Joe Romm: Hydrogen Pragmatist
By Bill Moore
Joe Romm's new book, "The Hype About Hydrogen" has caused a stir, especially among advocates of fuel cell technology and the hydrogen economy. Its provocative title isn't meant, so much, to disparage hydrogen as a "fuel" of the future, as it is to deflate the "hype" about its prospects as a near term solution for addressing global warming and eventually replacing fossil fuels in automotive applications.
"I think its a technology that has some prospects in the very long term, but I think some companies like General Motors have been really over-selling its short term promise, and I think that's counterproductive," he told me during our nearly 40 minute interview, the entirety of which is available in MP3 audio format to EV World Premium subscribers.
As the acting deputy assistant secretary for the US Energy Department's Energy Office of Efficiency and Renewable Energy during the Clinton White House years, Romm was directly responsible for increasing the department's research budget for hydrogen and fuel cells. He sees the potential of hydrogen, but he is also deeply concerned that governments are placing too much faith in a distant technology that clearly isn't ready for "prime time" and won't be for decades.
He asserted that if the prototype fuel cell cars that are available today from Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Honda and Toyota were rushed into the marketplace, they would turn off buyers because of their shortcomings. "I think that it is really a big mistake to prematurely introduce technology into the US marketplace before they would really satisfy the demands the driving public would have." He pointed to GM's now-defunct EV1 program as an example of what happens when you over-promise and under-deliver. Virtually all of the more than 1,000 electric cars have been recalled and crushed, though it should be pointed out that despite their shortcomings, they inspired a level of loyalty among drivers not usually seen in the industry.
That is an assertion that most automakers would agree with, though they would probably add that we have to start sometime and now is as good a time as any given the long development lead time it will take to solve the many technological hurdles that must be overcome before fuel cell vehicles can effectively compete against alternatives like diesel and hybrid-electric cars.
From his perspective, even if GM and the other carmakers can solve the problems of fuel cell-powered cars, he isn't convinced that the vehicles will be a success in the marketplace for the same reason every other alternative fuel from ethanol to natural gas have had a tough time gaining more than a market toehold.
"If people don't like the high price of gasoline, my guess is they are really going to dislike hydrogen," Romm stated. He contends that between the cost of a new infrastructure to support hydrogen as an automotive "fuel" and the cost to make it, that it will be just too expensive compared to possible alternatives.
In "The Hype About Hydrogen," Romm points to an NREL study of hydrogen production at the local filling station or "forecourt." That 2002 study concluded that electrolyzed hydrogen would cost a whopping $12/kg while hydrogen steam reformed from natural gas would cost $4.40/kg, twice the cost of gasoline in America, at the moment. Since a kilogram of hydrogen is roughly equivalent to the energy content of a gallon of gasoline, you can begin to appreciate Romm's observation. The dream of "green" hydrogen made from wind power or solar electric panels would appear, for the moment at least, to be just that, a dream.
On top of this, an Argonne National Laboratory study placed the cost of the necessary infrastructure for fueling 40 percent of North America's vehicle fleet with hydrogen at a staggering $600 billion dollars.
So, what's the motive for "hyping" hydrogen?
Romm sees several reasons why a company like GM would actively promote the idea of hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars to anyone in a position of power or influence, going so far as to say it will have such cars available for sale by 2010. Romm thinks GM gets a lot of positive public relations spin out of the program, as do other carmakers like Honda and Toyota who continue to sell millions of conventional gasoline-powered cars compared to the relative handful of hybrids they currently offer.
He also sees such fuel cell programs as a way to subvert any regulatory initiatives to improve vehicle fuel economy, which in the USA has stalled and begun to slip backwards with the invasion of highly-profitable but fuel-hungry pickups and SUVs over the last decade.
Global Warming Fighter?|
The subtitle of Romm's book is, "Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate" and it is his thesis that rushing to deploy hydrogen-fueled cars is not a cost-effective way to slow global warming. It may, in fact, help accelerate it because 95 percent of the world's hydrogen production comes from natural gas. Converting natural gas into hydrogen for fuel cell cars and trucks will mean there is less for electric power generation, which Romm believes is a much smarter use for the fuel since combined cycle turbines are twice as efficient as fuel cells. The less natural gas there is available to the electric power industry, the more coal that will be used. In fact, Romm points out in "Hype" that fully two-thirds of the world's coal-generated power plants in operation by 2030 have not yet even been built, according to the International Energy Agency.
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This is not to say that Romm is opposed to fuel cells; quite the contrary. He thinks stationary fuel cells show great promise when as much of the energy potential of the "fuel" is extracted as possible; for example when the waste heat from high temperature fuel cells like solid oxide (SOFC) or molten carbonate (MCFC) fuel cells is captured and utilized such as is done at the Henry Doorly Zoo complex here in Omaha. When this is done, fuel cells can exceed the energy efficiency of combined cycle gas turbines; and in Romm's view, energy efficiency is what it's all about.
