Letters

Hydrogen, Chapter 17: Readers respond to Katharine Mieszkowski's "Not-so-clean Cars."


Salon Staff
March 1, 2003 1:30AM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

Over 30 years ago a friend and I used to muse aloud about the viability of hydrogen cars. We knew the dilemma was in producing the hydrogen. This problem is still the rub. Although I'd love to see renewable forms of energy affect air quality, I can't see all the idealism in the world solving the hydrogen production problem on a large scale. We can't put a meter on the sun or on the wind. So it comes down to money. Americans are married to big, fast vehicles. And they won't give them up until it hurts their pocketbooks, er, wallets. Hydrogen cars won't be viable until they buzz along like little sports car or SUVs or foreign sedans, and these behemoths we have today go the way of the wooly mammoth.

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-- Peter D. Barry

How do you keep from falling out of your chair when your knee jerks at the mention of the word "nuclear"?

Renewable sources of energy are important but they have important flaws, notably scarcity: 1. Hydropower involves flooding canyons. We've dammed almost every productive river we have and now talk is of removing dams, not building more. 2. Wind power is not consistent in many places. And turbines are bad for the unfortunate birds who wander by. 3. Solar power is fundamentally limited. Only so much sunlight falls on the ground, and only for so long each day. John Turner says we have plenty of sunshine in the Mojave. How much of the Mojave is he willing to pave with solar cells or reflectors? (And remember, fabrication of solar cells is a nasty-chemical intensive process.)

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All of these are great sources of energy and we should develop them, but even taken together they won't be sufficient to fill the brunt of our demand. (Even assuming big strides in conservation, which we should also develop.)

Nuclear power is scary but it can work (the French do it) and is the only solution with enough capacity to make a significant difference. People who care about the environment need to stop disregarding nuclear power out of hand.

-- Brad Bartley

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Tradeoffs, tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

The next step is to look into the production of solar cells and see how much really nasty waste they produce.

So, we'll dam up every river every couple of miles? Carpet the country with windmills and solar cells?

There is no pollution from nuclear fusion, zero! It turns hydrogen into helium. Just nobody has figured out how to get more energy out than they put in. Go talk to the Lawrence Livermore folks. Find out the status of the NIF.

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Natural gas plentiful? Remember the California electricity "crisis" a couple of years ago? Lack of supply/distribution of natural gas was the excuse that started and fueled that fiasco. Actually, natural gas is relatively quickly produced from decaying organic matter, so I find the fact that I hear of no studies into using organic landfills or sewerage effluent specifically for "breeding" natural gas interesting. Now that's recycling!

-- Richard Dunn

In "Not-so-clean Cars" you write: "Natural gas is abundantly available in the U.S., so going that route will help energy independence." If you research this topic, you will find that the U.S. is a net importer of natural gas, mainly from Canada, and that natural gas production volumes in the U.S. have been flat in spite of the record gas-directed drilling rates seen in the aftermath of the California electricity crisis. With many coal-fired power plants being decommissioned, and new gas-fired power plants coming on-line, meeting the increased demand for natural gas will already be a challenge. In short, I do not see how your claim that placing further demands on this limited resource will lead to energy independence can be defended.

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-- Dmitry Orlov

Many thanks to Katharine Mieszkowski for helping to expose the fraud in the current hype of hydrogen as a fuel for vehicles. It is painfully obvious to anyone with a scientific or engineering background that to produce hydrogen is neither "cheap" nor "clean," as it is frequently described to the lay public. Folks, it just won't work -- that hydrogen has to come from somewhere, and making it, storing it and using it in your car will be dirtier and more expensive than burning gasoline.

Bush's proposal for hydrogen cars astonished me. He's no Green, that's for sure. So what was he up to? Then it hit me -- nukes! He wants hydrogen in order to dramatically increase the demand for electricity, and in the current geopolitical climate, that means not foreign oil, but nuclear power plants!

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If people really want clean, efficient and cheap automobiles, look no further than easily expanded current technology: Hybrid automobiles, like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, but with the original power source coming not from a gasoline piston engine, but a natural gas fired turbine. Such a hybrid would be cleaner and more efficient than even current hybrids, and far more so than today's automobiles. Natural gas is both cheaper and cleaner than gasoline, and we have plenty right here in this country. No more Middle East oil! Much less pollution!

But hydrogen? Forget it!

-- Paul Pedersen

Just a quick comment. You have an article, legitimately questioning the fuel-efficiency claims of hydrogen powered cars, but it's in a section "brought to you by Infiniti FX45." I imagine this was just a coincidence, but I did find myself wondering for a moment whether this was a legitimate news article or a "special advertising section."

