FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Summer 2004
Volume 57, Number 3
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Front Page
FAS Plans Learning Game to Train First Responders
Diesel Hybrids: Back to the Future?
The Hype About Hydrogen
Congress Cools on New Nukes
Senate Committee Forgoes Action on Crucial Small Arms Treaty
Space Assets Can Be Protected Without Space Weapons
Secrecy Project and the Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal
Kelly Calls for Private Sector Investment in IT Learning R&D

The Hype About Hydrogen

by Joseph J. Romm

Hydrogen cars are being hyped today as few technologies have ever been. In his January 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush announced a $1.2 billion research initiative, “so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.” Since then, the U.S. Department of Energy has made hydrogen and fuel cells the central focus of its transportation R&D funding. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said California will build a "hydrogen highway" of 200 fueling stations up and down the state.

Yet, for all this effort, hydrogen cars are very unlikely to actually be good for the environment through at least 2035, and they may well increase pollution. Also, absent multiple major scientific breakthroughs, hydrogen cars will remain inferior to the best clean cars available today, gasoline-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, in cost, range, annual fueling bill, convenience, and safety.

Don't get me wrong. I am a strong proponent of keeping the hydrogen option open. I helped oversee the Department of Energy’s program for clean energy and alternative fuels, including hydrogen, for much of the 1990s—during which time we increased funding for hydrogen technologies tenfold. I believe continued research into hydrogen remains important because it is one of several fuels that might plausibly provide a pollution-free substitute for oil post-2035.

But going beyond R&D at this point to actually build regional or national hydrogen infrastructure and to deploy hydrogen cars is both unjustified and unwise. Let’s see why.

First, hydrogen cars make sense only as a long-term strategy, as most independent studies have shown. Even two well-known California hydrogen advocates, Joan Ogden and Dan Sperling of U.C. Davis, acknowledge in a new article: “Hydrogen is neither the easiest nor the cheapest way to gain large near- and medium-term air pollution, greenhouse gas, or oil reduction benefits.” In that sense, focusing on hydrogen is a misdirection of resources away from strategies that can achieve greater environmental and energy benefits, at less cost, in the next few decades.

Hydrogen cars can actually be more polluting than the gasoline cars they replace. Hydrogen is not a primary fuel, like oil, which we can drill for. It’s bound tightly in molecules of water, or in hydrocarbons like natural gas. Much energy must be used to unbind it. Making that energy causes pollution.

Two Bad Bait-and-Switch Moves

Officialdom must avoid two bait-and-switch moves whereby they promise cleaner vehicles but deliver dirtier ones.

The first dangles the hope of an affordable fuel cell vehicle — supposedly using a combustion-free process that might have higher efficiency than internal combustion engines, plus zero tailpipe emissions—but then subsidize inefficient, polluting hydrogen-burning cars. California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) is doing this; it is spending millions to turn clean, efficient gasoline-burning hybrid cars into dirty, inefficient hydrogen-burning hybrids.

The other bait-and-switch move is when politicians talk up hydrogen from clean sources of energy, like solar and wind, but then subsidize polluting hydrogen filling stations. Note: Renewable hydrogen generated at a fueling station is likely to cost more than $10 per gallon of gasoline equivalent. Delivering renewable hydrogen to a fueling station might cost less; but, note again: Virtually all hydrogen deliveries today are by diesel truck; when the added diesel emissions are factored in, they cancel out most of the air quality benefits of hydrogen.

The vast majority of hydrogen fueling stations built through 2035 are unlikely to be green. Today approximately 95 per cent of hydrogen in the United States is made from natural gas, a fossil fuel. Making large quantities of hydrogen from natural gas is so impractical that a National Academy of Sciences panel concluded last March that it “is highly likely that fossil fuels will be the principal sources of hydrogen for several decades.”

So why don’t we use renewables such as solar and wind as our main future source of hydrogen? Even if the costs of renewables dropped sharply, it is bad policy to rely on them to make hydrogen for the transportation sector. We would achieve far greater reduction in pollution by using renewables to displace coal or natural gas power plants. By using renewables for power generation directly, we achieve benefits without massive new investment in hydrogen infrastructure. A 2004 analysis by Jae Edmonds et al. of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory concluded that even “in the advanced technology case with a carbon constraint …hydrogen doesn’t penetrate the transportation sector in a major way until after 2035.”

H2 for the Fleet?

Hydrogen cars are probably technological dead-ends, like Betamax or gas turbine cars, absent at least two major scientific breakthroughs. Amajor review of research, chaired by MIT’s Mildred Dresselhaus, for DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences program, noted that the cost of transportation fuel cells is currently 100 times that of internal combustion engines.

As for DOE’s research on high-pressure tanks and cryogenic liquid storage, the National Academy panel which reported last March concluded: “The DOE should halt efforts on [these]…. They have little promise of long-term practicality for light-duty vehicles.” The same month a report by the American Physical Society said “a new material must be discovered” to make onboard hydrogen storage practical.

