Bush Pro-Alternative Energy?

Oped on 2003 State of the Union speech.

Published: 04-Feb-2003

ON>By Nicholas Cresswell Lange

President Bush's State of the Union proposal last Tuesday to fund a $1.2 billion dollar research initiative "so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles" was quite a surprise. For the oil executive president, whose administration has been anything but environmentally-friendly, to advocate massive funding for cars to run on an oil alternative seemed suspect.

So please allow me to delve into the question I asked myself while Dubya's pursed little lips were struggling to say big words like oxygen and hydrogen: Sounds good, so what's the catch? As Yogi Berra might've said: Let's start at the beginning.

A hydrogen-powered car is only as good as the hydrogen it runs on.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe but, ironically, it's pretty hard to get a hold of.

Gaseous, lighter than air and extremely reactive, hydrogen can't be mined or drilled for like coal and oil. In its natural state, hydrogen is ensconced in and among a smorgasbord of other types of atoms and is thus utterly useless for fuel cells, which require 99.98% pure hydrogen to operate effectively.

There are myriad ways of getting this elusive stuff in a pure state.

Maybe you remember adding sulfuric acid to iron filings in high school chemistry class? You caught the gas bubbles that were released with an inverted 2-liter Coke bottle. Then you took it outside, lit a match to the bottom and watched it soar into the sky?

Well, neither do my housemates (they went to lame high schools), but that's one way to do it. However, it's a pretty impractical way to supply enough hydrogen to run the nation's transportation infrastructure.

Only a few methods are economically and environmentally feasible for obtaining pure hydrogen. In a strange twist, one of the best sources for hydrogen production are fossil fuels. Chemically reforming oil, coal and natural gas will likely be the first large-scale source. The benefits of this approach are that the technology of recovering and refining fossil fuels are well developed and much of the required infrastructure is already in place.

Chemically separating hydrogen from fossil fuels would go a long way towards fighting global warming and air pollution; instead Bush plans to continue the current practice of simply burning fossil fuels. Just think about it, change might actually happen pretty quickly if we can manage to keep the oil and coal lobbies happy. But, it doesn't take a liquid-hydrogen rocket scientist to realize that fossil fuels will not be around forever.

Ultimately it is expected that the world's hydrogen will be produced by electrolysis, the splitting of water into it's two component gases, oxygen and hydrogen, through the application of electricity.

If you've been good and read this column regularly, you know that the majority of the electricity we use comes from the same dirty fossil fuel sources I mentioned before. So if we simply use traditional, old school sources of electricity to make our hydrogen, then we've made little progress.

In order to satisfy Bush's dream, "that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free," we must develop sustainable electricity sources to make the hydrogen from water.

Until fusion, (Please don't hold your breath for that one! Experts say that fusion, a much more advanced, energetic nuclear reaction far more difficult to control than today's fission nuclear power plants, is about 30 years away, but they said that fifty years ago too.) the only way a hydrogen-powered car will be pollution-free, is if the hydrogen was made using electricity from renewable energy technologies like wind turbines and solar panels.

Since our esteemed President asks us to join him, "in this important innovation to make our air significantly cleaner and our country much less dependent on foreign sources of energy," his plan for a hydrogen future must also include large-scale funding for the development of renewable energy sources, right?

Nope. Sadly, the Bush administration energy plan ignores this solution in favor of fossil fuels and nuclear power, while his budget proposals have slashed funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs by a third. I applaud Bush's professed desire to make the world a better place by doubling fuel cell funding. Unfortunately, Bush and his team fail to recognize the intrinsic link between a non-polluting hydrogen economy and funding the development of renewable energy technologies.

For a moment last Tuesday night, I thought that Bush had genuinely had a change of heart. In the 4th grade parable, here's the class bully offering a hand to help you up. But nine times out of ten, as soon as the playground teacher walks back around the corner, you're getting socked again.

Until Bush takes real steps towards the development of a sustainable energy policy, intelligent environmentalists will not be sated by this fuel cell proposal. The potential for Bush to use this initiative to get away with future environmental bullying is a risk amplified by the current financial climate. In the midst of an economic slump, environmentally beneficial policies are more readily repealed for economic stimulus.

For Americans, this is a good time to look the gift horse in the mouth; it just might be a wolf in sheep's shoes.

Copyright © 2003 by The Cornell Daily Sun, Inc.

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