Two experts go head-to-head on the future of energy
In our January-February 2004 issue, we reprinted from Alternet an essay by local-economy advocate David Morris, vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in which he takes aim at the advocates of a hydrogen-based economy, asserting, among other things, that because large energy interests are poised to dominate the process of generating hydrogen from substances like gas, oil, and coal, the push to hydrogen will actually be a setback for renewable energy from wind power, biomass, and other sources. Energy analyst Amory B. Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, and a prominent advocate of hydrogen fuel cell technology, responds.
FROM AMORY LOVINS
In voicing skepticism about the role of hydrogen in our energy future, my valued friend David Morris makes several points:
He is understandably frustrated that hydrogen will initially be made mainly from natural gas, as 96 percent of U.S. hydrogen is now. But he wrongly thinks this will waste energy and increase carbon dioxide emissions. Because fuel cells are two to three times more efficient than gasoline engines, CO2 per mile will actually drop by 40 to 67 percent compared with today's gasoline cars -- and much more with efficient car designs.
He's irritated that nuclear advocates claim they'll be the hydrogen producers. But they won't be -- their option costs far too much.
He's worried that hydrogen might come from coal. This is a real possibility later, but by then we will have good ways to keep the carbon out of the air.
Because General Motors likes fuel cells, he assumes that car and oil companies are preparing for an oil-based hydrogen future. Generally, they're not.
He thinks hydrogen will be too costly to distribute. Wrong -- the Swiss study he cites [which claimed that the compacting of this very light and diffuse element for storage and transport is too costly and energy-intensive] considered only the clearly uneconomic options and ignored hydrogen's advantage of more efficient use.
He thinks a hydrogen transition will need 'hundreds of billions of dollars' of new infrastructure. This is a vast overestimate.
He doesn't recognize hydrogen's important potential to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy.
Many environmentalists suspect the Bush administration's enthusiasm for hydrogen serves mainly to distract attention from the short-term energy steps they're unwilling to take. It's impossible to tell from the outside whether that's true or not, but if it is, this self-inflicted wound is not a reason to reject a sound hydrogen transition as a complementary part of a broader energy strategy starting with aggressive efficiency, renewable energy, and distributed resources.
Many other good and usually well-informed people have written similar critiques of hydrogen. A well-documented response, 'Twenty Hydrogen Myths,' is free at www.rmi.org
FROM DAVID MORRIS
My esteemed colleague Amory Lovins and I agree and disagree. We both focus on the transportation sector. We both favor a dramatic improvement in vehicle efficiency and the replacement of gasoline with a domestically produced, environmentally benign fuel.
We disagree on how to achieve these objectives. Amory advocates fuel cell vehicles that run on hydrogen. I propose hybrid electric vehicles fueled by electricity and biofuels like ethanol.
I believe my strategy is far cheaper and far quicker to implement than Amory's. Hybrid vehicles, which use electric motors as well as an engine for power, are commercially available. They already achieve fuel efficiencies as great as those promised by fuel cell cars. With modest modifications, hybrids can be made to plug into the electric grid to charge their batteries. That allows electricity to become their primary fuel and reduces by some 85 percent the amount of fuel needed by the engine.
In turn, this allows us to think of biofuels like ethanol as replacements for gasoline rather than, as now, simply additives to it. Unlike hydrogen, ethanol is already widely available. Ethanol is half the price of hydrogen today and may have a still lower price a decade from now. Cars that operate on either ethanol or gasoline -- or any combination of the two -- can be made at an additional cost of $150 per vehicle. More than 4 million are on the road right now. The most optimistic estimate of the additional cost for a fuel cell car in 2015 is $10,000; most estimates are considerably higher. Ethanol refueling stations cost 90 percent less than hydrogen refueling stations.
Hydrogen advocates should be applauded for proposing a solution commensurate with the problem. But a better strategy exists. Much more detail can be found in my recent report 'A Better Way to Get from Here to There,' which can be found at www.newrules.org