Skip to comments.Why Bush's H-Car is Just Hot Air
Posted on 02/19/2003 10:23:56 AM PST by MurryMom
"A single chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car producing only water, not exhaust fumes. With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free." President Bush said these words during his State of the Union address, introducing the FreedomFUEL proposal--which is really how the White House spells it. The president wants to spend $1.2 billion over the next five years to research the production of hydrogen as a replacement for gasoline in automobiles.
Someday men and women will probably drive cars running on "fuel-cell" motors that have no pistons, consume hydrogen, and emit no pollutants, including no greenhouse gases. Between the zero-pollutants advantages of hydrogen and the fact that its supply is in principle inexhaustible, the world's petroleum-based economy will probably eventually yield to a hydrogen-based economy--to everyone's benefit. Republicans relentlessly mocked Al Gore for saying the internal combustion engine should be replaced by something better, and now George W. Bush is saying exactly the same thing.
The attraction of hydrogen is great, since hydrogen-based transportation would both be environmentally benign and reduce the need for the United States to import petroleum. But Bush's proposal joins a new convention of rhapsodizing about hydrogen-powered transportation--Jeremy Rifkin numbers among current hydrogen zealots--while skipping over the small matter of where we get the hydrogen. Worse, the White House plan offers a long-term distraction from a short-term need: While the administration dreams big about our hydrogen-powered future, it does little to improve fuel-economy standards today.
There are many impediments to a future in which fuel-cell automobiles dominate America's roadways. What form--gaseous, liquid, or mixed with metallic dust to prevent explosion should there be an accident--would the hydrogen we pump into our cars take? How would the hydrogen be moved in commercial quantities to those filling stations? Could average motorists pump hydrogen themselves, considering it is now handled only by specialists? But these are engineering questions and presumably can be answered.
Unfortunately, a cost-effective answer to the question of how to obtain hydrogen may prove more elusive than answers to questions about how to handle it. At first glance, this issue would seem simple. After all, our world contains gargantuan amounts of hydrogen--two-thirds of the oceans, for instance, are made up of this element. But the pure form of hydrogen needed to power fuel-cell cars does not occur naturally on Earth, where hydrogen is chemically bound to other elements, such as oxygen in the case of the oceans. And, while the stars contain an almost inexpressible amount of hydrogen in its pure form, stellar material will not be on sale at your local filling station anytime soon, or ever.
Because pure hydrogen does not occur naturally on Earth, any pure hydrogen for use as fuel must be manufactured. Today, pure hydrogen is most often made using natural gas as a feedstock, but that means fossil fuels are still being consumed: Basically, the process turns a fossil fuel, methane, into something that seems not to be a fossil fuel, hydrogen. Pure hydrogen can also be manufactured using petroleum or coal, which of course are the very fossil fuels whose grip we wish to loosen. And, while pure hydrogen has been manufactured from agricultural products--plants contain hydrogen bound as carbohydrates--at the research level, it remains to be seen whether this could work commercially. Enviros rhapsodize about making hydrogen from seawater. But there's a catch: Making hydrogen from water requires loads of electricity, far more electricity than the energy value of the hydrogen that is obtained, and something--be it a coal-fired power plant or an atomic reactor--must provide the electricity. Indeed, the big misconception about hydrogen is that it is a "source" of energy. Pure hydrogen is not an energy source, except to stars. As it will be used in cars or to power homes and offices, hydrogen--like a battery--is an energy medium, a way to store power that has been obtained in some other way. Hydrogen makes an attractive energy medium because its "fuel-cycle" calculations--the sum of all steps of manufacture and use--show reductions in greenhouse gases compared with any automotive fuel burned today. But hydrogen is going to be an expensive energy medium and, in the early decades at least, will be a medium either for natural gas, a fossil fuel, or for atomic power.
Today, the most practical means to make pure hydrogen is a process called "steam reforming" of natural gas. A natural-gas molecule has one atom of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen; "reforming" strips off the carbon atoms, leaving pure hydrogen. But not only is a fossil fuel--natural gas--the raw material of this process, energy must be expended for the "reforming" itself, meaning a net loss of BTUs. Using Department of Energy estimates, the White House says pure hydrogen from natural gas is currently "four times as expensive to produce as gasoline."
