FreedomFUEL or Folly?
By Bill Moore
You have but to peruse the on-line bulletin boards on Yahoo or Google to realize there is a lot of healthy skepticism about the Bush Administration's "FreedomFuel" initiative announced in the State of the Union address last week. The comments, often full caps for emphasis, talk about American families riding around on hydrogen bombs. Many question where the hydrogen will come from and how much it will cost? Still others are enthusiastic and dismissive of the obstacles saying we can make hydrogen in our homes from tap water or from septic tank methane.
For their part, carmakers were supportive of the $1.2 billion dollar proposal. They should be, given the fact that the idea is alleged by FinancialWire.Net to have been the brainchild of GM's new "superstar" lobbyist, former Republican Congressman Bob Walker. G.W. Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove is also a former GM lobbyist.
Regardless of the politics involved, the question remains, is the US really getting serious about hydrogen? Requesting funding to the tune of $1.2 billion would seem to suggest this.
However, given the true scope of the challenge of moving the United States, to say nothing of the rest of the world, from its over dependence on fossil fuels to one based on a more sustainable model and fuels, the White House's request would seem little more than just so much political window dressing, meant to give the Administration a much needed greener glow and the perception that the government is doing something about Arab oil imports.
The Department of Energy estimates that it will cost the United States alone more than $1 trillion.... that's a thousand billion... to convert its infrastructure from petroleum and natural gas to hydrogen.
Against this staggering sum, $1.2 billion seems positively trivial, assuming the money is even appropriated, something that may be hard to accomplish given the nation's other "War Against Terror" priorities and a looming $200 billion-plus price tag for a war and military occupation in Iraq.
But let's assume Congress finds a way to allocate the money. What are the challenges of creating a hydrogen economy?
Creating Affordable Hydrogen - Hydrogen is not an energy source. It is a synthetic energy carrier. It carries energy generated by other sources. The energy it carries can come from electricity in the form of water electrolysis or from steam-reformed methane or any other fossil fuel.
Ideally, the vision is to use some benign, renewable energy source like wind or ocean waves to generate the electricity to make the hydrogen. Two European researchers, Drs. Ulf Bossel and Baldur Eliasson calculated that it takes 1.2 to 1.4 units of conventional energy to make 1 unit of hydrogen. This economic inefficiency, they argue, has never been a problem as long as hydrogen remained a chemical feedstock for other processes. Its cost is somewhat irrelevant because it can be passed on in the finished product. [See Feasible Future.]
But when we start looking to it as a primary energy source, the economics instantly change . Suddenly we have to ask ourselves whether or not it makes sense to use a high value energy like electricity, which itself is generated from some other primary energy source -- typically coal, hydroelectric power, natural gas or nuclear energy in the US -- to make hydrogen only to eventually convert back to electricity? And at every step in this process there are significant efficiency losses.
Water Shortages and Hydrogen -- To complicate matters even further, if we use water and wind power to electrolyze hydrogen -- one of the favored visions for the hydrogen economy of the 21st century -- we find ourselves confronted with yet another serious issue, water shortages. We might live on a planet where three-quarters of the surface is covered with water, but the world is facing serious fresh water shortages.
Many parts of America, Australia and southern Europe are in the grips of prolonged droughts. Lake Mead on the border between Arizona, Utah and Nevada is 67 feet below normal because of growing water demands and declining winter snow packs in the Rocky Mountains, which feed the Colorado River. Similar drought conditions plague much of the Midwest and Plains States.
If we propose to use water for our fuel, will that place even greater demands on our dwindling fresh water supplies? Granted once the hydrogen is recombined with atmospheric oxygen, we get fresh, distilled water, but this is usually dispersed back into the atmosphere. Interestingly, the result of a hydrogen-fueled transportation system might be higher humidity levels. It's doubtful anyone has even looked at the ramifications of this issue, whether it is a positive or negative consequence of a hydrogen economy.
