A Green Car the Energy Industry Can Love

Future Fuel initiative seen as investing in petrochemical industry and not renewables for producing hydrogen.

Published: 05-Feb-2003

WASHINGTON — In his State of the Union address last week, President Bush seemed to embrace the holy grail of the environmental movement: a push to the so-called hydrogen economy.

"A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car producing only water, not exhaust fumes," Mr. Bush said. "With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free."

Replacing fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine with clean-burning hydrogen has been a longtime dream of the people Mr. Bush reportedly calls "green, green lima beans."

But Mr. Bush's new initiative for fuel-cell research is not as Birkenstock-friendly as it might seem. In fact, the proposal, which will cost $1.2 billion over five years, could do much to benefit the fossil-fuel and nuclear power industries.

That's because while hydrogen fuel cells produce nothing more than water vapor, the production of hydrogen itself can be environmentally harmful. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but it doesn't exist naturally on earth in its pure form. "Just as the oil is locked up in the Middle East, hydrogen is all locked up in compounds," said Robert Rose, executive director of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute in Washington and a leading advocate of hydrogen fuel cells.

Energy is required to produce hydrogen — and that energy, depending on its source, can create greenhouse gases. According to the Energy Department, 96 percent of hydrogen produced in the world today comes from natural gas, oil and coal — the same fossil fuels that environmentalists would like to abandon.

These industries are not only poised to become the main producers of hydrogen, but they are also likely to control the networks that distribute it.

"Because it postpones the need to make costly investments in an entirely new infrastructure, it's likely that the conversion to a hydrogen economy will rely heavily on working with the existing system of pipelines, storage facilities and fuel stations used to produce and deliver oil and gas," said Janice Mazurek, an environmental policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic group.

Many environmentalists, however, want to create hydrogen using wind, solar and other renewable energy sources, a utopian scenario in which both the fuel for cars and the process by which that fuel is produced are environmentally harmless.

"The big debate is, Do we piggyback on the existing petrochemical industry or do we invest in renewables?" Ms. Mazurek said.

For now, the Bush administration seems more intent on investing in the petrochemical industry. "Initially, we anticipate that the source of the hydrogen fuel in this country would be natural gas," a senior administration official said last week in a briefing to reporters.

The official noted that technology will eventually make it possible to move toward renewable fuel sources, like agricultural waste. But, he said, the president's plan will also expand research in hydrogen production to coal and nuclear power.

Exactly how much money will be spent on coal and nuclear power will be known on Monday, when the administration is to release its budget. Last year, Mr. Bush requested $97.5 million for hydrogen and fuel-cell programs. Of that, $12 million was for research into hydrogen production, and that was spent entirely on natural-gas, petroleum and renewable energy.

In Mr. Bush's new proposal, the total budget for hydrogen and fuel-cell programs will jump to $240 million a year, and the administration will request millions of dollars to finance research into hydrogen production from coal and nuclear power plants, said an Energy Department official.

Some are worried that the administration's budget will be too tilted toward fossil fuels and nuclear power. "I fear the Bush budget may have a reduction in renewables," Mr. Rose said.

In any case, hydrogen-powered cars won't roll off the assembly line for another 10 or 20 years, leaving unsolved the immediate problem of declining fuel efficiency in America's current gas guzzlers, environmentalists say. "Perhaps in the Jenna Bush administration we'll see fuel-cell cars on the road, but we're not there yet," said Jon S. Coifman, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is a way to appear to be doing something without doing anything about the cars on the road today."

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