But when it comes to mobile fuel cells for use in automotive applications, he is less optimistic. There are simply too many technological barriers still confronting PEM-type systems, ranging from component costs to durability issues, for them to offer the internal combustion engine -- or even battery electric vehicles, for that matter -- any serious competition over the next twenty years or longer.
So, what about burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine? BMW and Ford, along with various experimenters, have proven that for very little additional cost, IC engines can be made to run on pure hydrogen. But for Romm, this argument illustrates the dangers of "hydrogen hype." He explained to me that the well-to-tank fueling process for the normal gasoline engine is very efficiency, something on the order of 85 percent. The problem is the inefficiency of the IC engine, at best only 25 percent. You have a very efficient energy source being used by a very inefficiency engine.
The reverse is true for hydrogen, Romm explained. Its "well-to-tank" efficiency is about 50 percent and as low as 30 percent if the hydrogen is liquefied and transported by tanker truck. That means we throw away as much as 70 percent of the original energy used to make the hydrogen. Burn this very expensive and inefficient energy carrier in a IC engine and you make a bad system even worse, especially if the vehicle is a GM Hummer.
"The whole reason that I was excited about hydrogen cars in the 1990's, and the reason the Department of Energy was, was because of the fuel cell, because of the possibility of a very high efficiency engine with no tailpipe emissions," Romm said.
Bait 'n Switch
While Romm told me that he doesn't have a problem with a few hydrogen and fuel cell vehicle demonstrations, per se, he thinks that beyond this, the public is being misled into a "bait-'n-switch" situation that promises fuel cells, but delivers IC engine cars that run on hydrogen derived from fossil fuel energy sources like natural gas, oil and coal rather than "green" energy sources like wind. The end result is more climate-altering CO2 and not less being pumped into the atmosphere.
"So, instead of ending up with what everyone agrees is the vision, the excitement, the promise, which is a fuel cell vehicle running on hydrogen from renewable sources, we end up with the opposite."
This is precisely what California's South Coast Air Quality Management District or SCAQMD is proceeding to do by converting 35 Toyota Priuses to run on hydrogen, instead of gasoline. According to Romm, the overall greenhouse gas emissions for the already super-clean Priuses will more than double and the NOx emissions will quadruple because the hydrogen is going to be made from grid-powered electrolysis.
"As a long term strategy, it is well worth doing the research and development on hydrogen, but it is wildly premature to be building infrastructure and to be pushing vehicles out into the marketplace based on current technology."
Then do three-hundred billion dollar initiatives like those proposed by the Apollo Alliance, make sense, I asked? Romm replied that only one of the ten points in the Alliance's proposal has to do with hydrogen. Much of its proposal advocates renewable energy and improved energy efficiency. He contends that for an industrialized country, the United States is one of, if not the most inefficient nation in the world.
"I don't think the Apollo Alliance is a moon mission for hydrogen like some people have been proposing," he noted.
Surprisingly, to me at least, Romm thinks the relatively modest $1.7 billion combined-hydrogen and fuel cell vehicle programs proposed by the Bush Administration is about the right level of funding that this technology needs at the moment.
"...it is wildly premature to be building infrastructure and pushing vehicles out into the marketplace...
Romm argues that compared to other strategies for reducing dependence on imported oil and slashing overall greenhouse gas emissions, hydrogen is the most problematic and is 30 years away. He is of the opinion that hybrids, battery electrics, and plug-in hybrids offer far more promise in the near-term for addressing these twin concerns than does hydrogen fuel cells.
"We can't afford to wait three decades," he cautioned, emphasizing that global warming is a very real threat that must be dealt with now, not at some promised point in the future. He added that with respect to the commercial viability of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the US Energy Department has been "blunt" by stating, up front, that it won't be able to determine whether fuel cell cars even will be commercialize until the year 2015.
"I urge people to read the May (20004) issue of Scientific American," Romm told me. That article, entitled, "Questions about a Hydrogen Economy" also takes a critical view of a hydrogen future, equating the real-world time table for the technology to be similar to that of NASA's manned mission to Mars, and just about as likely.
He also cites a newly released study by Jae Edmunds at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory that concluded even after realizing major breakthroughs in fuel cell technology combined with serious national policy measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, hydrogen will not achieve any climatically-significant penetration in the marketplace until after 2035.
For Romm, the question isn't can we produce hydrogen from renewable energy resources? The real question we need to be asking is what is the best use for renewable energy and clearly, making hydrogen isn't it. Here's a sobering statistic he proffered. By 2025, the USA is projected to build another 100 gigawatts of new coal-fired electricity generation capacity, on top of major expansion of existing coal-fired power plants.
