Aggressive pursuit of a hydrogen economy, as has been recently advocated by many environmentalists, is wrongheaded and shortsighted.
To understand why, we need to start with the basics. Hydrogen must be extracted from other materials before it can be of use as fuel. A wide variety of materials contain hydrogen, which is one reason it has attracted widespread support. Everyone has a dog in this fight.
Renewable energy is a very little dog. Environmentalists envision an energy economy in which hydrogen comes from electrolyzing water, a process that frees the hydrogen in water from its bond with oxygen. The energy used to accomplish this would come from wind. Big dogs like the nuclear industry also foresee a water-based hydrogen economy, but with nuclear energy as the power source that electrolyzes water. The trade journal Nucleonics Week boasts that nuclear power 'is the only way to produce hydrogen on a large scale without contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.'
The fossil fuel industry believes that hydrocarbons will provide most of our future hydrogen. They already have a significant head start. Almost half of the world's commercial hydrogen now comes from natural gas. Another 20 percent is derived from coal.
The automobile and oil companies are betting that petroleum will be the hydrogen source of the future. It was General Motors, after all, that coined the phrase 'the hydrogen economy.'
What does all this mean? A hydrogen economy will not be a renewable energy economy. For the next 20 to 50 years, an overwhelming percentage of our hydrogen will be derived from fossil fuels or with nuclear energy.
Consider that it has taken more than 30 years for the renewable energy industry to capture 1 percent of the transportation fuel market (ethanol) and 2 percent of the electricity market (wind, solar, biomass). Renewables are poised to rapidly expand their presence. A hydrogen economy would be a potentially debilitating diversion: The more aggressively we pursue hydrogen, the less aggressively we will pursue more beneficial technologies.
To be successful, a hydrogen initiative will require the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars to build an entirely new energy infrastructure (pipelines, fueling stations, automobile engines). Much of this will come from public money. Little of this expenditure will directly benefit renewable energy initiatives. Indeed, it is likely that renewable energy will claim about the same share of the hydrogen market in 2040 as it now has of the transportation and electricity markets.
Not only will a hydrogen economy do little to expand renewable energy, it will increase pollution. Making hydrogen takes energy. Instead of using a fuel to provide electricity, mechanical power, or heat directly, we're using it to make hydrogen, which is then used to make electricity.
We can, for example, generate electricity in highly efficient, small-scale power plants fueled by natural gas and use the electricity to run our cars and homes. Consuming natural gas to convert natural gas into hydrogen and then hydrogen into electricity lowers overall energy efficiency and increases the amount of greenhouse gases emitted.
There is another energy-related problem with hydrogen. It is the lightest element, about eight times lighter than methane. Compacting it for storage or transport is expensive and energy intensive -- so much so that a recent Swiss study concluded that hydrogen's 'physical properties are incompatible with the requirements of the energy market.'
The most compelling rationale for making hydrogen is that it is a way to store energy that could help boost renewable energy sources like wind and sunlight, whose production is limited by natural conditions. But batteries and flywheels can store electricity directly. We should acknowledge the rapid advances made in electric storage technologies in the past few years and work to develop them further.
For transportation, maximizing the introduction of high-efficiency, largely battery-driven hybrid cars while increasing the percentage of biofuels used in their engines is a strategy superior to aggressively building a hydrogen production and delivery infrastructure.
We need to get beyond the glib 'we can run our cars on water' news bites and soberly assess the value of a massive national effort to convert to a hydrogen economy versus other shorter term strategies. When we do so, we will conclude that the hydrogen economy has serious shortcomings.
David Morris is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. (For another view on the subject see 'The Hydrogen Age'($$) from Utne magazine's Sept/Oct 2002 issue, page 62.) Reprinted from AlterNet (Feb. 24, 2003) www.alternet.org. For ILSR's in-depth evaluation of hydrogen and its alternatives, A Better Way, go to www.newrules.org