Carson Myers: Before proceeding with converting a vehicle, I would check with my insurance company as well as the government to make sure that I will be able to actually use my vehicle after the upgrade. –  Randolf Richardson May 31 '11 at 19:56
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@Randolf You have my thanks, and you can still have the upvote. –  DJClayworth May 31 '11 at 19:56

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