Applied engineering and commercial-scale production would surely bring down the price. The most optimistic credible projection I have seen comes from Jesse Ausubel, a specialist in "industrial ecology" at the Rockefeller University, who thinks commercial-scale hydrogen made from natural gas could be produced for about 40 percent more than the price of gasoline. That's within striking distance of a good deal. But there is a catch to this catch: Optimistic estimates for hydrogen from natural gas are based on the current low selling price of natural gas. Significant new demand for natural gas might raise its price. And, while natural-gas supplies are steady at the moment, who knows what the effect on supply would be if hydrogen manufacturing caused natural-gas consumption to skyrocket?
So maybe the hydrogen should be made from coal or petroleum. Fuel-cycle calculations show that using coal or petroleum to manufacture hydrogen would lead to some reduction in greenhouse gases but not to a big cut; moreover, we'd still be digging coal and importing petroleum. Maybe hydrogen should be made from agricultural products-- "biomass," in energy lingo. But biomass feedstocks might be grown using fertilizer, which is made mainly from fossil fuels, and again the fuel-cycle calculations show only a moderate gain in pollution reduction for the large capital costs entailed in establishing an agriculture-hydrogen economy. (All hydrogen schemes, it should be noted, involve large capital costs.) Owing to these concerns, John McCarthy, a Stanford University professor emeritus of computer science, has written, "The large-scale use of hydrogen depends on using either nuclear or solar electricity." Otherwise, it's just repackaging fossil fuels.
But solar power on the scale required is far from practical. It is possible to imagine a green-dream-come-true energy cycle that uses solar collectors to generate electricity to crack hydrogen out of water: zero greenhouse gases and endlessly renewable. For the moment, solar collectors are much too expensive. The Worldwatch Institute, a much-admired, left-leaning environmental organization, recently rated sources of electricity by combining their capital cost and true social cost--that is, taking into account "externalities" such as pollution and entanglements with the Gulf states. Solar power finished last, much more expensive than coal-generated power, even when coal's external costs are factored in. An indicator: Solar-derived electricity currently wholesales for around ten times as much per kilowatt-hour as coal-fired watts.
Even if the price of solar power fell by orders of magnitude, there would be the not-so-little problem of where to put the solar collectors. To replace the petroleum we use to power our cars with hydrogen split from water might entail doubling America's electricity-generating capacity. Doing that with solar collectors could require covering a land area roughly the size of Connecticut with photovoltaic cells. In theory, the collectors could be put in space, where sunlight has eight times as many watts per square meter as on the ground and where no one's land need be taken. Figures in a recent study in Science magazine suggested that doubling the electricity-production capacity of the United States would require placing approximately 40 photovoltaic collector dishes, each the size of Manhattan, into orbit. Even if capital cost were no object and society possessed the technical means to build objects in space the size of Manhattan, such a project would take a century.
hich brings us to atomic power, the energy source everyone loves to hate. In theory, lots of new atomic stations could be built to make electricity to manufacture hydrogen, and the stations could use new, "inherently safe" reactors designed so that they cannot melt down. (In inherently safe reactors, the atomic chain reaction is initiated in such a way that, if safety systems fail, the chain breaks; researchers have deliberately turned off all cooling and safety systems of inherently safe prototypes and nothing happens.) But political opposition to atomic reactors is intense, and capital costs here would be high as well. Some estimates also suggest that, if a significant number of new reactors were put into service, uranium--currently plentiful--would become scarce after a few decades. This could be avoided by building "breeder" reactors that make more fuel than they consume. But breeders work by breeding plutonium, and most nations, including the United States, have suspended construction of breeder reactors because such machines would increase the risk of plutonium being diverted for nuclear weapons production.
Many researchers continue to believe that "fusion" reactors, which mimic the internal process of the sun, someday will be perfected. Over the long term, fusion reactors might solve all global-energy questions, oddly, by using hydrogen to make hydrogen! In a fusion reactor, tiny amounts of hydrogen isotope are fused into helium, generating heat. (The sun fuses hydrogen into helium for its luminescence, and nuclear bombs get much of their force from fusing a small amount of hydrogen isotope.) Heat from a fusion reactor would drive turbines to make electricity; the electricity would crack hydrogen out of water in large quantities; the hydrogen would power cars or be turned back into electricity in individual fuel cells in people's homes. Though a hydrogen-to-hydrogen energy cycle might sound like a perpetual-motion machine, it could end up being the technology that someday makes global-energy needs a solved issue.
