Just say no, to hydrogen

If we're serious about stopping global warming, hybrid cars make a lot more sense than a hydrogen future, says Joseph Romm, a former Clinton administration energy official.

Published April 29, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

On April 20, California's Hummer-driving governor showed his commitment to cleaner air by signing an executive order announcing that a "hydrogen highway" of fueling stations for fuel-cell cars will be created in the state by the year 2010. "Californians invent the future, and we are about to do it again," Schwarzenegger said in a statement, although the cash-strapped state did not actually commit any funds to the plan.

It's not the first time a politician has endorsed the hydrogen future. Since President Bush touted hydrogen in his State of the Union address last year, the gas has exploded onto the public policy stage as a kind of technological triple play. Moving to hydrogen is supposed to help reduce dependence on foreign oil, air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. Bush originally pledged $1.2 billion in federal funds for hydrogen research, $350 million of which was awarded in grants announced on Tuesday by the Department of Energy. The goal: Put hydrogen cars on the road by 2015.

The grants coincided with this week's 15th annual gathering of the National Hydrogen Association, in Hollywood, where attendees are promised test drives of vehicles fueled with hydrogen made by DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota. The Hollywood hydrogen show is even premiering its own film, an hour-long documentary called "The Hydrogen Age." If "The Graduate" were remade today, Dustin Hoffman's character would be told to go into hydrogen.

Joseph J. Romm is one clean-energy guru who isn't ready to join the party and get high on hydrogen with policymakers and automakers and the energy industry. During the Clinton administration, Romm was the chief official in the Department of Energy in charge of conservation and alternative fuels. He's now the author of a new book, "The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate."

As a consultant, Romm has advised companies such as IBM, Johnson & Johnson and Texaco on how to save energy, cut pollution, and use fuel cells. But he fears that the hyperbolic promotion of hydrogen fuel-cell cars as the answer to our energy woes is a scientific and technological wild goose chase, engaged in at our peril while the global-warming clock rapidly runs down.

Romm, who drives a Toyota Prius, spoke to Salon on the phone from Washington about why the hype about hydrogen as a kind of magical elixir -- symbolized by the water vapor coming out of a tailpipe -- may well hinder the fight to stop global warming.

How could hydrogen fuel-cell cars actually end up creating more greenhouse-gas emissions than the gas cars that they'd replace?

The hydrogen has to come from somewhere. Hydrogen is just an energy carrier. You don't drill for hydrogen, like you can for oil or coal or natural gas. And in fact, 95 percent of hydrogen in this country comes from natural gas.

So you have two problems with fuel-cell cars. One is, What is the source of the hydrogen? Most likely, for the next several decades most hydrogen is going to come from fossil fuels.

And problem No. 2 is, if you don't make hydrogen on-site, you have to deliver it. Hydrogen is a very diffuse gas, and so it's not easy to deliver. It takes a lot of energy to deliver it. And most hydrogen today is delivered in diesel trucks.

It turns out hydrogen just takes a lot of energy to make, and it takes a lot of energy to deliver. And there is no guarantee that hydrogen is actually going to be used in fuel-cell cars. Because fuel cells are just so tough to make, and currently so expensive, a lot of people say: "Oh, well in the meantime let's put out hydrogen internal-combustion engine cars."

People view hydrogen as this kind of as this kind of pollution-free elixir. That all you have to do is put hydrogen in something, and it's no longer an environmental problem, which is just absurd. In fact, if you take hydrogen from fossil fuels and run them in an inefficient internal-combustion engine vehicle, you end up with a vehicle that just generates a great deal of pollution.

People need to get out of their heads [the idea] that there is something that is inherently good for the environment about hydrogen. If you run it through a fuel cell, you have zero tailpipe emissions. We all would like zero tailpipe emissions. If you burn it, however, you don't get zero tailpipe emission, in fact. You get a lot of nitrogen oxide, because it tends to burn at a high temperature.

To have a pollution-free car, you need an engine that, when it turns hydrogen into energy, does so in a pollution-free fashion. That's a fuel cell. That gets you a car that doesn't emit pollution right at the source of the car, the tailpipe. But global warming doesn't care where the emissions are emitted. That's why for those of us who care about global warming, the question of central importance is, where does hydrogen come from?

My great fear is that people hold out the promise of fuel-cell cars but then deliver you internal-combustion engine cars running on hydrogen. And then they promise you renewable hydrogen as sort of the long-term goal, but they don't tell you that that's so expensive that other than a few demonstration facilities, you're not going to get renewable hydrogen.

