A Lot of Hot Air?

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

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