Romancing the Hydrogen Highway

The hydrogen highway is an expensive means to an unknown destination. Shouldn't we reconsider a few less costly -- and risky -- alternatives?

Published: 13-Jun-2005

We've been hearing a lot about the hydrogen economy lately, touted as the panacea for all our emission spewing, gasoline dependent ways. Fuel- cell cars, powered by hydrogen made from water with electricity from renewable energy, would emit only water vapor. The sin is in the omissions; so much is left unsaid. What renewable energy? What water? What car?

The California Legislature is considering budgeting $54 million to implement the California Hydrogen Highway Blueprint. This plan proposes to solve the chicken-and-egg problem of which comes first, the car or the infrastructure? Build the fueling stations and fuel-cell cars will come, say the proponents of what could eventually be a $600 billion infrastructure, according to Joseph Romm, who oversaw research into the hydrogen economy during the Clinton administration and wrote"The Hype About Hydrogen" (Island Press, 2004).

It is our tax money that will foot the bill for the fueling stations, yet nobody seems to know what kind of chicken is coming down the road. It could well be an expensive turkey. As described in Romm's book, to accommodate hydrogen on board a vehicle and give it more than a 100-mile range, the tank must hold 4 times the volume of conventional gasoline tanks. Hydrogen tanks are very heavy, cost 100 times more and must be sausage-shaped for strength.

More intense technological hurdles plague fuel-cell development. Those details are not projected to be worked for another 15 to 20 years, so let's look at hydrogen production. The blueprint suggests that hydrogen be synthesized from water, using electrolysis, which consumes huge amounts of electricity. Romm points out that "All the electricity sold in the United States today would be needed to replace all our gasoline with hydrogen."

He goes on to say that the process of making hydrogen from our existing electric grid would spew more emissions into the air than gasoline does now. Not to mention that energy is needed to keep hydrogen under pressure, to liquefy it and to transport it. One tanker truck carrying 1,000 gallons of gasoline can fuel 800 cars. Because hydrogen is so much less dense, an equivalent-sized tanker of hydrogen can only fuel 80 cars. This means more trucks, most likely diesel trucks, on the hydrogen highway.

Hydrogen made from natural gas, as it commonly now is, creates a byproduct -- carbon dioxide, the element that causes global warming. This carbon dioxide is being vented to the atmosphere. But, say the hydrogen proponents, it can be sequestered (locked up and put away). Carbon dioxide is not sequestered now because it is very costly to do so and there is, as yet, no benefit to doing so, particularly because the United States rejected the Kyoto Accord, which would have required us to limit our emissions of global- warming gases.

The California Fuel Cell Partnership exists to promote the fuel-cell car and the hydrogen infrastructure needed to bring it to consumers. Its 30-odd members include most major automakers, oil companies and some government agencies. At present, most major automakers are suing California to roll back our new global carbon-dioxide emission-reduction regulations; most oil companies own natural-gas concessions; and it's not entirely clear whose side our government is on. But given the underlying interests of many members of California Fuel Cell Partnership, it would be fair to question whether this body is truly interested in cutting global emissions or if the hydrogen highway is a smokescreen to delay the use of existing technology.

There is a better way -- using existing technology.

For instance, Austin, Texas, has an energy grid that boasts 6 percent renewable wind power. The city's power company, Austin Electric, is offering rebates to drivers committed to buying the first gas-optional, plug-in hybrid, a much more sensible solution that doesn't require new infrastructure. Why can't California's electric utilities follow suit?

Automakers should also equip hybrids with an extra battery pack that plugs into the existing outlets in our own garages. This would stretch efficiency to 100 miles per gallon of gasoline while cutting overall emissions. Flexible fuel technology using cellulosic ethanol (made from plant wastes), coupled with the battery pack, brings the potential mpg to 500.

Finally, promote electric cars: All electric cars with lithium batteries now have a 300-mile range and use no gas.

The hydrogen highway is an expensive means to an unknown destination. Shouldn't we reconsider a few less costly -- and risky -- alternatives?

Amanda Kovattana is a member of the San Francisco Electric Vehicle Association and author of the blog funnyyellowcar.blogspot.com/. She can be reached at akovattana@yahoo.com.

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