But this is all blue sky because fusion reactors barely function in the laboratory--there is nothing remotely close to a commercial prototype. And, even if a grad student ran from a laboratory tomorrow yelling, "Eureka!" and clutching the secret of an unlimited-energy-fusion future, it would be another century-long project to convert the world to an energy economy based on machines that simulate the centers of stars.
Realistically, these concerns dictate that, for the next few decades, hydrogen would be manufactured either from natural gas or by using power from a new generation of atomic reactors. The most cost-effective combination, some researchers think, might be natural gas heated directly by atomic reactors, whose high operating temperatures turn out to be ideal for the reforming of hydrogen from natural gas. But that means our miracle zero-emission hydrogen will be produced from fossil fuels via an intermediate stop at a nuclear reactor--not exactly what the Sierra Club had in mind.
All these drawbacks do not rule out hydrogen as a fuel, they merely represent problems to be overcome. Hydrogen is sure to enter common use someday, perhaps during the lifetimes of children now being born. After all, a century ago, smart engineers and economists would have sworn it physically impossible--to say nothing of impossibly expensive--for the world to consume 75 million barrels of oil per day, as we do today, at affordable prices. But there is almost no chance hydrogen will make a dent in energy-use patterns during a two-term Bush administration. Even the White House concedes that the earliest a significant number of service stations could offer pure hydrogen would be 2020.
Which brings us to the downside of Bush's hydrogen proposal. The announcement makes the president sound interested in dramatic future action regarding petroleum imports and greenhouse gases, while distracting attention from the reform that is practical and affordable using technology that exists right now: higher miles-per-gallon (MPG) standards for cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs.
Bush is certainly not the first president to employ futurism to deflect attention from torpor on energy efficiency. During the eight years of the Clinton administration, federal MPG standards did not rise, while nothing was done about the fuel-efficiency exemptions enjoyed by SUVs and the misnamed "light" pickup trucks. President Clinton did, however, unveil to much fanfare a "supercar" project that promised incredible, astonishing, super-ultra-futuristic advances in mileage performance at an unspecified later date. The supercar effort, which ended up spending $1.6 billion to accomplish nothing (see "Political Mileage," by Gregg Easterbrook, October 9, 2000), was always a smoke screen. When Clinton was asked why he was taking no action on SUV mileage, he'd launch into an animated discourse about the supercar. Gore did the same, talking--like the "Futurama" caricature of himself--about 80 MPG family sedans made from recycled yogurt cartons. By resorting to discussion of speculative fantastic leaps to distract attention from bad energy policy in the present, Bush has simply taken his cue from two previous masters of petroleum-waste inaction.
And there is no escaping that energy policy remains bad in the present. True, the White House has proposed a 7 percent increase in fuel-efficiency standards for SUVs, but a loophole in the president's proposal will allow manufacturers to declare many SUVs exempt from this fairly modest new requirement. The National Research Council told the White House in summer 2001 that a 25 to 35 percent increase in SUV fuel-efficiency could be accomplished quickly using existing technology. The sorts of improvements the National Research Council envisioned would still permit the production of large vehicles and large pickups, knocking out only Godzilla-sized SUVs, such as the Ford Excursion, or those SUVs, such as the Cadillac Escalade, that get pitiful gas mileage owing to very high-horsepower engines. Yet Bush and his energy advisers apparently lack the will to face down even the relatively small Excursion and Escalade lobby. Thus, talk of the hydrogen future.
"Join me in this important innovation to make our air significantly cleaner and our country much less dependent on foreign sources of energy," Bush said in announcing the FreedomFUEL plan. Becoming "much less dependent on foreign sources of energy" should be a vital goal of U.S. policy. So why doesn't Bush take genuine action toward this end today via meaningful increases in fuel-efficiency standards, and leave futurism to the futurists?
Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor at TNR.
