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Is There Hope for Hydrogen?

by Joan Ogden, Daniel Sperling, And Anthony Eggert
October 11, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 41

THE HYPE ABOUT HYDROGEN: Fact and Fiction in the Race To Save the Climate, by Joseph J. Romm, Island Press, 2004, 240 pages, $25 (hardback) (ISBN 1-55963-703-X)

Doomsayers predict imminent oil shortages, cataclysmic climate change, and never-ending wars in the Middle East. We hope they are proven wrong. What is true, though, is that no major oil discovery has been made in decades, greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase worldwide, and the Middle East is still in turmoil.

Now, President George W. Bush, European Union President Romano Prodi, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and many heads of car and oil companies laud hydrogen as the key to a sustainable energy future. In its favor, hydrogen is a triple-threat strategy: It has the potential to replace oil and eliminate air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Is hydrogen different from previously hailed alternative fuels? Or is it just another fanciful proposal destined for the trash can of history?

While famously envisioned long ago by French novelist Jules Verne as the fuel of the future, it wasn't until the Canadian company Ballard Power Systems demonstrated the viability of fuel cells in a bus in 1993 that hydrogen emerged as a credible option. It is widely accepted that fuel cells are the linchpin for the hydrogen economy. Fuel cells efficiently convert hydrogen into electricity. They make it possible to build an attractive electric vehicle. They make hydrogen much more compelling.

Now comes a book popping this euphoric balloon. At first glance, this couldn't be more surprising, as it comes from Joseph Romm, a Clinton Administration senior energy official known for his green credentials.

Romm's new book, "The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race To Save the Climate," is a thought-provoking addition to the current debate about the potential role of hydrogen in the future energy system. Written for an educated nonspecialist audience, the book gives an insider's view of the difficulties of implementing new energy technologies. Romm presents cautionary lessons for hydrogen and fuel cells and sounds an alarm about the potential for getting duped by "hydrogen hype."

Why would an avowed environmentalist choose to assail hydrogen, when even many of the largest oil and car companies express considerable enthusiasm? Romm's core concern is that a major effort to introduce hydrogen cars before 2030 would actually undermine efforts to reduce emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as CO2.

Credit: EPA Photo/Tyler Mallory
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (center) announced a plan on Sept. 8 for his state to lease its first fuel-cell vehicle, a GM minivan.
MRD01-ANNAPOLIS-(EEUU)-08/09/04-El Gobernador de Maryland Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., (centro) anuncia sus planes de rentar el primer vehÌculo de energÌa elÈctrica a la compaÒÌa General Motors, durante una conferencia de prensa hoy, miÈrcoles, 8 de septiembre en la casa de Gobierno de Maryland. EFE//Tyler Mallory
Credit: EPA Photo/Tyler Mallory
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (center) announced a plan on Sept. 8 for his state to lease its first fuel-cell vehicle, a GM minivan.

His major points are the following:

  • • Hydrogen is not a quick fix for our energy, pollution, and global- warming woes, and it will take several decades for hydrogen to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a globally significant way.

  • • Greenhouse gas emissions are more easily and quickly reduced in the near term by tightened fuel economy standards, greater use of hybrid vehicles, and a variety of stationary power options.

  • • Large technical and economic barriers confront automotive fuel cells and hydrogen infrastructure.

  • Hydrogen makes sense as a climate-friendly fuel only when it is produced from low- or zero-carbon energy sources, such as renewable fuels or fossil fuels with carbon sequestration.

Most energy analysts and researchers in the hydrogen and fuel-cell communities would agree with these four points, including ourselves, though we question Romm's overarching premise that hydrogen would undermine other efforts. We also note that substantial reductions in carbon emissions can be achieved in the interim with hydrogen made from natural gas. A recent National Academies study on hydrogen along with various Department of Energy planning documents also concur on these four points. So it is widely accepted that hydrogen is unlikely to make major inroads in the near future.

But there is more to this tale that is not told in the book. One issue is that Romm's seemingly antithetical position has more to do with Washington politics than with hydrogen. Environmental advocates fear they are being manipulated. They recall the Clinton Administration's use of the government-industry Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles to deflect attention away from more stringent fuel economy standards. They worry that this is déjà vu, their distrust exacerbated by a general hostility to the Bush Administration's environmental policies.

