The Dirty Secrets of Clean Hydrogen

8:00 am in Uncategorized by E.L. Beck

We placed a man on the moon in less than a decade after the call to action. Why can’t we do the same for hydrogen?

On June 14, 2011, Bloomberg News reported that Energy Secretary Steven Chu “whose mandate includes getting more fuel-efficient cars on U.S. roads, is disregarding advisers in his own department and seeking to cut almost half the federal funding for hydrogen-powered autos.”

Chu explained that “hydrogen fuel-cell technology” developed by carmakers “isn’t yet practical,” according to the story. Yet, Mary Nichols, chairwoman of California’s Air Resource Board, contends that Chu’s “explanations don’t make sense to me. They are not based on the facts as we know them.” In light of the Obama Administration’s and automaker’s July, 2011 agreement to achieve 54.5 mpg fleet averages by 2025, de-incentivizing hydrogen research hamstrings such goals. These actions undercut progress on hydrogen. So why take them?

As we look into the future, hydrogen must have a presence. While hybrid vehicles play a stop-gap role during our switch from reliance on oil, they do not hold long-term potential thanks to their incremental fuel savings and limited use for anything beyond a family sedan. Biofuels also have a dead end, seen in their need to replace food-producing farmland with energy-producing farmland. With our ever-increasing population on earth, that is unsustainable.

Electric cars are nice with which to play in the short term, but as their numbers grows, so too the demand for the electric to recharge them grows and, at some point, the carbon emissions saved by the electric vehicle is overtaken by the carbon emissions produced by the power plant that generates the electricity to recharge the electric vehicle. Besides, some as-yet unknown breakthrough technology will be required to truly boost battery capacity exponentially beyond what we enjoy today, the capacity that will be required to turn an electric vehicle into anything beyond an urban commuter vehicle.

All of these technologies hold short-term potential, perhaps even mid-term, but long-term potential? It is doubtful. Reaching substantial independence from oil will require a substantial seismic shift in our energy resourcing. Simply look at one vehicle category that electric and hybrid technology cannot answer, and that biofuels cannot answer in light of its above-mentioned shortcoming: trucks. Trucks, from pickup trucks to commercial panel vans to local delivery trucks to semi-trucks, will need to maintain their current engines to remain viable. Only the internal-combustion engine, at the moment, produces the torque required for trucks to haul or tow (or for off-road equipment such as bulldozers to do their jobs).

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