Your response is consistent with good economics, except the part about increasing tariffs 10-15% on all goods. I would prefer raising taxes only on motor fuels by about 15-20%, with an offsetting reduction in income taxes so that the fuel tax hike would be revenue neutral. Limiting the tax increase to petroleum products will encourage conservation and have a disproportionate effect on trading partners like Iraq, from whom we currently import 1 million barrels per day mostly as a result of production cutbacks in Venezuela.
Increasing tariffs on all goods on an across-the-board basis would be self-defeating in many ways, including the likelihood of retaliation by our trading partners; harming U.S. export industries; and inflating the prices of imported goods here in the U.S.
No, and I don't put gasoline into my flashlight either. It leaks all over the place. ;~))
Try to understand that different applications have different economics. You can't broad brush the economics with general principles as this article attemptes to do. The only way to measure the economics of various transport fuels is against the costs of other transport fuels. Will H2 ever have better economics for transport than hydrocarbon fuel? I don't know. But IMHO, it's worth a few billion to find out.
Wind power can make electricity cheaper than coal. Bacteria can produce Hydrogen VERY cheaply.Bacteria? Sounds intriguing. I have a 150-gallon turtle tank with scads of bacteria. When can I quit my day job? : )
It gets smeared by sophisticated PR schemes of those who have something to lose.
If you mocked Gore for the reason stated in our post, you were misinformed. In Gore's 1994 book, Earth in the Balance, he predicted that fuel cell technology would be commercial for autos in 25 years, which was within a year of the prediction that Bush made in his 2003 State of the Union address.
Why. There are electric cars on the market filled to the gills with very large "flashlight" batteries. It seems my point went way over your head. What I was attempting to tell you is that in viewing the economics of various "energy sources", the application for which it is being applied is the critical factor. There is not a hard and fast energy-in vs energy-out rule of thumb when determining economics as this article, and you seemed to imply. A solar powered swimming pool heater can make sense and a lot of people buy them, but a solar powered snow blower does not have a market.
The application drives the economics which drives the market.
It did go over my head - sorry.
You're obviously right. The efficacy of hydrogen fuel cells will have to be measured against the efficacy of other fuel sources. Based on the idea that more energy is needed to produce the hydrogen, it seems highly unlikely that this will ever be a more viable fuel source than petroleum products.
We wouldn't have landed on the moon, either.
Seems to me that the real reason Bush's plan won't come to fruition will be because of the UAW- not science.
Not necessarly. It depends entirely on the total costs of petrol-based alternatives vs. the total costs of H2.
Just like the flashlight battery, the laws of thremodynamics don't apply to economic choices. It's the costs that matter.
Again, I don't know if it will come to pass, but I think it's worth some money to research it. Fuel cell technology has arrived and is commercialized. Using hydrogen as a fuel for those cells is a logical next step in the research.
Here we go again. Whose couple of billion? Yours? Please feel free to contribute, but don't force me to contribute to something that I KNOW is a giant boondoggle designed to take plundered taxpayer money and give it to industry.
Just like ethanol as a motor fuel with many of the same conversion inefficiencies.
I never though I'd agree with MurrayMom an anything, but I think that she actually has a good point here about the wastefulness of exploring H2 as a fuel (even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then I guess)
Sometimes I put gasoline in my flashlight and it works fine You just have to find the right kind of flashlight.
History tells us otherwise. Gregg Easterbrook pointed out in this article that he also criticized the Clinton-Gore administration for their automobile policies just before the 2000 election, as follows: The supercar effort, which ended up spending $1.6 billion to accomplish nothing (see "Political Mileage," by Gregg Easterbrook, October 9, 2000), was always a smoke screen. By linking to Mr. Easterbrook's 2000 article, you will learn that Mr. Easterbrook is mainly an enemy of bad policy, not an enemy of Bush per se.
Still a large chunk was taxpayer funded and to what end? There aren't any electric cars on the market that are worth a crap. The true cost per is supposedly over $100,000 each (although the cost for lease purposes is set to mid $30k)
I smell corporate welfare.
No doubt. But that is another issue. We were discussing the merts/economics of H2 as a transport fuel.
Not at all. Internal Combustion can be fueled by hydrogen quite easily. BMW already does this.