A Hydrogen Economy Is a Bad Idea

Mike Friedman mikedf at amnh.org
Wed Feb 26 09:10:15 MST 2003

A Hydrogen Economy Is a Bad Idea

David Morris, AlterNet
February 24, 2003

When George Bush proposed a $1.7 billion program to promote
hydrogen-fueled cars in the State of the Union Address, both sides of
the aisle applauded. Almost everyone supports a hydrogen economy --
conservatives and liberals, tree huggers and oil drillers. Such
unanimity forecloses serious discussion. That's unfortunate. An
aggressive pursuit of a hydrogen economy is wrongheaded and

To understand why, we need to start with the basics. Hydrogen is the
most abundant element on the planet. But it cannot be harvested
directly. It must be extracted from another material. There is an
upside to this and a downside. The upside is that a wide variety of
materials contain hydrogen, which is one reason it has attracted such
widespread support. Everyone has a dog in this fight.

Renewable energy is a very little dog. Environmentalists envision an
energy economy where hydrogen comes from water, and the energy used
to accomplish this comes from wind. Big dogs like the nuclear
industry also foresee a water-based hydrogen economy, but with
nuclear as the power source that electrolyzes water. Nucleonics Week
boasts that nuclear power "is the only way to produce hydrogen on a
large scale without contributing to greenhouse gas emissions."

For the fossil fuel industry, not surprisingly, hydrocarbons will
provide most of our future hydrogen. They already have a significant
head start. Almost 50 percent 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 20-50 years hydrogen will overwhelmingly
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

As the President's 2004 budget demonstrates, any new money for
hydrogen will be taken largely from budgets for energy efficiency and
renewable energy. From a federal point of view, then, the more
aggressively we pursue hydrogen, the less aggressively we 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 renewables. Indeed, it is likely that renewable
energy will have about the same share of the hydrogen market in 2040
as it now has of the transportation and electricity markets.

Far better to spend the billions the President wants to spend on
hydrogen to increase renewable energy's share of the energy market
from 1-2 percent to 25, 35, or even 50 percent in the same time frame.

Not only will a hydrogen economy do little to expand renewable
energy, it will increase pollution. Making hydrogen takes energy. We
are using a fuel that could be used directly to provide electricity
or mechnical power or heat to instead make hydrogen, which is then
used to make electricity. Back in 1993 William Hoagland, senior
project coordinator at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's
hydrogen program, prophetically told Time Magazine, "I can't see why
anyone would invest in additional equipment to make hydrogen rather
than simply putting the electricity on the grid."

We can, for example, run vehicles on natural gas or generate
electricity using natural gas right now. Converting natural gas into
hydrogen and then hydrogen into electricity 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. A
recent study by two Swiss engineers concludes, "We have to accept
that [hydrogen's] ... physical properties are incompatible with the
requirements of the energy market. Production, packaging, storage,
transfer and delivery of the gas ... are so energy consuming that
alternatives should be considered."

The most compelling rationale for making hydrogen is that it is a way
to store energy. That could benefit renewable energy sources like
wind and sunlight that can't generate energy on demand. But batteries
and flywheels can store electricity directly. The all-electric
vehicle has not yet found a commercial market, but we should
acknowledge the rapid advances made in electric storage technologies
in the last few years.

Many people see the new hybrid vehicles as a bridge to a new type of
transportation system. I agree, but with a different twist. Toyota
and Honda are selling tens of thousands of cars that have small gas
engines and batteries. American automobile companies will soon join
them. Toyota and Honda and others are looking in the future to
substitute a hydrogen fuel cell for the gasoline engine. That work
should continue, but policymakers should also develop incentives and
regulations that channel engineering ingenuity into improving the
electric storage side of the hybrid system.

Currently, a Toyota Prius may get 5 percent of its overall energy
from its batteries and could only go a mile or so as a zero emission
vehicle. A second generation Prius might get 10 percent of its energy
from batteries and might have a range of 2-3 miles. Why not encourage
Toyota and Honda and others to increase the proportion of the energy
they use from the batteries?

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. When we do so, I believe, we will
conclude that the hydrogen economy has serious, perhaps fatal
Michael Friedman
Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior
City University of New York

Molecular Laboratory
Department of Invertebrate Zoology
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY  10024
(212) 313-7646

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