Hydrogen or Biofuels?

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.


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

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


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

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