So hydrogen fuel-cell cars aren't likely to have a positive impact on the global-warming problem in the next few decades?

The current costs of the fuel cells are about 100 times the cost of internal-combustion engines. Right now, they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. And getting them, frankly, to be within a factor of 2 of a regular car will be a stunning scientific achievement. I'm not expecting that to happen for at least two decades. These are probably going to be quite expensive cars. So, as a solution to global warming, if you want to reduce emissions, there are other things that you can do.

The second point is that any clean energy fuel that you might make hydrogen out of, like natural gas or renewable energy, can achieve a lot more emissions reductions, a lot more cost effectively, on the grid.

So let's say, if you've got natural gas, you can save a lot more carbon dioxide and other pollutants by displacing coal plants. And that gets you far more CO2 savings than going to all the trouble of converting the natural gas to hydrogen, shipping it to your car, squeezing it into your car, and running your car.

It's pretty straightforward and cheap, compared to going to all the trouble of building a massive hydrogen infrastructure, and buying all these new cars.

Is hydrogen distracting us from what we should be doing now to slow down global warming?

I think it's a distraction now. Distractions are not fatal. But if people actually start spending a lot of money on cars or infrastructure, then I think that we're seriously talking about a diversion, and in fact a sidetracking of what should be our central focus.

I do think that hydrogen research and development is useful, because we're going to need a substitute for oil in the long term, and hydrogen is one possibility. But it's not the only one. So, it deserves research and development funding for probably another two decades, before we're ready to do much more.

What do you think, then, of Schwarzenegger's "Hydrogen Highway" in California or Bush's Freedom Fuel initiative?

The Bush administration is mainly spending money on R&D. I ran the program at the Department of Energy that does all this R&D, and when I was there I was part of a team that increased spending on hydrogen by a factor of 10, and now we're increasing it more. I certainly welcome people who want to increase spending on energy R&D. What troubles me is the people who want to start building infrastructure.

That would be like California's program?

To be honest, the governor has said that infrastructure is going to be built, but they haven't put up any money for it, because the state doesn't have any money for it.

But anyone who wants to build infrastructure now, I think is just way premature. We don't even know what the best infrastructure would be.

Hydrogen is a very diffuse gas, and there's a reason why essentially all vehicles in this world run on liquid fuels. They're easy to transport and they store a lot of energy, which they can release very quickly. We have not solved the problem of how you can store enough hydrogen on board to make your car go the distance that we've come to expect: 300 or 400 miles.

If you push the cars out now, you're essentially saying you're going to push cars with very high-pressure storage, which means that you for instance would have to buy a car where you would be maybe a foot or less away from a compressed hydrogen tank, which might be 5,000 or 10,000 pounds per square inch of hydrogen. And I don't think that most people are going to be very comfortable about that. And if you talk to most automakers, they don't think that the public is going to accept that.

The other thing is that you would have to build infrastructure that would fuel up the tank at super-high pressure. So, instead of just pumping out gasoline, you'd have to have very high-pressure devices that would squeeze out ultra-high-pressure hydrogen. And I think again that that is a very specialized infrastructure. And if it so happened that 10 years later someone came up with a better storage method, all that infrastructure would be stranded.

If you have followed the alternative-fuel-vehicle issue over the past many years, we've failed at deploying electric vehicles and natural-gas vehicles and ethanol vehicles, not because of the vehicles, but because the fuel providers are afraid that if they build this infrastructure, and the vehicles turn out not to be popular with the public, they're stuck with all these assets that never get their money back.

In the case of electric vehicles, didn't they succeed in building some infrastructure, at least in California, but now there aren't any cars?

Well, they built the infrastructure, and GM in particular and some others delivered the cars, but the cars weren't good enough to attract enough drivers to sustain the infrastructure.

After all, if I build a fueling station to provide an alternative fuel, I need a certain number of customers in order to make my money back. If one or two show up everyday, I'm probably stuck with an asset that's not going to get me any money back. This is the famous chicken-and-egg problem. How do you convince the infrastructure people to build the infrastructure until the cars are a proven success? But how do you get the manufacturers to build the cars until there is an infrastructure? Because obviously you're not going to buy a hydrogen car unless you know that you can fuel it.

And it's an even bigger problem with hydrogen, given the existing technology. We don't have a solution to the storage problem, so most hydrogen cars have a limited range. If you combine a limited range with limited fueling options, you're going to be fairly paranoid all the time that you're going to run out of hydrogen. Because, unlike gasoline, if you run out of hydrogen, you're out of luck. Someone can't just pull up with a can of hydrogen and stick it in your car. It's going to need a very specialized device or station in order to do it.