They fear that the promise of hydrogen is being used to camouflage eviscerated and stalled regulations, and that it will crowd out R&D for promising near-term energy efficiency and renewable opportunities. What the Administration and others portray as a progressive, long-term strategy, some see as bait-and-switch. Romm gives voice to a building backlash against this perceived tactic.

But we wonder about the merit of this backlash. If hydrogen were not on the policy table, would government leaders pursue more aggressive fuel economy standards and larger investments in renewable energy? We remain skeptical. Even if the bait-and-switch scenario were true in Washington, would it also be true in California and Europe?

And what about the larger question of the size of the public R&D energy pie--if energy efficiency and climate change are compelling issues, then shouldn't the debate really be over the size of the energy R&D budget? Romm is concerned that scarce R&D dollars are going to hydrogen, diverted from other, nearer term technologies (that is, energy efficiency and renewable electricity) that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions sooner. But we note that total energy R&D in the U.S., both public and private, is only one-third of its peak in the early 1980s. U.S. government energy R&D has declined even more, and remains a tiny fraction of overall federal R&D spending. We believe that the entire area of energy R&D is greatly underfunded, given the seriousness of the problem. So rather than fighting over a small pie, shouldn't we be calling attention to the need for an increase all around?

Politics aside, though, the book is a useful overview of the merits and obstacles to hydrogen and energy policy. The book's strongest sections discuss the challenges of changing the energy system in the real world, and why the change is so urgent. Interwoven with Romm's reflections is a critique of hydrogen's potential in the near future to improve energy security, air pollution, and global climate change.

The book is not, however, a dispassionate, factual analysis of what the author asserts is a field awash in hype. It contains its own exaggerations and omissions. For example, to bolster a point about the near-term potential of advanced gasoline automobiles, Romm states that gasoline hybrids are approximately as energy efficient as hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Yet careful simulation studies by Argonne National Laboratory, General Motors, Ford Motor Co., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and others suggest that gasoline hybrids would have no more than 1.3 to 1.5 times the fuel economy of a comparable gasoline internal combustion engine car, and that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles would have 2 to 2.5 times the fuel economy. Diesel hybrids would reduce the gap somewhat. Additionally, recent announcements by Honda about their fuel-cell vehicle efficiency improvements--more than 20% over previous versions--suggest we are just beginning to see the potential of fuel cells.

Romm's estimates of hydrogen costs are also biased. He consistently relies on sources that tend to the high side of the cost range in the literature, and often cites only the highest cost case in referenced studies. Some of his hydrogen costs are roughly twice those in the recent National Academies study of hydrogen. Too often, he cites controversial research that has not been peer reviewed, ignores well-known studies that do not support his conclusions, or gives incomplete citations that leave the reader wondering about the source.

Although some evidence and arguments are tainted, Romm nonetheless articulately and thoughtfully examines the technology and transition issues associated with hydrogen. It's almost as if he set out to write a fair-minded assessment of hydrogen, but gradually found the allure of controversy more compelling. Indeed, he begins the concluding chapter with the statement, "Enabling the shift to a hydrogen economy may be one of the central tasks of the United States as we cope with the twenty-first century's major energy and environmental problems, especially global warming." But then he ignores this premise, embracing the more controversial theme of hydrogen hype.

We wish he had harnessed his considerable talents and passion for saving the climate to write a more constructive book. He identifies many near- and mid-term opportunities for reducing carbon emissions, but stops short of suggesting how we might proceed. What policies might encourage near-term opportunities while also inducing industry to invest in promising long-term technologies?

This book is a useful overview of hydrogen and energy challenges. But with less hyperbole, it could have been more effective at achieving Romm's larger goal of awakening the public to the threat of climate change.

Joan Ogden, Daniel Sperling, and Anthony Eggert direct the Hydrogen Pathways research program at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. Ogden is the academic member of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Hydrogen Blueprint Advisory Panel, and Sperling is coeditor of "The Hydrogen Energy Transition" (Elsevier, 2004) and served on the 2004 National Academies committee to study hydrogen.


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