Fuel Cells and Hydrogen vs. Hybrids and Biofuels
By David Morris
Both President Bush and Governor Schwarzenegger have embraced a fuel-cell-powered, hydrogen-fueled transportation system. Bush declared his support in his State of the Union address in 2003, Schwarzenegger in his recent State of the State address. In March Arnold will issue an Executive Order whose goal is to have hydrogen fueling stations along all 26 of the state’s interstate highways by 2010.
For the first time in history California and Washington may be on the same page when it comes to transportation. That is what is called a good news, bad news situation.
The good news is that politicians are proposing a solution commensurate with the scale of the problem. To date policymakers have anguished over mandating efficiency improvements of a few miles per gallon or significantly reducing tailpipe emissions. A hydrogen future, at least in theory, could displace 100 percent of the petroleum needed for transportation.
The bad news is that achieving that goal in that way will be frightfully expensive and disruptive. To be successful it requires changing every feature of our transportation energy system: refineries, pipelines, storage systems, end-use devices. Fuel cells must replace combustion engines. Hydrogen stations must replace gas stations.
The capital cost to California alone will be more than $50 billion, the cost to the nation more than ten times that amount.
I applaud the audacity of those who advocate investing on a such a scale. I recommend that the same boldness be applied to a transportation strategy that promises to achieve the same environmental and national security benefits decades sooner at a fraction of the cost.
The hydrogen strategy relies on fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen fuel. The better way relies on hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrids and biofuels like ethanol.
The expense of hydrogen is often justified because it will be used in fuel cell powered cars and fuel cells are two to three times more efficient than internal combustion engines. But comparing a future technology to one that is a century old is inappropriate. Better to weigh fuel cell vehicles against the newest transportation technology, the hybrid electric vehicle(HEV).
The newest HEVs already achieve efficiencies comparable to those promised by fuel cells. They’re available now. Indeed, some models have become best sellers. As of this writing there is a two month waiting list for the new Toyota Prius. And this fall, when Toyota introduces its hybrid SUV the transportation debate may change forever. The hybrid SUV will not diminish performance nor interior room. Yet it will achieve a fuel efficiency(estimated at 40 miles per gallon) that is twice that of a comparable conventional SUV.
Everyone now backs hybrids. But that backing hasn’t translated into aggressive actions to expand their use.
A rapid expansion of HEVs can reduce gasoline consumption by 30-50 percent. The next step is to expand the vehicle’s on-board battery capacity and allow it to be charged from the grid as well as the engine. Currently HEVs have little if any electric-only driving range. Thus they are designated in the industry HEV0. With a 60 mile battery driving range(HEV60), a plug-in HEV could reduce gasoline consumption by 85 percent or more. Electricity from the grid becomes the primary transportation fuel but without the performance limitations of all-electric vehicles.
Many policy makers are still unaware of PHEVs. In the spring of 2003 California declared its support for them but reserved its highest regulatory incentives for fuel cell vehicles. That priority should at a minimum be reversed. HEVs and PHEVs can reduce the amount of fuel needed by the engine by 85 percent. The electricity is the vehicle’s primary energy source. The electricity can and should increasingly come from renewable energy. This can be done by accelerating and raising the level of renewable electricity mandated in more than 15 states.
Which allows us to focus on the engine side and the replacement of gasoline with a renewable fuel. I argue here for biofuels which already come from a renewable resource—plants. Biofuels could not be a primary fuel if transportation fuels continue to be used so profligately as they are today(130 billion gallons a year and growing by 2-3 billion gallons annually). There is, however, sufficient biomass available to meet the needs of a 50 billion gallon transportation system, which is possible given the current state of the art of hybrids and plug-in hybrids.
Biofuels can be made from either vegetable oils or sugars. Vegetable oils can displace diesel. Sugars are fermented into ethanol to displace gasoline. Let me concentrate on ethanol because it already has a national infrastructure and a 3 billion gallon production capacity. A few words about ethanol. It is liquor, moonshine, 200 proof alcohol. It is made by fermenting sugars and distilling the low-alcohol solution. In the United States the sugars come from corn. In Brazil they come from sugar cane, in Europe from wheat. Soon they will be extracted from cellulose, an enormously abundant material contained in all living matter, from corn stalks and wheat straw to tree clippings, grasses and urban organic wastes.
Ethanol has some significant advantages over hydrogen.
Production can be scaled up quickly. Three years ago California’s gas tanks contained no ethanol. Today almost 6 percent of its transportation fuel is ethanol, some 700 million gallons. Even the rosiest predictions by hydrogen advocates do not seen it achieving a comparable market penetration until after 2025.
Without subsidies, the price of ethanol itself, on a gallon of gasoline equivalent basis, is less than half that of hydrogen. Even if hydrogen were to achieve hoped-for price levels in 2015 it will probably still be slightly more expensive than ethanol.
The cost of installing an ethanol fueling station, that is, one that can dispense 95 percent ethanol, is 90 percent less than the cost of installing a hydrogen fueling station.
A car already has a storage system for ethanol, the gas tank. A hydrogen-fueled car will need a new storage system.
The additional cost to a manufacturer to make a car capable of running on ethanol or gasoline or any combination thereof is about $150. The most optimistic forecast for the additional cost of a fuel cell car in 2015 is $10,000. Most estimates are several times higher. Over 4 million cars capable of using ethanol or gasoline cars are now on the road today.
Ethanol has been criticized as containing only a little more energy than is used in making it. The ratio is almost 1.4 energy units out for every 1 in. Hydrogen, when made from fossil fuels suffers a lower, even negative net energy ratio. When ethanol is made from sugars derived from cellulosic materials like organic waste, corn stalks, wheat straw and tree clippings, the net energy output-input ratio should be well over 2 to 1.
Hydrogen can be made from renewable resources. We could generate electricity with wind and use the electricity to extract hydrogen from water and then use the hydrogen in fuel cells to generate electricity. But this is a convoluted and inefficient way to expand the use of wind power. It is far more economical to use the wind-generated electricity directly or store it in batteries.
Electricity made with wind is comparable in cost to electricity generated from natural gas. Hydrogen made from wind electrolysis is three times the cost of hydrogen made from steam reforming natural gas.
The vast majority of hydrogen for the foreseeable future will be made from fossil fuels.
Of course ethanol contains hydrogen and one can envision ethanol as a fuel source for hydrogen just as one can envision the hybrid vehicle as a transitional vehicle to fuel cells. But it may be better to think of ethanol as one of a rapidly-expanding number of products made from sugars. Sugars can be used to make chemicals and plastics as well as fuels. In the future biorefineries located in rural areas and conceivably owned by the cultivators of the raw materials will make an array of products that now come from more centralized petroleum refineries.
Ethanol is one building block of a future transportation strategy. Hybrids and their improved successor, plug-in hybrids are the other two building blocks.
The debate about hydrogen highways has galvanized an extremely valuable conversation. As I said at the beginning of this piece, hydrogen advocates should be congratulated for proposing a solution commensurate with the scale of the problem. It’s time for those who criticize the hydrogen highway to propose a better way. Let the debate begin.
David Morris is Vice President of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. His recent report, A Better Way to Get From Here to There can be found at www.ilsr.org.
blog comments powered by Disqus