Time fo Focus on the Present, Not the Hydrogen Future

Oped by Dr. David Suzuki, founder of the Canadian foundation that bears his name.

Published: 27-Aug-2004

As summer slides towards fall, fuel-cell manufacturers and automakers are out on the streets of major cities around the world, showing off million-dollar prototypes of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

The cars are technological marvels. They're cool. They're futuristic. And they're virtually useless - for now.

As much as "gee whiz" stories abound about new hydrogen fuel-cell technologies, one can't help but wonder if we aren't getting a tad ahead of ourselves. While it's great to have these vehicles to show off, it would be much better if we had a way to produce hydrogen in sufficient quantities cleanly. Or had a way to store the stuff. Or an infrastructure to move it around. Or any number of a host of other major hurdles we need to jump before we are able to reach the vaunted goal of a "hydrogen economy."

It would indeed be an incredible achievement. The problem with today's "carbon" economy is that it depends almost entirely on fossil fuels for energy. These fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas, are nonrenewable resources. There's a finite amount of them on the planet, and the most easily reached oil and gas reserves have already been exploited. It's getting more difficult and expensive to find remaining reserves.

In addition, burning these fuels (as well as extracting and transporting them) releases greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the atmosphere. We all know the results: air pollution and climate change to name just two.

Hydrogen, on the other hand, is the most plentiful element in the universe. It's capable of producing more energy per unit than any other fuel. And releasing that energy from hydrogen creates zero pollution. No nasty smog-forming chemicals. No heat-trapping gases. It's almost too good to be true.

Unfortunately, right now it is. The technical hurdles necessary to push fuel-cell vehicles into mass-production are daunting. Even more important, if these challenges were met tomorrow, there is currently no way to produce massive quantities of hydrogen cleanly.

Hydrogen has to be removed from water through electrolysis or from natural gas through reformation. Both methods currently require substantial amounts of fossil-fuel energy, which releases pollution and causes climate change. In short, the benefits of a hydrogen economy will be lost if we have to use fossil fuels to produce the stuff.

For a hydrogen economy to function as we want, it will require a massive transformation of our current energy system to become more efficient and to focus on renewable sources like wind, solar, micro-hydro, geothermal, and tidal power.

Only when we have large quantities of clean electricity available will it make sense to start producing hydrogen for vehicles. This shift to renewable energy will take decades, giving researchers plenty of time to overcome hydrogen fuel-cell hurdles. In the meantime, our air will get cleaner and our climate will start to stabilize.

So why aren't we doing it? Unlike hydrogen fuel cells, the technology for this transformation exists today. It is not a technical problem but a political one. Two researchers from Princeton University point this out in a recent edition of Science, arguing, "Humanity can solve the carbon and climate problem in the first half of this century simply by scaling up what we already know how to do."

In other words, we can shift to a clean economy before we perfect hydrogen fuel cells. In fact, taking major steps to a clean economy now are a necessary condition to having a hydrogen economy in the future. So let's just do it. Delaying action will only make the challenge more difficult.

As a recent Science editorial points out, "Postponing action on emission reduction is like refusing to take medication for a developing infection. It guarantees that greater costs will have to be paid later."

A hydrogen economy may well be our future, but right now we need to focus on the present. The technology to start the shift to a clean economy exists right now. There's nothing futuristic about it.

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