Generally, the gap between current hydrogen production, storage, and fuel cell technology and what is needed for hydrogen vehicles to be competitive “cannot be bridged by incremental advances of the present state of the art. Bridging the gap requires not only creative engineering, but also revolutionary conceptual breakthroughs,” concluded the Dresselhaus panel reviewing DOE research.

An analysis in the May 2004 issue of Scientific American stated, “Fuel-cell cars, in contrast [to hybrids], are expected on about the same schedule as NASA’s manned trip to Mars and have about the same level of likelihood.” So we will have a long time to wait before hydrogen cars are practical or before we deploy significant infrastructure.

Finally, questions of public safety must be addressed. Russell Moy, a chemical engineer who oversaw hydrogen storage and refueling facilities at Ford Motors, wrote last November, “it is difficult to imagine how hydrogen risks can be managed acceptably by the general public when wide-scale deployment of the safety precautions would be costly and public compliance impossible to ensure.”

Hybrids and Plug-ins

We must keep exploring other alternatives to gasoline for the period after 2035. These include advanced hybrids, biofuels, and clean diesels running on zero-carbon fuel. Government programs have helped introduce ultra lowemission hybrid vehicles, like the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape. Hybrids are almost certainly the platform from which all future clean vehicles will evolve. For instance, if fuel cells ever prove practical, they will be inserted into hybrids.

As battery technology continues to improve, we will see hybrids that can be plugged into the electric grid, allowing the car to run as a pure “zero emission vehicle” in cities. Since most vehicle use is for relatively short trips, such as commuting, which are followed by an extended period of time during which the vehicle is not being driven and could be charged, even a relatively modest all-electric range of 20 or 30 miles could allow these vehicles to replace a substantial portion of gasoline consumption and tailpipe emissions.

The potential greenhouse gas benefits of plug-ins are significant, if a source of zero-carbon electricity can be utilized for recharging. Plug-ins have an enormous advantage over hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in utilizing zero-carbon electricity. That is because of the inherent inefficiency of generating hydrogen from electricity, transporting hydrogen, storing it on board the vehicle, and then running it through the fuel cell. The total well-to-wheels efficiency with which a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle might utilize renewable electricity is roughly 20 per cent .(That number could rise to 30 per cent or possibly a little higher with the multiple technology breakthroughs required for a U.S. hydrogen economy.) The well-to-wheels efficiency of charging an onboard battery and then discharging it to run an electric motor in a plug-in, however, is 80 per cent (and could be more efficient in the future)—four times more efficient than current hydrogen fuel cell vehicle pathways.

As Dr. Alec Brooks, who led the development of the Impact electric vehicle has shown: “Fuel cell vehicles that operate on hydrogen made with electrolysis consume four times as much electricity per mile as similarly-sized battery electric vehicles.”

Hydrogen and Climate Change

A central focus of our energy and transportation policy must be global warming. And that means addressing emissions from coal and natural gas power plants. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that in the electricity sector “112 gigawatts of new coal-fired generating capacity will be constructed between 2003 in 2025” in part because rising natural gas prices improve the cost competitiveness of coal-fired technologies.

At the same time, utilization of existing coal plants is projected to rise, so that by 2025, U.S. coal consumption by electric generators will be 50 per cent higher than today.

These EIA projections underscore the need for increasing production of power from other sources, rather than increasing coal use for making alternative fuels such as hydrogen, for at least the next two decades.

Domestic policy must consider the global implications. The EIA projects that more of this country’s growing demand for natural gas will be met from imported liquefied natural gas, rather than increased domestic in production. Thus, we should start thinking of natural gas as a global resource, when we contemplate using it for purposes other than displacing coal. A basic reason is that projected growth in worldwide coal consumption poses an even bigger greenhouse gas problem than projected U.S. growth in coal use. The International Energy Agency projects that coal generation will double between 2000 and 2030. Over their lifetimes, new coal plants will raise global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions by some 500 billion metric tons, an amount roughly half again the total emissions of all fossil fuel plants during the past 250 years. Thus, added coal plants would dramatically increase the chances of catastrophic climate change.

Our optimum climate strategy through 2030 is straightforward. In transportation, push hard for efficiency, especially hybrid vehicles. In other end-use sectors like buildings and industry, we should also push hard for efficiency. In the power sector, we must aggressively pursue low-carbon sources, especially renewables. Until the electric grid is virtually carbon-free, we should not divert substantial amounts of natural gas or renewables to make hydrogen for vehicles.

At this point, hydrogen is the most technically challenging of all alternative fuels and the least likely to be cost-effective as a climate change solution. Other strategies deserve at least as much attention and funding.

Joseph J. Romm is former Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy and author of “The Hype about Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate.” Island Press, 2004. He is at the Global Energy Technology Foundation.