Hydrogen Potential Oversold, Says National Academies Study

The report says battery-powered cars or hybrid cars, which use gasoline and electric motors, could prove a better choice.

Published: 09-Feb-2004

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's plan for cars running on clean, efficient hydrogen fuel cells is decades away from commercial reality, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Academies.

Bush, promoting the technology a year ago, said a hydrogen car might be available as the first vehicle for a child born in 2003. On Monday, the Energy Department included $318 million for hydrogen technology and fuel cell cars in its proposed 2005 budget. "A hydrogen economy is where the world is headed," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said.
But the National Academy study called some of the Energy Department goals "unrealistically aggressive."
Fuel cells produce electricity by putting hydrogen through a chemical process rather than burning it. Some scientists think they show promise. They are clean and quiet, and because the hydrogen can be produced from solar or wind power, or other sources, oil imports and gas emissions that cause global warming could both be reduced.
But the methods of hydrogen production that are the least expensive all have drawbacks, including that they create pollution, experts say. Hydrogen is also hard to ship and store. And fuel cells are far more costly than power from a gasoline engine.
"Real revolutions have to occur before this is going to become a large-scale reality," said study co-author Antonia Herzog, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The report said battery-powered cars or hybrid cars, which use gasoline and electric motors, could prove a better choice. And over the next 25 years, the effects of hydrogen cars on oil imports and global warming gas emissions "are likely to be minor."
A second pessimistic assessment came from Joseph Romm, chief Energy Department official for conservation and alternative energy in the Clinton administration. "Fuel cell cars will not be environmentally desirable for decades, because there are better uses for the fuels you can make the hydrogen out of," he said. Most hydrogen is made from natural gas, and using that gas to make electricity instead, and thus replace coal-based electric plants, would be better for the environment, he said.

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