I am the satisfied owner of a 2001 Toyota Prius hybrid automobile, recently passing the 35,000 mile mark -- currently, I am averaging 46.5 miles to the gallon; in earlier years with somewhat different driving patterns I was averaging around 50 mpg -- so my interest was captured by this Los Angeles Times opinion piece by Joseph Romm, a former acting assistant secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration: Hot Air About Hydrogen [irksome registration required].
It seems the Southern California Air Quality Management District (AQMD) is intending to spend $4 Million or so to convert a fleet of 35 Priuses -- already operating as gasoline-electric hybrids -- to run on hydrogen. Romm, while supporting efforts to fight 'greenhouse gas' emissions, is unimpressed by hydrogen and the publicity surrounding it:
Hybrids are already extremely efficient. The Prius, for example, generates only about 210 grams of carbon dioxide — the principal heat-trapping gas that causes global warming — per mile. The car is also a partial zero-emission vehicle, which means that when it uses California's low-sulfur gasoline, it produces very little of the smog-forming pollutants, like nitrogen oxides.
Hydrogen is not a primary fuel, like oil, that we can drill for. It is bound up tightly in molecules of water, or hydrocarbons like natural gas. A great deal of energy must be used to unbind it — something the AQMD plans to do by electrolyzing water into its constituents: hydrogen and oxygen. And because the resulting hydrogen is a gas, additional energy must be used to compress it to very high pressures to put it in the tank of your car.
With all the energy needed to create and compress that hydrogen — even with the relatively clean electric grid of California — a Prius running on hydrogen would result in twice as much greenhouse gas emissions per mile as an unmodified car. It would result in more than four times as much nitrogen oxides per mile.
Sadly, two of the features I love most about my [Prius] would be wiped out by the AQMD's expensive "upgrade." First, the hybrid has cut my annual fuel bill by half. Hydrogen is so expensive to make that even with California's high gasoline prices, the hydrogen hybrid will have more than four times the annual fuel bill of a gasoline hybrid. Second, my car can go twice as far on a tank of gas as my old Saturn, so I have to make those unpleasant trips to the gas station only half as often. The hydrogen hybrid would have less than half the range of my car. With hydrogen fueling stations so scarce, hydrogen hybrid drivers will constantly be scampering back to the fueling stations before the tanks get too low.
Why is the AQMD spending millions of dollars to increase pollution and destroy all the desirable features of one of the greenest, most efficient cars ever made? It has bought into the hype about hydrogen, the myth that this miracle fuel will somehow solve all of our energy and environmental problems.
The hydrogen 'myth' has powerful supporters. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, for one, is an enthusiast. Romm continues his critique:
Another problem with hydrogen is in how it is made. Although people seem to view hydrogen as a pollution-free elixir, hydrogen is just an energy carrier, like electricity. And, like electricity, it is no cleaner than the fuels used to make it. For the next several decades, the National Academy panel concluded, "it is highly likely that fossil fuels will be the principal sources of hydrogen." Making hydrogen from fossil fuels won't solve our major environmental problems.
As one 2002 British study concluded, "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." That surplus is, sadly, a long way off, given that Congress hasn't been willing to pass legislation requiring that even 10% of U.S. electricity in 2020 be from renewables like wind and solar.
Finally, delivering renewable hydrogen to a car in usable form is prohibitively expensive today — equal to gasoline at $7 to $10 a gallon — and likely to remain so for decades in the absence of major technology advances.
Additional Googling leads us to former government energy advisor David Morris, who advocates an alternative hydrogen-free scenario in a recent article in Mother Jones magazine [there's a source I'd bet you didn't expect to see cited on this weblog]:
A better alternative exists, one that can achieve the same environmental and national security benefits decades sooner, and at a fraction of the cost. The strategy relies on hybrid vehicles and biofuels like ethanol rather than fuel cells and hydrogen. Even the National Research Council, the arm of the National Academies charged with advising Washington on scientific matters, advocates investing more immediate effort and energy in developing a system based on hybrids and biofuels. Unfortunately, that alternative is being obscured by the scene-stealing hydrogen vision being peddled in Washington and Sacramento.
"Biofuel" is code for "the fuel that environmentalists and Californians love to hate" -- ethanol. Whatever else one says about it, though, Morris assures us ethanol currently offers significant advantages over hydrogen:
Ethanol has also been criticized as containing only a little more energy than is used in making it. But again, when compared to the most common sources of hydrogen, ethanol wins. The net energy ratio for ethanol production is climbing as farmers and manufacturers become more efficient. And when hydrogen is drawn from natural gas -- the dominant source of hydrogen today and for the foreseeable future -- the net energy ratio is worse than ethanol's.
Ethanol today comes from a renewable resource, corn starch. And it will soon be fermented from the sugars of other abundant biomass materials like grasses, straw, organic wastes, kelp and wood. Hydrogen, by comparison, comes from nonrenewable resources like natural gas, coal and petroleum. [Remainder of paragraph omitted.]
Incidental Intelligence: I had been planning to close by proposing a jokey slogan along the lines of
"Hydrogen -- From the Folks Who Brought You the Hindenburg"Unfortunately for my joke, it now appears that insofar as it has taken the blame for that disaster, hydrogen was framed.