Hydrogen without the hype

Apr 18, 2004 02:00 AM

by Joseph J. Romm

Hydrogen cars are being hyped today as few technologies have ever been. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his environment secretary, Terry Tamminen, have said they intend to build a "hydrogen highway" of 200 fuelling stations up and down the state. The South Coast Air Quality Management District has approved a plan to spend millions of dollars to put hydrogen cars and fuelling stations in the Los Angeles area. The state Assembly has just created a Select Committee on Hydrogen and Other Alternative Fuels, chaired by Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills).
Yet, for all this effort, hydrogen cars are very unlikely to actually be good for the environment through at least 2035, and they may well increase pollution. Also, 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 fuelling bill, convenience and safety.

Californiaseems to be going down the path of picking a winner in the alternative fuel marketplace, something governments are notoriously poor at, as evidenced by our dismal experience with MTBE, synfuels, electric vehicles, natural gas vehicles, methanol vehicles and so on.
If the state insists on embracing a means -- hydrogen cars, rather than an end-cost-effectively reducing pollution and oil use -- I would strongly urge the select committee to seek out the advice of the best independent experts and analysts, so as not to repeat the many, many mistakes of the past.

Don't get me wrong. I am a strong proponent of keeping open the hydrogen option. I helped oversee the US Department of Energy's program for clean energy and alternative fuels, including hydrogen, for much of the 1990s -- during which time we increased funding for hydrogen technologies tenfold. I believe continued research into hydrogen remains important because it is one of several fuels that might plausibly provide a pollution-free substitute for oil post-2035.
But going beyond R&D at this point to actually build the hydrogen infrastructure and deploy wholly inadequate hydrogen cars is both unjustified and unwise. Let's see why.

First, hydrogen cars make sense only as a long-term strategy, as most independent studies have shown.
Even two well-known California hydrogen advocates, Joan Ogden and Dan Sperling of UC Davis, acknowledged in an article this spring in Issues in Science and Technology: "Hydrogen is neither the easiest nor the cheapest way to gain large near-and medium-term air pollution, greenhouse gas or oil reduction benefits."
In that sense, a focus on hydrogen represents a misdirection of resources away from strategies that can achieve far more environmental and energy benefits for far less money for decades to come. Worse, hydrogen cars can actually be more polluting than the gasoline cars they might replace. Hydrogen is not a primary fuel, like oil, which we can drill for. It's bound up tightly in molecules of water or hydrocarbons like natural gas. A great deal of energy must be used to unbind it. Making that energy causes pollution.

A new report from the European Union's Joint Research Centre found that hydrogen cars would likely increase greenhouse gas emissions. To avoid this outcome, California officials need to avoid two bait-and-switch moves whereby they promise cleaner vehicles but deliver dirtier ones.
The first bait-and-switch dangles in front of the public the hope of an affordable fuel cell vehicle -- which would use a combustion-free process that might have higher efficiency than internal combustion engines along with zero tailpipe emissions -- but then subsidize inefficient, polluting hydrogen-burning cars. This is what the South Coast Air Quality Management District is doing, spending millions of dollars to turn clean, efficient gasoline-burning hybrid cars into dirty, inefficient hydrogen-burning hybrids.

Fuel cell vehicles are currently impractical and unaffordable, and will require at least two major scientific breakthroughs to be viable cars. Hydrogen-burning cars make very little sense either environmentally or economically. The more serious bait-and-switch is where politicians talk about hydrogen from clean sources of energy like solar and wind, but then support and subsidize polluting hydrogen filling stations.
For the foreseeable future, renewable hydrogen generated onsite at a fuelling station would cost the equivalent of about $ 20 a gallon of gasoline. These fuelling stations would have 10 times the cost of fossil-fuel based hydrogen stations. Delivering renewable hydrogen to a fuelling station might cost less, but virtually all hydrogen deliveries today are done by diesel truck, which can by itself wipe out most of the air quality benefits of hydrogen.