Do you think that Schwarzenegger's pledge to build this hydrogen infrastructure now runs the risk of overhyping hydrogen, which could then hurt its prospects in the long term?

I definitely believe that overhyping a technology is quite counterproductive. I absolutely do. Electric vehicles were overhyped and prematurely introduced into the market place. And as you see, General Motors has now withdrawn every single one of the electric vehicles from the marketplace and squished them. They've recycled them all.

But isn't there an argument that the electric cars helped push the creation of the hybrid cars that we have now?

Have some of the California regulations pushing people toward cleaner vehicles helped advance technology? I think that there is absolutely no question that that is the case. I'm all for regulations that require cleaner cars over time. Take the cleanest cars on the road today, which are the Toyota Prius or the Honda hybrid vehicle.

If you buy a Prius, you can cut your oil consumption and your greenhouse-gas emissions in half, and you can cut your tailpipe emissions 90 percent. And you can do that without paying more for the car, and without giving up any other attributes that you like, such as range.

In fact, this car has twice the range, because it's so efficient. And it's a very roomy car. I own it. So it is really the first no-compromise environmental car. And in my mind it poses a great dilemma for the people who want any alternative-fuel vehicles. You've got to deliver superior environmental performance than the Prius without sacrificing any of its attributes.

Not only do you get twice the range, but you get half the fuel bill. And hydrogen is incredibly expensive. Hydrogen is a very expensive fuel. If anytime in the next two decades someone tries to sell you a hydrogen car, your annual fuel bill is probably going to triple, compared to the Prius.

As gasoline cars get cleaner and more efficient -- like these hybrid cars -- what does that do to the prospects for hydrogen fuel-cell cars entering the marketplace?

People clearly, by and large, don't go out and buy cars just to reduce oil consumption. After all, after the second Persian Gulf War, people bought SUVs and put flags on them.

I just don't see that you see a lot of evidence that oil consumption makes people buy cars. The higher price of gasoline does motivate people to reduce their fuel bill. The problem for hydrogen is that for all of the alternative fuels, it is almost certainly the most expensive.

You would be hard pressed now to get hydrogen delivered into the tank of a fuel-cell car in useful form for under about $5 a gallon equivalent. And what's worse, from my perspective, is that that would be the cheapest hydrogen, which would be hydrogen from natural gas.

Why would you want to go to all the trouble of buying your expensive fuel-cell car with limited range and limited fueling options, all so that you could replace imported oil with hydrogen from imported natural gas? I don't think that would excite most consumers, to be honest with you.

My feeling is that when you get right down to it, what we need to do is wait for renewable hydrogen, because that's the pollution-free hydrogen. But that's expensive. With renewable hydrogen, now, we're talking about something that costs $10 to $20 a gallon of gasoline equivalent.

And we can ask the existential question: Is hydrogen green if it is delivered by a diesel truck?

I think that what we need to do is wait for a low-cost renewable form of hydrogen, but that could easily be 20 or 30 years from now.

So my question, which I ask a lot of people, is: What is the value proposition of this car? It's not intrinsically good for the environment. It would only be good for the environment if it didn't cost more than, let's say, a Prius, and it ran on a renewable-based hydrogen. But I don't think there's much prospect that that's going to happen for two or three decades.

So I think a lot of this talk about building the cars or the infrastructure is premature.

We have three major scientific breakthroughs that are needed: We need a major breakthrough in the fuel cells to bring them to near parity to the cost of internal-combustion engine cars. We need a major breakthrough in the storage system or else you just are saddled with a car that I think is going to be wildly inadequate in the marketplace. The third breakthrough is renewable hydrogen, some form of low-cost renewable hydrogen.

I think absent those three breakthroughs this is not going to be a "green" car in any meaningful sense of the word.

With all the problems that you lay out about the safety, the cost, the infrastructure, the energy required to generate the hydrogen, why do you think that there is so much excitement about fuel-cell cars right now?

There's a beautiful vision of a pollution-free future. And so it's appealing in that sense. Everywhere I go people say: This is an appealing vision, and we have to get off of gasoline someday. And they themselves don't see any alternatives, although I see plenty of other alternatives.

I also think, General Motors, in particular, is hyping this because they don't like fuel-efficiency regulations for cars, and they've been holding out the promise that hydrogen will be this silver-bullet solution to all our automobile problems right around the corner, so don't force us into tighter fuel-economy standards.

What do you see as the other alternatives?

