Hydrogen is a clean fuel but it’s not an alternate energy
source, so it’s not going to save the planet, improve our health or protect
any time soon.
I’m not sure how this one got started but it probably has its roots in the
environmental movement. The belief seems to be that running our vehicles with
hydrogen will stop air pollution, reduce global warming and remove our dependence
on foreign nations for fossil fuels.
President Bush introduced his vision for a hydrogen economy in his 2003 State
of the Union message, and the press jumped on it. That initiative didn’t get
too far, though. It wasn’t mentioned in this year’s State of the Union (apparently
steroid use is more
important) and is currently sitting in the Senate Finance Committee with few
of weeks ago, State Governors Jeb
Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger got into the act, (as did several of
the Democratic presidential contenders). Schwarzenegger is
the worst, as he says we can have "Hydrogen
Highways" in California by 2010.
Proving, once again, that many politicians don’t know squat. The
problem is that while GM’s claim may be true
"We expect to have a commercially viable fuel cell by 2010, a vehicle
that can be bought by consumers. It won’t cost more than the other vehicles
in that category on that day," said GM spokesman Scott Fosgard. [Schwarzenegger
Is Driving Force 1/21/2004]
if it comes to pass, it will increase pollution, increase the risk of
global warming and increase our foreign energy dependence.
Here’s the speed reader version of why:
1. Hydrogen is not an
alternate energy source – it’s a mechanism for storing and transferring
energy from a source to where it’s needed. While hydrogen is
element in the universe, it’s not just hanging around – it’s all tied up
in other matter.
2. Separating it out so it can be used as a fuel takes a lot of energy,
much more than is used to run our cars and trucks now:
- If we produce hydrogen from natural gas, there goes our energy
also costs about $4 a gallon, double that if you add the same
state and federal taxes and transportation charges we have on gasoline.)
- If we use electricity to get hydrogen from water,
that electricity is mostly produced using natural gas so
ditto. (This costs three times as
much as using natural gas as the feedstock. )
- If we shift over to coal to generate
the electricity to produce the hydrogen, that includes
a bonus of sulfur, acid rain, filling in
of streams and
- Our increased demand for energy will clash with China’s increasing
energy demands as they continue their rapid growth in manufacturing,
producing rapidly escalating prices.
3. All the extraction methods generate huge, make that horrendous, amounts
of carbon dioxide, far more than we’re generating now, so there goes
4. And once you’ve got the hydrogen, you have a storage
problem: it’s explosive, reactive and leaks through containments at
a rate of several per cent a
day (a tank a month just vanishing into thin air).
5. Even assuming
you can solve all those problems, changing the infrastructure to handle
a hydrogen transportation economy would
cost about $5,000 per car,
with filling stations running $250,000 to $500,000 each.
The National Academy of Sciences summed it up last week:
"In the best-case scenario, the transition to a hydrogen economy would
take many decades, and any reductions in oil imports and carbon dioxide
emissions are likely to be minor during the next 25 years," said the
academy, an independent group that makes scientific recommendations to
Congress. [Reuters 2/4/2004]
Hydrogen is not a silver bullet, so let’s not put all our resources there.
Instead, let’s actually spend some money (rather than bottling it up in committee)
on research, because you never know what you’ll
Last week, scientists came up with a method that may be able to store
hydrogen at -320 degrees F instead of -423 degrees F. There could be a
breakthrough lurking that will reduce the 400%
for producing photovoltaic energy. Carbon sequestration could become feasible
and coal would become more viable. Ethanol may already be a better
choice for fuel cells in the long run. Hell, enviros and greenies may stop
suing to stop installation of wind machines for generating electricity
because they kill birds.
And what we really need is an alternate energy source, not just a different
means of energy distribution.
So let’s not just jump on the hydrogen bandwagon. It could be a very
costly ride in the wrong direction.
Calls Bush Hydrogen-Car Plan Unrealistic (WSJ subscription)
Schwarzenegger is Driving Force in Hydrogen Fuel Effort
Fuzzy on last year’s State of the Union promises?
Urges Comparative Study of Hydrogen and Ethanol
Carbon dioxide sequestration
Hydrogen and Other Clean Fuels
could make hydrogen fuel storage more efficient, practical
Solar Opposites (Wired Magazine 01/2004)