The so-called hydrogen economy isn't as close as hypesters on either the left or the right would have us believe, according to a new study released Feb. 4 by the National Academies of Science. In the report, the NAS predicted that for the next 25 years the impact of hydrogen on oil imports and carbon emissions is "likely to be minor" -- though it did concede that hydrogen could become a major fuel sometime in the next 50 years.
The nonpartisan evaluation was something of a blow to the grand promise of fuel-cell cars as a way to clean up the geopolitical and environmental mess caused by our Ford-Expedition-size appetite for fossil fuels. If hydrogen is ever going to be a kind of Get Out of the Middle East and Global Warming Free card, it's not going to be soon enough.
President Bush counts himself as a proponent of fuel cells, touting the technology's benefits in his State of the Union address last year. He unveiled a new Freedom Fuel initiative and predicted that an American child born in 2003 could learn to drive on a car fueled with hydrogen. But while the prospect of non-polluting cars has some environmentalists excited, others have derided the hyping of hydrogen. They see it as a smokescreen, a way to give lip service to a greener future while providing cover for the failure to adopt tough regulations.
Will hydrogen fuel-cell cars and power generators remain perpetually decades down the road, with their ever tantalizing promise of a cleaner future, while the world chokes on exhaust today? Will President Bush's hypothetical American infant, now 1 year old, have to ride a bicycle until at least her mid-30s if she wants to learn to drive on a hydrogen fuel-cell car?
Into this highly politicized debate comes Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, an energy and environmental correspondent for the Economist, with an engaging new book, despite its clunker of a subtitle: "Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution Will Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet." Despite the self-assurance of the title, Vaitheeswaran answers the big crystal-ball-gazing questions with a big "maybe." Neither hydrogen nor renewable energy is destined to take over the world and edge out dirty fossil fuels, he argues, but at the same time that doesn't mean that ambitious dreams for a green future are doomed to failure.
"Power to the People" takes readers for a global jaunt through the world's energy infrastructure as it exists today, visiting the offshore oil-rig roughnecks, free-market environmentalists and think-tank eggheads who are shaping its future. Ranging from the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, which may soon be underwater because of global warming, to the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, Vaitheeswaran comes away cautiously optimistic about the direction the energy industry is going. There is "more reason for hope than there has been for decades," he writes.
But it's not conservation efforts or tougher government regulations that make Vaitheeswaran hopeful we can continue to satiate the world's ever growing demand for energy without making the planet unlivable. His faith is in technological innovation and market forces. And while he makes a compelling case that we'll continue to find new ways to feed our demand for energy, the mighty market forces he invokes seem puny in the face of the challenges posed by global warming -- if not actually at cross-purposes with them.
At ExxonMobil's headquarters in Irving, Texas, Vaitheeswaran meets with Lee Raymond, one of the great hydrogen skeptics, a boss-man who isn't shy about saying he considers renewable energy "a waste of money." One of his favorite expressions is: "everyone at Exxon works for the general good -- and I'm the general of that general good." Raymond's forecasters at ExxonMobil predict that in the best-case scenario, hydrogen could reduce oil consumption by less than 5 percent by 2020. Raymond contends that oil and gas will continue to dominate the biz for at least the next 25 years.
But at BP, another huge oil company, and one that has been accused of "greenwashing" by environmental groups for what they consider hypocritical forays into renewable energy, Vaitheeswaran finds a different point of view. BP's CEO, Lord Browne, tells Vaitheeswaran that evidence of the human causes of global warming (which most industry leaders continue to deny) drove BP to pursue new sources of energy.
"A breakthrough was inevitable because companies composed of highly skilled and trained people can't live in denial of mounting evidence gathered by hundreds of the most reputable scientists in the world," says Browne. "Our people, in common with everyone else in the world, have hopes and fears for themselves and their families."
Browne admits he is not solely motivated by lofty ideals. He claims he's gaining a strategic advantage against the other oil companies by embracing renewable energies, such as solar power, first. He's also found, he says, that environmental measures can be bottom line friendly. For instance, by introducing carbon emissions trading internally among its various divisions, Vaitheeswaran reports that BP has met targets for reducing emissions seven years ahead of schedule at zero cost. The cost savings of conservation entirely offset the expense of the program, says Browne, boasting that BP's record refutes the arguments of skeptics who claim that forcing such reductions would place too great a burden on the global economy.
Raymond and Browne are Vaitheeswaran's free-market foils -- one man clinging to a hoary business model that has worked for him spectacularly, the other making changes now in hopes of getting to the next business model first. It's a mechanism repeated throughout "Power to the People": competing visions of the future square off against each other, without Vaitheeswaran ever wholly committing to one or the other.
If there is an underlying point of view it's this: Market forces can do more to bring about positive change for consumers, and sometimes the environment, than entrenched government interests. Case in point: the slums of Mumbai, where private power companies have been able to bring electricity to the poverty-stricken while government has failed. Vaitheeswaran uncovers a wealth of interesting examples, including the BP carbon-emissions trading scheme, that support this view.
But Vaitheeswaran's faith in markets goes so far that he seems to only grudgingly accept the reality that governments can play a positive role. For instance, he concedes that California's zero emissions vehicle regulations did have some good effects. American automakers were forced to take hydrogen and fuel cells seriously, and the hybrid cars on the road today use technology from their electric predecessors. But Vaitheeswaran still sees the failure of electric cars to take off as further proof that "governments need to tread lightly when it comes to mandating green technologies."
His case for relying on our own ingenuity to get us out of our mess is strongest when he looks back at the history of energy technology development. How soon we forget that as early as 1700 England was facing a major energy crisis because of deforestation, which drove the shift from wood to coal. Or that since the 1970s, when a global oil price shock rocked American gas pumps and some thought the world's fossil fuel resources were in danger of imminent depletion, much more oil has become recoverable. That's because demand led to investment in new technologies that unlocked previously inaccessible reserves, like oil deep below the seafloor.
But can the ingenuity of roughnecks and wildcatters and fuel-cell technologists supply us not only with the fuel we need but also with new sources of fuel that will run cleaner?
At the end of this book, that still remains an open question. "Power to the People" doesn't cheerlead, as some other recent works on the topic have. Nor does it throw cold water on the notion of a hydrogen future, as Joseph J. Romm, a former Energy Department official in the Clinton administration, promises to do this spring in his new book: "The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate."
But it ends on a chipper note in Reykjavik, Iceland, where government leaders have been working since 1999 to make the nation the world's first country to run on hydrogen. Wait, weren't we supposed to be wary of governments pushing green technologies? No matter. Vaitheeswaran chats with one local who exclaims: "We'll be the Saudi Arabia of the hydrogen economy!" That's Vaitheeswaran's sometimes frustrating counterintuitive message: Sorry, regulation alone won't save us. But the desire to conquer a new market just might.