Hydrogen Hopes

Can hydrogen live up to its promise as the clean fuel of the future?

| Tue May 4, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

Last Tuesday was a good day for fans of a hydrogen-fueled future. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced federal funding of $350 million for research projects to establish a hydrogen economy—a follow-up to Bush’s statement in the State of the Union address last year that he would set aside $1.2 billion for hydrogen study, making hydrogen the clean fuel du jour--and California's Gov. Schwarzenegger announced plans to build a "hydrogen highway" of 200 fueling stations in California by 2010.

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Both Schwarzenegger and the federal government are preparing for a transition to hydrogen-fueled cars, perhaps within ten years. Schwarzenegger said that by 2010 he also hopes to see at least 500,000 hydrogen-fuel vehicles on California roads:

"These stations will be used by thousands of hydrogen-powered cars and truck and buses. This starts a new era for clean California transportation. These vehicles produce no emission and no smog. They will clear the air and get rid of the smog that is hanging over our cities."

Hydrogen, when split by devices called fuel cells, produces electricity and water vapor, but no pollution. If the cells are stacked by the dozens or hundreds, they can make enough electricity to power, say, a car. Hydrogen boosters say its wide use will reduce air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions while lessening the U.S.'s dependence on foreign oil. But there are some real concerns about practical hurdles like storage, infrastructure, and production. Some scientists say a hydrogen economy is a more remote prospect than its advocates acknowledge. A study put out by the National Academy of Sciences in February noted that 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.

The Energy Department announced $350 million in grants Tuesday to more than 130 research institutions and companies, including the Big Three automakers, to put hydrogen-fueled cars on the road by 2015. Private companies will almost match that, to the tune of $225 million. The grants represent nearly one-third of $1.2 billion that President Bush has pledged for hydrogen research, most of it to be distributed over five years.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger says he wants to create a network of stations in California, within six years at an estimated cost of $100 million. He did not explain where all the money would come from, but did express hopes for some of the federal funding. California already has 10 stations. Schwarzenegger said:

"Hundreds of hydrogen fueling stations will be built. And these stations will be used by thousands of hydrogen-powered cars and trucks and buses. This starts a new era for clean California transportation."

In many ways, hydrogen is a promising fuel source. The flammable, colorless, odorless gas is the most abundant element on Earth, potentially an endless source of clean energy. When used to power a car, it produces no tailpipe emissions.

According to C. Lowell Miller, a director in the Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy, an economy driven by hydrogen may not be that far off. Iceland already has a bus system driven by hydrogen fuel and Europe, he says, is soon to follow.

The most serious argument against hydrogen, though, is that the process for extracting it may cause more pollution than gas-run cars, some experts say. Because hydrogen is bound up in molecules of water or hydrocarbons like natural gas, a great deal of energy must be used to unbind it.

The most common method for "mining" hydrogen involves treating natural gas with steam. But with rising prices and declining domestic reserves, natural gas is not the most ideal candidate. Electricity can separate hydrogen atoms from oxygen atoms in water, but this method is expensive and dirty. Hydrogen may also be extracted from coal.

Notes a press release put out with the NAS report:

Currently, producing hydrogen from coal -- a large domestic resource -- results in emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To reduce these emissions, large-scale production of hydrogen from coal would need to incorporate captured and stored carbon, the report says. The DOE program should accelerate development and early evaluation of carbon capture and storage technologies and further investigate production methods that do not result in emissions, such as wind, the sun, and nuclear heat processes.

Most of the hydrogen fueling stations planned in the next few decades will use fossil fuels as the source for hydrogen. The Sacramento Bee writes about the environmental problems associated with hydrogen:

"Over the long term, environmentalists who support hydrogen research and development rightly insist that government should be looking toward renewable sources of hydrogen, such as waste from dairy cows, other agricultural waste, wood chips and, eventually, the most abundant and obvious source, water."

"But even water is not necessarily a clean energy source. Stripping hydrogen molecules from water requires large amounts of electricity. If the electricity is generated by dirty coal-fired power plants or nuclear power, a strategy the Bush administration seems to be pushing, the environmental benefits would be substantially diminished, if not lost entirely."

Joseph J. Romm, acting assistant secretary of energy during the Clinton administration and the author of "The Hype about Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate," argues that because it will take several decades before technology allows for a way to generate hydrogen cheaply and cleanly, hydrogen won't make sense as a fuel source until at least 2035.

He writes in the Sacramento Bee that "absent multiple major scientific breakthroughs, hydrogen cars will remain inferior to the best clean cars available today, gasoline-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, in virtually every respect: cost, range, annual fueling bill, convenience and safety."

Romm also mentions that the U.S. Department of Energy will not make a recommendation about whether fuel cell cars can be commercialized until 2015. Referring to Schwarzenegger’s desire to build 200 fueling stations, he argues that "California can wait 10 years to see if hydrogen cars aren't a dead end before making major investments."

Romm concludes that the push for hydrogen fuel is unlike any other government effort before. And that might not be a good thing:

"Creating a hydrogen economy is unlike any previous government effort, such as the Apollo program or interstate highway system. As the [National Academy of Sciences panel in March] noted, "In no prior case has the government attempted to promote the replacement of an entire, mature, networked energy infrastructure before market forces did the job. The magnitude of change required ... exceeds by a wide margin that of previous transitions in which the government has intervened."

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