So no matter what promises are made to the public, the vast majority of hydrogen fuelling stations built through 2035 are unlikely to be green.
As a prestigious National Academy of Sciences panel concluded in March, "It is highly likely that fossil fuels will be the principal sources of hydrogen for several decades." Fuelling stations that convert grid electricity into hydrogen are the dirtiest and most inefficient, but are the stations AQMD plans to build.
Further, using renewables to make hydrogen is simply bad policy, even if prices drop sharply. Renewable electricity can achieve far greater pollution reduction by directly displacing coal -- or even natural gas -- in the power sector.

And those savings can be achieved without a massive investment in the hydrogen infrastructure. As a 2003 analysis in Science magazine co-authored by UC Berkeley Professor Alexander Farrell concluded: "Until CO2 emissions from electricity generation are virtually eliminated, it will be far more cost-effective to use new CO2-neutral electricity (e.g., wind or nuclear) to reduce emissions by substituting for fossil-generated electricity."
So we are several decades from a time at which serious investments in hydrogen cars or infrastructure makesense environmentally. But we shouldn't be in a rush anyway since, absent at least two major scientific breakthroughs (in fuel cells and storage), hydrogen cars are probably technological dead-ends, like Betamax or gas turbine cars.

Why put cars on the road based on current technology that has "little promise of long-term practicality," in the words of the National Academy panel? Hydrogen cars won't be competitive just with "incremental advances" in technology, according to a March report by the American Physical Society; for instance, "a new material must be discovered" to make onboard hydrogen storage practical.
The US Department of Energy does not propose to even make a decision about whether fuel cell cars can be commercialised until 2015. Surely California can wait 10 years to see if hydrogen cars aren't a dead end before making major investments, especially since such investments can't cost-effectively address any major problems facing California for decades.

While waiting, the select committee could hold useful hearings on many subjects, such as public safety. Hydrogen is "the most dangerous of all known fuels" for vehicles, according to Reuel Shinnar, a chemical engineering professor. In a 2003 journal article he explained how a typical fuelling station using existing technology "violates all safety regulations for hydrogen and no sensible zoning board would permit it, if made aware of the facts."
Russell Moy, a chemical engineer who oversaw hydrogen storage and refuelling facilities at Ford Motors, wrote last November, "It is difficult to imagine how hydrogen risks can be managed acceptably by the general public when wide-scale deployment of the safety precautions would be costly and public compliance impossible to ensure."

Another hearing could be on the numerous other long-term alternatives to gasoline. These include advanced hybrids, biofuels and clean diesels running on zero-carbon fuel. California can be proud of how its regulations have accelerated the introduction of ultralow-emission hybrid vehicles, like the Prius. Hybrids are almost certainly the platform from which all future clean vehicles will evolve. For instance, if fuel cells prove practical, they will be inserted into hybrids.
As battery technology continues to improve, we will see hybrids that can be plugged into the electric grid, allowing the car to run as a pure "zero emission vehicle" in cities. Interestingly, these plug-in hybrids will probably run at least three times as far on a kWh of renewable electricity as fuel cell vehicles.
The California Energy Commission and Air Resources Board recently analysed alternatives to gasoline, and their August 2003 report, "Reducing California's Petroleum Dependence," concludes that plug-in hybrids deliver the most net benefits.

Finally, since hydrogen cars will probably have higher net greenhouse gas emissions but lower tailpipe emissions than the best gasoline hybrids, one must ask whether they even belong on the highway for the foreseeable future. Shouldn't the focus be on fuel cell vehicles and fuelling stations in cities where they might help reduce urban smog?
Creating a hydrogen economy is unlike any previous government effort, such as the Apollo program or interstate highway system. As the National Academy panel 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."
Given our decades of failure with alternative fuels, we should proceed with caution.

Joseph J. Romm was acting assistant secretary of energy during the Clinton administration and is the author of "The Hype about Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate."

Source: The Sacramento Bee
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