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The Myth of the Hydrogen Economy

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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
us
from
foreigners
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.

Not exactly.

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
signs of
life.

A couple
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
the most
plentiful
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
    independence. (This
    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
    rivers
    and other
    consequences.
  • 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
global warming.

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
find.

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%
premium
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.

You might want to let your Senators and House
Representative
know. You should probably send
Governor Schwwarzenegger a
note
, too.

Additional reading:
Panel
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
Hydrogen Problems
Carbon dioxide sequestration
Hydrogen and Other Clean Fuels
Compound
could make hydrogen fuel storage more efficient, practical

Solar Opposites (Wired Magazine 01/2004)

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About Hal

  • http://www.jeffandcarol.com/jeff Jeff

    Not to mention that hydrogen fuel cells will still require you to fill up about the same amount of the time. Moving towards gas-electric hybrids (or pure electric) will actually change the way we drive (i.e. not having to go to the pump every week). Oh and by the way, the best way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce polution is to NOT DRIVE AS MUCH!

  • http://dirtgrain.com/weblog Dirtgrain

    A practical, efficient means of hydrogen production may have been developed. The article, Scientists Advance Hydrogen Tech, reports the following:

      Researchers say they have produced hydrogen from ethanol in a prototype reactor small enough and efficient enough to heat small homes and power cars. . . .
      The reactor is a relatively tiny 2-foot-high apparatus of tubes and wires that creates hydrogen from corn-based ethanol. A fuel cell, which acts like a battery, then generates power. . . .
      The researchers say their reactor will produce hydrogen exclusively from ethanol and do it cheaply enough so people can buy hydrogen fuel cells for personal use.

    There may be hope yet. If the automotive industry would put more money into research, they may find a viable way to produce hydrogen for use as fuel.

  • Jonathan

    Some scary stuff regarding oil alternative energy and all that crap.. Just think some of you might find this interesting
    http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/
    I think the guy is a bit paranoid, but it’s still interesting reading.

  • http://dirtgrain.com/weblog Dirtgrain

    Connect that article with Dave Pollard’s posts at How To Save the World: Population: A Systems Approach, and also More Unpalatable Thoughts on Overpopulation, and also The Ten Most Under-Reported Humanitarian Events of 2003. The end is near.

  • CJ

    In response to comment 2:

    The hydrogen is being derived from methanol. Methanol is derived either from fossil fuels or biofuels. In either case far more energy is used to generate the hydrogen than the hydrogen returns when used. In short, a net energy loss. Unsustainable, and, ultimately, impractical.