The first thing to say is that the key revolution of the automobile for the next three decades has occurred, and it is the hybrid platform. It is putting the large battery on your car, which makes the car much more efficient, and electrifies some aspects of the car.

So the key for us in the next few decades is to push hybrid cars into the marketplace. It's starting to happen. Every car manufacturer is introducing hybrids. California is pushing PZEV [partial zero-emission vehicles] into the marketplace.

And if alternative fuels prove practical, you're going to put them in a hybrid. You'll replace the internal-combustion engine with a fuel cell, and you'll run the car on hydrogen, if that is practical.

But you could also run that car on biofuels, which is to say ethanol. My preference is not the ethanol that is made from corn, but is rather the ethanol that is made from cellulose. Or, crop waste other than the food part of the crop. This is sometimes called cellulosic ethanol or biomass ethanol. And I do think that that is, if you take a Prius, and you run it on an ethanol 85 percent mixture, then you're getting 300 miles per gallon of gasoline.

Another strategy that I'm also quite keen on is the possibility of putting a larger battery into the car that would allow you to run the car pure electric for a certain number of miles, which is sometimes called a grid-connected hybrid.

You would therefore replace gasoline with more electricity use. It's going to use electricity a lot more efficiently than a fuel cell would. It gives you potentially the benefits of a zero-emissions vehicle in a city for kind of short driving. And then for long trips you have the advantage of an internal-combustion engine for ease of refueling.

I think that these grid-connected hybrids are a natural evolution once you introduce hybrids into the marketplace.

My whole thing is not to pre-judge the answer. Not have the government say: I know today that Americans are going to be driving hydrogen cars 30 years from now or 20 years from now. Because I don't see how any human being could possibly know the answer to that question.

If you read the National Academy report or the American Physical Society report, they were both clear that absent scientific breakthroughs, hydrogen cars may turn out to be a technological dead end. I just don't think that we know enough today to say that we know what is going to win in the marketplace.

Gas prices have rising in the U.S. in recent months, but prices are still much lower than in other countries. Do you think that rising prices will encourage people to move to cars with better fuel economy?

I think that as it reaches higher and higher levels, it definitely affects more and more people. But I think that it's hard to believe that the price of gasoline is going to hit such a high price that it's going to really change the kinds of cars that people drive substantially.

I think that you're not going to see gas taxes in this country. And this issue of whether we're running out of oil or not, I don't think that's going to happen fast enough to have a big impact to change the world.

What do you think consumers and citizens can do now to fight global warming?

In the vehicle realm, they should go out and buy a hybrid. I think that you can reduce your greenhouse-gas emissions in half while buying a very clean car. Typically efficiency is the most cost-effective strategy that you can adopt for global warming, or any pollution reduction. So I think in your vehicles, people should go out and buy a hybrid.

In your homes there are lots of strategies. The simplest is to look for Energy Star products when you are buying appliances. And in companies there is also a lot you can do, and I wrote a whole book on that issue.

What about on the policy side? What should government be doing now to help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions?

If you want to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the vehicle sector you simply have the government intervene on fuel efficiency. There really is not much escape from government intervention, and this is true whether you like hybrids or hydrogen. The government simply has to weigh in and make sure that any efficiency gains in the vehicles end up going toward fuel economy, and not for instance for more acceleration or more weight.

In the case of the electric utility sector, we need to do something like the McCain-Lieberman bill. We need to have a cap on CO2 emissions in the electric utility sector, and let the utility sector figure out the best way, the most cost-effective way, to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Are you optimistic about either of these things being implemented under the current Congress or administration?

No, no. I don't think it's possible to be optimistic about that. I think realistically it's hard to see the political will.

What might happen if we fail to act? I don't think that it's going to look like the movie "The Day After Tomorrow," coming out at the end of May. But on the path that we're currently on, the average temperature in the United States is going to be 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher at the end of this century than it is today. And I don't think that most Americans have any idea that that is what is going to happen if we don't change our course.

I don't think that most Americans realize what the implications are of that for the way that we live. So I do feel that there is an urgency for action. Tony Blair said last year that if we're to avoid catastrophic global warming we need to reduce our CO2 emissions by about 50 percent by 2050.

If we started today it wouldn't be easy, but at least it would be doable -- a 50 percent reduction over five decades. If we do nothing for two decades, our emissions are going to rise by 50 percent. And then we'd have to reduce our emissions 75 percent in two and a half decades.

And that's just incredibly hard to do. So, I think that although it is true that global warming is a long-term problem, action has to be relatively soon, or else it just becomes prohibitively expensive.

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------