Instead of making hydrogen from electricity generated by wind turbines or solar panels, Romm argues that we need to use those renewable resources to replace coal in electric power generation. Every ton of coal burned by a power plant releases an estimated 2.56 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, and is a major contributor to global warming.
And what about carbon sequestration; pulling the CO2 out of the power plant's smokestack and storing it underground? Here again, Romm contends the technology time line is two to three decades into the future and is fought with economic, regulatory and technical uncertainties. The DOE's own 'clean coal' demonstration project isn't slated to verify whether or not the technology for carbon sequestration is commercially viable until 2020. Romm sees few new plants using sequestration by 2025, in part, because the system is not currently suited for retrofitting to existing plants; it requires a "greenfield" or new plant to be constructed around it.
"We need the natural gas and renewables to displace coal generation," he stated. He estimates we can replace four times the amount of CO2 spewed into the atmosphere from a coal-fired power plant by generating that same one megawatt from a wind turbine and feeding it directly into the grid, instead of electrolyzing hydrogen and turning it back into electricity via a fuel cell.
Simply stated, using renewable power directly results in more CO2-busting bang for the buck. Or, put another way, "Hydrogen cars are going to be ten to one-hundred times more expensive as a CO2-mitigation strategy," he said.
Romm devotes a major portion of his book to the reality and potential impact of global warming. "If your readers aren't convinced that global warming is happening today, in ten years everyone will know that global warming is happening. ...In five to ten years, we will be focused like a laser on cost-effective strategies to reduce greenhouse gases," he predicted.
One of the eye-openers that came out of the book for me, personally, was the extreme flammability of hydrogen. This stuff is not just "different" from gasoline or diesel, it's down right weird. I asked Romm to elaborate on this aspect of his book.
"People have really... under-discussed the safety issue," he replied. "Hydrogen is an unusually dangerous fuel, and I mean that quite literally. It is dangerous in a way that is completely different from gasoline. It's not that gasoline isn't dangerous... but hydrogen is the leakiest gas there is. It is invincible, it burns invincibly; it's odorless and you can't really add odorants because those odorants will poison the fuel cell. So where you have hydrogen stored, its likely to leak and you won't know it. The problem is nearly anything will ignite hydrogen. It has one-twentieth the ignition energy of natural gas; and unlike natural gas, which will ignite in air over a pretty narrow range of concentration in air... hydrogen will ignite in almost any concentration in air. It is so ignitable that a lightning storm miles away can ignite it; a cellphone can ignite it; and in some instances, it can actually... self-ignite if it escapes from the high-pressure vessel."
Romm said this is why there are such stringent safety codes in industry when it comes to handling and storing hydrogen; including the kind of clothing you can wear.
"I, for one, would not want my neighbor generating hydrogen. I know this is everybody's favorite fantasy: make hydrogen at home and fuel your car at home." Instead, he thinks that the number of people doing this in the next four decades will be, in his words, "microscopic."
His reservations about home-made hydrogen also extend to his concerns about storing hydrogen in high-pressure containers in vehicles, the favored mode of storage on board today's fuel cell prototype cars
"I don't think that most people, when they go to a fueling station, want to hold in their hands a fueling pump with an over-pressure of 7,000 or 12,000 pounds per square inch of hydrogen and hope that it's been properly maintained. You would have to design the car and the fueling system to be totally idiot-proof. If we go this high-pressure storage way, you limit fueling to places where you have high-pressure, multi-stage compressors, and carefully-trained personnel. All of that infrastructure would be totally stranded if somebody then solved the storage problem and developed a solid-state storage.
"I just think that people haven't thought this through," Romm commented. "It's fine to do demonstrations with high-pressure storage," but he doesn't believe any carmaker or fuel provider sees a mass market future for it. It just opens up the door to too many potential problems. Residents in the village of Hackney near the BP Hydrogen refueling station that was meant to refuel London's trio of Ballard fuel cell buses have prevented the station from opening because of their concerns over its safety. Canisters of hydrogen are now having to be trucked in to refuel the buses, negating the environmental benefits of the program.
"I don't think this is a show-stopper," Romm added, "but for high-pressure storage, it is. The notion that there will be thousands of real gas stations dispensing high-pressure hydrogen is ridiculous.
"It's fine to put out a vision, but let's get real here."
Romm concluded by saying that until we come up with an efficient and compact way to store and dispense hydrogen, one that totally changes the "game" as it's understood today, here is no hope of fuel cell cars and hydrogen succeeding.
He stressed in closing that we have three decades of serious R&D work ahead of us in which the two main thrusts must be to first solve the hydrogen production and storage problem and to make sure that we displace as much coal power as possible with clean, renewable energy sources. Only then will the dream of hydrogen fuel cell cars become a reality.