Hydrogen Hopes
The New Energy Economy Takes The Slow Lane

2.18.04

After high hopes and dreams over the last five years, the hydrogen energy economy is undergoing a clear-eyed reassessment. The scenarios that envisioned hundreds of thousands of fuel-cell cars and trucks on the road by 2005 are fading, replaced with the realization that hydrogen-powered cars won't be on the road until at least the end of the decade.

You could say, almost paradoxically, that the Bush administration's unexpected $1.2 billion embrace of hydrogen as the energy source of the future was its death knell, at least for many environmentalists. As the sworn enemy of anything green, Bush had to be up to something. And he was.

The Bush vision has little to do with renewable energy and everything to do with diverting attention from his inaction on fuel-economy improvements for today's cars. It's also a convenient way to help his friends in the nuclear and coal industries, who would be tapped (and subsidized) to produce hydrogen as a byproduct.

So suspicion of Bush is one factor, but there's also increasing hard evidence that the fuel-cell dream will be deferred. The National Academies of Science reported last week that even in the best possible case, hydrogen will have little impact on greenhouse gas emissions or oil imports for the next 25 years. In the meantime, according to the report, the federal government should pursue energy conservation (dismissed by Dick Cheney as merely "a sign of personal virtue") and develop alternative sources of power.

The committee said that to make hydrogen work the government needs to create "a business environment that reflects societal priorities with respect to greenhouse gas emissions and oil imports." But this is the oil-soaked administration that made it a sign of personal virtue to kill the Kyoto Treaty.

Committee member Michael Ramage, a former ExxonMobil executive, described a "chicken and egg problem," with would-be fuel-cell carmakers put off the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure, and suppliers stymied by the absence of the car.

Caveats and cautions were also coming from the environmental community. Joseph Romm's book "The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate" will be published in March. A MacArthur-funded report by Patrick Mazza and Roel Hammerschlag looks closely at so-called renewable hydrogen, produced by solar and wind power. Their report concludes it would be more efficient to use renewably generated electricity directly in battery cars than to harness it to produce hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles.

Their assessment calls for a "second look" at battery cars, which were sidelined by range problems in the late 1990s without ever really leaving their chargers. Mere hundreds were leased, though General Motors EV-1 owners were mightily sad to see their cars hauled off to scrapyards.

Today's batteries are better, the authors report. John DeCicco, a mechanical engineer who analyzes the auto industry for Environmental Defense, says "showstoppers" for hydrogen include on-board hydrogen storage (the lack of practical high-density storage tanks); durability (fuel-cell reliability has not been demonstrated in the rough-and-tumble of the automotive environment); and catalyst costs (fuel cells use a lot of platinum, and prices will have to come down by a factor of 10 before a production-ready design is reached).

The challenge of building a nationwide fuel infrastructure for hydrogen is also daunting, though Governor Schwarzenegger's proposed hydrogen highway network in California is a good start.

Fuel-cell cars are not a pipe dream, but we need to look at what's road-ready right now. Hybrids are an excellent choice, and so are the Partial Zero-Emission Vehicles (PZEVs) that are on sale in five states. We can always turn to the anger-powered cars, fueled by road rage, described in a recent issue of The Onion. The average frustrated, gridlocked motorist produces "hundreds of kilowatt-hours of negative energy," said a fictitious GM engineer quoted in the satirical report.


The Deficit Highway
Budget Busters & Green Cars

It’s always interesting to watch Congress debate a highway bill. During recent lectures, I’ve waved around a page from the New York Times juxtaposing two stories. In the first, Senators were bemoaning cuts from the proposed transportation budget. They were being forced to make do with only $40 or $50 billion for the year. In the second, they were happily forcing through massive cuts to the Amtrak subsidy.

The sinkhole named Amtrak soaked up a budget-busting total of $13 billion from its debut in 1972 to 1997. “Why can’t Amtrak pay for itself?” the senators thunder. Well, why can’t roads pay for themselves? Worldwatch points out, “Few people realize that direct taxes on automobiles and gasoline barely cover two thirds of the cost of road building, maintenance, administration and safety.”

Why can’t airlines pay for themselves? Federal subsidies to the airline industry totaled $13 billion in 2002 (the same amount as the entire Amtrak cost, one notes). The current highway and mass-transit bill, already passed by the Senate, would cost $318 billion over six years. Congress wouldn’t even think of passing it in an election year were it not for the enormous highway construction contracts that land like fat golden goose eggs in lawmakers’ districts.

In a time of ballooning deficits, it seems hard to justify, but Senator Kit Bond (R-MO), a big supporter, says, “Transportation is critical to our economy and it is our way of life.” Our way of life? We love being stuck in traffic? Traffic congestion costs us $70 billion a year, not to mention the aggravation and road rage. When coupled with dramatically awful Bush administration proposals to abandon the current CAFE fuel economy rules in favor of a irresponsible weight-based system that both the Sierra Club and the United Auto Workers think is dangerous, it’s a recipe for ever-larger deficits, plus more gridlock and more air pollution.

Who’s the Greenest?

The latest edition of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s Green Book Online is available at www.GreenerCars.com

The ratings don’t change much from year to year. Once again, Honda’s natural gas-powered Civic GX is the greenest car, followed by the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius hybrids. The Toyota Echo also makes the top five. Several new hybrids are on their way from Lexus, Ford and Nissan, but they’re all SUVs and unlikely to make the highest green scores. The “meanest” car for the environment these days is the diesel edition of the Volkswagen Touareg SUV.

© Jim Motavalli - Wheels
Editor E magazine