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-- Ryan Kriger

I couldn't believe what I was reading in "Not-so-clean Cars." Instead of praising efforts to produce and make fueling stations for fuel cell cars, the author derides Bush for not seeing that hydrogen is produced by electricity from the grid. OK, now I know in these times, it's very easy to point out Bush's shortcomings as, well, a human being. However, this article is just jumping on the Bush-is-an-idiot bandwagon, for no good reason. Fuel cells are good. They're excellent. They're the first major step in cleaning up the economy. So what if the electricity is generated with fossil fuels? Does the author propose that both the entire transportation industry and the power generating industries flip to renewable energy instantly? That's absurd. This is a great first step. Instead of having millions and millions of individually polluting cars on the road, we could have millions and millions of nonpolluting cars, leaving just a few points, namely the power plants, where pollution is produced. I for one would love to see fuel cell cars and filling stations in my lifetime. But if the extreme, whining, pseudo-environmentalists like the author of this article have their way, it's all or nothing, and we'll be stuck with the same old situation until fossil fuels are depleted.

-- Frank Papa

I've been mulling over Katherine Mieszkowski's article for the past 24 hours or so, and I'm still befuddled by the whole mess. As a career scientist and sometime writer, I take a dim view of writing that is ostensibly meant to illuminate and clarify a technical issue, but in the end only serves to confuse matters. The case of "Not-so-clean Cars" goes beyond even that minimum standard; it is downright filled with misinformation that seems to serve some vague political agenda.

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Things start out poorly with a statistic claiming that hydrogen extracted from the power grid would lead to carbon dioxide emissions that are double what they are for current internal combustion engine-based cars. I can't dispute that worst-case scenario, but what remains unspoken here is the fact that CO2 (which is a greenhouse gas but is nontoxic) emissions from automobiles are a fraction of total emissions that directly impact air quality, including nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons. And these are just tailpipe emissions, with no accounting for heat from the engine and evaporative emissions from fuel lines, injection systems, etc. The relevant question of whether we should trade more CO2 for the elimination of toxic emissions is never addressed.

These sorts of half-facts continue throughout the article and are accompanied by completely misleading statements. I was dismayed to see that unnamed environmentalists consider fusion energy "even worse" than coal, given that fusion has no nuclear waste byproducts (unlike coal burning which, among other things, releases trace amounts of uranium into the atmosphere). Perhaps Katherine was confusing fission with fusion. Fusion, unlike fission, has as byproducts only helium, neutrons, and energy. Helium is an inert gas that can be captured and used; neutrons are absorbed by the walls of the fusion device. But no matter -- the whole discussion is strange. (Mis)using a technology that is still in the research stage to implicate hydrogen extraction is logically indefensible and bizarre.

This red-herring pattern unfortunately taints the rest of the article. Much time is spent on the lack of renewable energy in the U.S. (with no mention of the downsides of renewables like solar and wind), which is a wholly different discussion. But the renewables debate is there, and might lead the unwitting reader without a strong science background to conclude that hydrogen fuel cells are just a plot by the Bush cabal to make the public more dependent on the big utility companies. (Although Gore deserves credit for taking on the fuel cell cause in "Earth in the Balance." But again, another discussion.) Even I am not that cynical, but perhaps this is the vague political agenda I'm having such a hard time grasping.

More overtly, the article makes clear that hydrogen extraction today is not emissions-free, and it seems to take the stance that anything less than 100 percent clean cars are unacceptable. This is a nonsense position. Hydrogen fuel cells offer the only technically viable way to make electric vehicles practical, and that is the fuel cell attraction. Electric vehicles have always offered many advantages over internal combustion engine cars, including high efficiency, low maintenance (one moving part in an electric motor), light weight, no emissions, and quiet operation. The bugaboo, of course, is the power supply. Batteries have never been able to overcome their intrinsic flaws of weight, low power-density, and reliance on toxic chemicals. Add to that the inconvenience of needing eight to 10 hours for a refill and it's no wonder that battery-powered EVs have never gained a foothold with American consumers. But the hydrogen fuel cell overcomes all of those limitations. Even if fuel cell cars were only as good from an emissions standpoint as the best internal combustion cars today (including hybrids), then we would still gain in terms of efficiency and maintenance (and cost assuming economies of scale). As methods for hydrogen production improve, so will the overall efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells.

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If there's a compelling argument against pursuing the hydrogen fuel cell, I have yet to hear it (aside from the occasional Hindenberg reference). It's certainly not contained in Katherine's technically inept article. I hope in the future Salon exercises a little more diligence in reporting complicated subjects. Readers deserve an honest debate.

-- Doug Denison


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