A Better Way to Get From Here to There

ILSR study urges re-evaluation of hydrogen-economy proposals.

Published: 21-Jan-2004

Californian Governor Schwarzenegger's proposed 'hydrogen highway' is too expensive and would reduce oil consumption much less and more slowly than an ethanol highway, according to a report just released by David Morris, vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).

Morris urged Schwarzenegger to conduct a study of the comparative costs and benefits of hydrogen and ethanol before implementing his 'hydrogen highway' proposal.

The report by Morris, "A Better Way of Getting From Here to There: A commentary on the hydrogen economy and a proposal for an alternative strategy," notes hydrogen's major shortcomings -- astonishingly high costs, low overall energy efficiency and a reliance on nonrenewable fuels.

"For a hydrogen economy to have any impact, the nation would have to change virtually every aspect of its energy system, from production to distribution to the design of our gas stations and our cars," wrote Morris, who has advised and consulted with the Energy Departments of Presidents Ford, Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush.
"Why spend billions of dollars over the next 20-25 years to completely redesign our transportation system from the ground up when we could build a high-efficiency, ethanol transportation system for a fraction of the cost and time?" he said.

The report notes that the use of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) by itself could reduce liquid fuel consumption by 30 to 50 percent. Expanding the electric-only driving capacity of HEVs' electric battery system could reduce liquid fuel consumption by another 30 to 40 percent and allow the vehicle to run off of renewable electricity. The dramatically reduced liquid fuel consumption that would result would enable the building of an ethanol highway.
The report by Morris notes that ethanol (or alcohol) is made from sugars. In the United States these sugars come from corn, in Brazil from sugar cane, and from wheat in Europe. Commercial operations that extract sugar from far more abundant cellulosic resources like grasses and corn stalks, wheat straw, and urban organic wastes are beginning to come on-line.

"A sugar economy makes more sense than a hydrogen economy," said Morris. "California has a rich potential for converting homegrown sugars into ethanol and biochemicals, and even without subsidies, ethanol costs half as much as hydrogen."

According to Morris, several million vehicles like the Ford Taurus already are capable of running on ethanol as well as gasoline. The additional cost for car companies to make a flexible fueled vehicle is about $150, while the added cost of making a fuel cell car runs into the tens of thousands of dollars. In addition, an ethanol refueling station costs $25-50,000 while a hydrogen refueling station costs more than $400,000.

"On cost alone, an HEV transportation strategy, with cars that run on ethanol, is far superior to a hydrogen fuel cell strategy," said Morris, who noted that California already has a market for ethanol, unlike hydrogen. "California's consumption of ethanol has increased from virtually zero in 2000 to almost 700 million gallons in 2003, four times the ethanol consumed in Minnesota. Yet despite its lower consumption of ethanol, Minnesota has built 14 biorefineries -- the vast majority owned by local farmers -- while California has yet to develop an in-state ethanol industry.

"California is one of the centers of biotechnology development. Were it to begin developing biorefineries, it could use crop sugars not only to make fuels but to make substitutes for petroleum-derived textiles, plastics, chemicals and other products. A sugar economy would build on California's competitive strengths while bringing jobs and tax revenue to rural areas," he added.

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