Moving It, Storing It -- To move and store hydrogen takes energy, again usually high quality electricity running compressor pumps. Bossel and Eliasson ran some numbers to see what it would cost to transport hydrogen in a manner similar to the way we distribute gasoline and propane, in bulk tank trucks operating out of pipeline terminals. They discovered that if we used our current distribution model, it would take five hydrogen tank trucks to move the same amount of energy as that moved by a similarly sized gasoline tank truck. Part of the reason is each tanker can only unload about 80% of the compressed hydrogen gas on board. The remaining 20% will not leave the tank by normal atmosphere pressure or gravity, as is normal with heavier liquid fuels. To expel the remaining hydrogen would require a compressor, again using more energy.
Assuming you are willing to put up with this increase in equipment, manpower, energy and traffic congestion costs, you still have to store it, assuming the gas will be dispensed at decentralized hydrogen refueling stations like our contemporary gasoline station network. Again it takes more high quality energy to compress it to get it on board the vehicle.
An uncomfortable pattern is beginning to emerge.
It takes more energy to make, move and store hydrogen than the energy carried by the hydrogen is worth. We appear to be trading high value forms of energy -- albeit more polluting and environmentally harmful -- for one with serious physical shortcomings. Granted, it is unquestionably the cleanest energy carrier available to us, and assuming we can make it from non-polluting forms of energy like wind, solar, wave or fusion power, it may be the way to go.
Drs. Bossel and Eliasson, however suggest that carbon can also be an energy carrier and that instead of a pure hydrogen economy, we should look to nature where carbon is as important as hydrogen. They suggest that is should be possible to create synthetic liquid fuels from biomass or other carbon sources to also serve as energy carriers.
In essence, this is what fossil fuels are, but with this important caveat. Bossel and Eliasson's synthetic liquid fuels would be derived, not from fossil sources, but from contemporary biomass sources, which would translate into zero net C02 gain. And since the energy to make the fuels would come from renewable or fusion sources, there would be little or no pollution created. Instead, we would be emulating the earth's own natural carbon cycle.
The Bush Administration's proposal is useful in at least thrusting the hydrogen economy issue into the public limelight. Clearly, we need to begin looking seriously beyond our current fossil fuel economy and asking some very serious questions before we place our energy future in the hydrogen basket, starting with "Is spending money on hydrogen-powered cars the best use of taxpayer resources?"
Interestingly, the British government has just decided that it isn't, at least for the time being.
Only a few days before G.W. Bush's State of the Union speech, the non-profit, government-funded Energy Saving Trust in London issued a report entitled "Fueling Road Transport - Implications for Energy Transport" that argues, "There are concerns that a premature ‘dash for hydrogen’ might have an environmental downside and preclude the development of other, comparatively beneficial technologies."
They note in their executive summary that "Until there is a surplus of renewable electricity it is not beneficial in terms of carbon reduction to use renewable electricity to produce hydrogen – for use in vehicles, or elsewhere. Higher carbon savings will be achieved through displacing electricity from fossil fuel power stations."
From the British perspective it appears to make more economic and environmental sense to concentrate on using renewable and fusion energy (assuming that elusive technology can be safely and affordable harnessed) to gradually replace coal and natural gas than to concentrate on developing a hydrogen-powered automotive fleet.
This logic would also appear to make sense in America. About one-third of US CO2 emissions come from the transportation sector and of this 40% comes from heavy trucks, construction equipment, ships and aircraft. This means that America's light duty car and truck fleet generates only about 20% of the nation's CO2. By contrast, electric power generation contributes 40% of the CO2.
If we are looking for the most "bang for the buck" in spending taxpayer dollars on future energy technology, it would appear that instead of handing carmakers more scarce federal dollars for programs like the ill-fated Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle and its successor, the "FutureCAR" program, that the Administration ought to be looking at doing much more to encourage the switch to hybrid-electric drive technology and biofuels, and spending our money on technologies that will clean up the emissions of our power plants while reducing their CO2 emissions.
Then once we have a surplus of renewable electricity, we can think about powering our cars and trucks with hydrogen. As laudable as it may seem, the Administration's proposal definitely appears to have placed the cart before the horse.
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