Hydrogen Blast: The fuel of the future… and it always will be

Even as the Obama Administration pulls the plug on funding research for hydrogen-powered cars of the (sadly distant) future in favor of pushing the plug-in hybrid electric cars of today, it seems California remains wedded to its quixotic — and  very expensive — commitment to build a “hydrogen highway.”

In Washington, Energy Secretary Steven Chu broke the news a few days ago: a $100 million research subsidy for hydrogen fuel cell cars is being cut from next year’s budget, although support will continue for heavier stationary fuel cells that, once perfected, could store solar and other renewable power for use at night.

The reason for killing this Bush Administration program championed by the oil and car industry, which appears to have stymied rather than advanced the cause of clean cars for the masses, was the simple realization that a wry aphorism in electric car circles is true: Hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and it always will be. In another words, hydrogen sounds great as a gasoline replacement — clean burning, plentiful, emitting only water vapor when burned — but in practice, it’s expensive, dangerous, dirty and nowhere near ready for prime time.

Said Chu: “We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no.’”

The Obama Administration has decided to invest in research into battery technology for electric cars, to the tune of $2.4 billion.

California, however, is clinging to its hydrogen highway dream, having just approved plans to spend at least $47 million on hydrogen car research and infrastructure at a time when the state can’t even pay its teachers. 

Chu has it right. The main problem with hydrogen is that after many years of work, the carmaker with the most advanced fuel cell program, Honda, is in the process of putting on the American street 200 of its Clarity hydrogen cars. That’s it: the word is melting, and they’ve got 200 clean cars for us.

The Clarity leases for $600 a month, which is beyond most American families, but still quite a bargain. These cars represent a big loss for Honda (or as they see it, a big investment in the future), because they cost at minimum “several hundred thousand dollars” apiece, according to the manufacturer, and maybe a whole lot more, if the LA Times has it right: about $2 million a car. In another ten years, if Honda manages to sell many thousands of these cars, and the US builds as many hydrogen stations as it has gas stations, along with hydrogen production plants and pipelines (a $400 billion enterprise), then, and only then, Honda figures it can nudge the price of a Clarity just under $100,000. And that price tag will be for a car in the same class as a $21,000 Honda Accord.

At the moment, America has 120 very expensive hydrogen stations for its tiny fleet of hydrogen cars. The “hydrogen highway” is, to say the least, a bit spotty.

As Obama and Chu have noted, they want to see 1 million affordable clean electric hybrid cars on the road in the next 5 years, not a few hundred astronomically priced hydrogen cards in a decade. And the only way to do that is with the proven technology of plug-in hybrids and pure electrics.

The other problem with fuel cells, beyond the $400 billion shortage of hydrogen infrastructure, is the complete inefficiency and dirtiness of hydrogen as a fuel. Advocates focus on the end of the line with hydrogen — consuming it in a car to make electricity to move the vehicle is, in fact, clean. But obtaining hydrogen is a dirty business. Hydrogen may be the most plentiful element in the universe, but aside from existing in a pure plasma state inside stars, hydrogen everywhere else, including on Earth, has this pesky habit of always combining with other elements. And it takes a lot of energy to free it up again. Separating hydrogen out of water  uses up much more energy than you get out, and the current least expensive method of producing hydrogen — cracking it out of natural gas — is a greenhouse gas monster, and grossly inefficient. The grid-to-motor efficiency of an electric car is more than 3 times greater than a hydrogen fuel cell car; the well-to-wheel carbon emissions of the hydrogen power car is four times greater.

Source: Tesla Motor Companyhydrogen 1

A classic objection to EVs is that they use dirty electricity from coal power plants. But a study by Los Angeles Department of Power and Light found that, over a 100,000 mile life of a car, a typical car with an  internal combustion engine will produce about 3,000 pounds of pollutants. An electric car getting its energy from coal will be responsible for less than 100 pounds over the same lifespan of the car.

California officials, from the governor on down, say we must nevertheless invest in this future technology, because it just might be that the big breakthrough that can shave a couple decimal points off the cost of a hydrogen car is right around the corner. 

That was the talking point seven years ago, too, when California killed its original Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate, which until then had compelled automakers to build electric cars in increasing numbers. Read Eco Barons for details, or get a copy of the film, Who Killed the Electric Car? if you want to know more. Suffice it to say that such cars were built and leased in California, amid much grumbling and foot-dragging by carmakers, though the few customers who managed to get hold of them loved the cars. These included GM’s EV-1, which could go 120 miles on a single charge, compared to the 40-mile electric range the much- touted Chevy Volt can achieve should it come to market in 2010 as promised. Toyota built the RAV4-EV mini-sport utility that gets up to 150 miles on a charge, an awesome car that is highly coveted and celebrated. They weren’t supposed to last, but a decade later, Southern California Edison Electric is still driving a fleet of 300 of these Toyotas; President Obama toured their service center during his recent Los Angeles visit. This is technology that dates back more than a decade; not state of the art, but clearly good enough if not for a very, very bad decision by the state of California, and the siren song of the hydrogen highway.

California had been on the verge of bringing the car of the future to  market in a big way. But then the automakers’ lobbying and lawsuits and pleas finally wore the state down, and the mandate was dropped in 2003 just when carmakers would have been required to ramp up production. Instead, carmakers were allowed to research hydrogen vehicles and to bring just a handful to market in order to fulfill a modified s zero emissions mandate. None of the promises made at the time have been realized.

Seven years later, the US Department of Energy has concluded that its own, as well as California’s, investment in hydrogen was a wrong turn on the road to a clean energy future. Practical, economically feasible solutions are needed to act against climate change, and hydrogen won’t get us there, not in time at least, and certainly not affordably.

The automakers, of course, will lobby Congress to restore the funding.  Hydrogen’s boosters, in Washington and Sacramento, should be asked a few simple questions: What,  exactly, is the logic of  trading one expensive fuel controlled by oil companies for another even more expensive fuel produced, distributed and controlled  by the same companies? Why is hydrogen research that will not bring us an affordable car any time soon better than  plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles that exist now, and that anyone can charge at home at night while the electrical grid is awash with cheap, unused capacity? Better yet, why is the $400 billion hydrogen highway better than working to put solar panels on every roof we can, so that a new generation of electric car owners can drive for free as their rooftop generating system zeroes out the monthly electric bills? Those same panels could turn a tidy cash profit profit for homeowners, too, if legislators could ever overcome lobbyist pressure and create a workable feed-in tarriff program that would allow homeowners to sell their excess solar juice at market rates. Just such a program made Germany a world leader in solar energy, yet the California legislature just killed a pilot program aimed at replicating that success. Electric cars plus a feed-in tariff wouldn’t build a hydrogen highway — it would fuel a clean electric highway, and do so a good deal faster.

California has a long history of leading the way on new technology and transportation — it was the Golden State’s forward thinkers who created the most efficient electrical grid in the country, who adopted the most aggressive climate change program on the planet, and who dragged the rest of the nation toward smog-killing catalytic converters and fuel-efficiency standards for our cars. But the decision to embrace hydrogen cars as an environmental savior — and thereby killing a promising electric car program just as it was in a position to transform the auto industry and, perhaps, the world  — has to be one of the worst choices the state has ever made. 

Graphics source: Tesla Motor Company
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