Hydrogen Economy Long Way Off

WASHINGTON, DC, February 6, 2004 (ENS) - The dream of the hydrogen economy is worth pursuing but it will take many decades to make it a reality, a federal panel of experts said on Wednesday. Even under the best case scenario the hydrogen transition will do little to cut oil imports or greenhouse gas emissions during the next 25 years, the committee said, and the U.S. government should pursue strategies to enhance energy efficiency and develop alternative energy sources.

The report from the National Academies of Science, which was requested by the Energy Department, casts doubt on the timetable laid out by the Bush administration's $1.2 billion hydrogen plan.

The initiative has been touted by the White House as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce dependence on foreign oil - a key goal is to make it practical and cost effective for U.S. consumers to use clean, hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles by 2020.

That is unlikely, the committee said, given the wide array of technical, economic and infrastructure challenges. Hydrogen has long been touted as the next great energy revolution. It can be easily produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen - when used for power the only byproducts are water and heat.

But the committee says there is little existing capacity for hydrogen production, which remains expensive, and fuel cell technologies face challenges of storage, cost, reliability, and safety. ford

This Ford prototype advertises a major appeal of hydrogen fuel cells - zero emissions. (Photo courtesy Fuel Cells 2000)
The most significant hurdle will be the high cost and logistical complexity of hydrogen distribution to fueling stations, said committee chair Michael Ramage, a retired ExxonMobil executive vice president of research and engineering.

"We are facing a chicken and egg problem that will be difficult to overcome," Ramage said. "Who will invest in the manufacture of fuel cell vehicles if there is no widespread hydrogen supply? At the same time, who will invest in facilities to produce hydrogen if there are not enough fuel cell vehicles to create sufficient income for the hydrogen producers?"

There will continue to be little incentive for industry to make significant investments, the report found, until "the government creates a business environment that reflects societal priorities with respect to greenhouse gas emissions and oil imports."

The panel praised the intent of the federal hydrogen plan, but said the "extreme challenges set by senior government and Energy Department leaders" have created a "somewhat unfocused" program with unclear priorities. Bush

President George W. Bush eyed a fuel cell powered scooter at a demonstration last year. (Photo by Paul Morse courtesy White House)
It called for more research into the areas of distributed hydrogen production systems, hydrogen storage, and solar energy for hydrogen production. In addition, the report recommended additional study of renewable, emissions free energy as well as carbon capture and storage technologies.

The Energy Department needs to realize the transition will take a long time, the report said, and in the meantime should keep a "balanced portfolio of R&D efforts and continue to explore supply and demand alternatives that do not depend upon hydrogen."

The administration is keen to see natural gas, coal and nuclear power drive the hydrogen economy and the report agreed with the Bush position that the most cost-effective source of hydrogen for the long run is probably natural gas.

But the committee says this will not increase U.S. energy independence because natural gas imports are already on the rise.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the report "has validated the achievability of President Bush's vision that 'the first car driven by a child born today could be fueled by hydrogen and pollution free.'"

Abraham touted the administration's $228 million 2005 budget request for the hydrogen plan and said the department is already adopting many of its recommendations.

"We are probably ahead of where the Academy thinks we are in integrating our hydrogen work across [the department's] programs," Abraham added. nuclear

Environmentalists say nuclear power has no place in the hydrogen economy. (Photo courtesy Tennessee Emergency Management Agency)
But many environmentalists see the report as a clear rebuke of the Bush administration opposition to mandatory emissions reductions and to improved fuel economy standards. U.S. fuel economy in 2002 was the lowest since 1980.

Many believe the key to the environmental friendliness of the hydrogen economy is how the fuel is produced - and this is where critics say the Bush administration has got it all wrong.

The focus should be on using renewable, pollution free sources, rather than natural gas, coal and nuclear, environmentalists say, and in the meantime the nation should adopt conservation and efficiency measures to cut pollution now.

"We simply can not bank on hydrogen alone to cut our dependence on Middle East oil or fix the global warming problem," said committee member Dr. Antonia Herzog, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We need to make full use of the technologies already available to start saving oil and cutting emissions."

"Americans will buy 450 million new cars and trucks over the next 25 years," Herzog added. "Every one of them should be using the cleanest, most efficient technology possible."