Hydrogen Cars Get a Jump Start

President Bush’s State of the Union speech contained no shortage of surprises, with his announcement of a major funding initiative for the advancement of hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles no exception.

Peterborough, New Hampshire – February 3, 2003 [SolarAccess.com] From environmentalists to leaders in the hydrogen and fuel cell industries and automakers, the Bush announcement sent ripples far and wide. Whether garnering praise or eliciting criticism, hydrogen is in the nation’s energy spotlight. The big splash originated from the President’s US$1.2 billion Freedom Fuel Initiative to “…reverse America’s growing dependence on foreign oil by developing the technology needed for commercially viable hydrogen powered fuel cells,” as he said in the speech. Bush’s proposal is the most recent in a series of initiatives that his administration has supported since the announcement of its National Energy Policy, in May 2001, which proposed that hydrogen would be an important clean energy carrier for the future. Later, in January 2002, FreedomCAR was announced, a Cooperative for Automotive Research between General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler, which was designed to address the need for the development of fuel cell technology. The President’s latest initiative intends to compliment the FreedomCAR program, with an emphasis on developing the technologies and infrastructure needed to produce, store and distribute hydrogen fuel for use in fuel cell vehicles and electricity generation. INFRASTRUCTURE QUESTION Fuel cell technology itself has been around since the 1839s. One of the first major commercial uses for the technology was with NASA’s Apollo missions in the late 60s. According to Bernadette Geyer spokeswoman at the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, the technology has made drastic improvements in both size and cost within the past few years. While fuel cell cars are still cost-prohibitive to mass market, it’s the necessary infrastructure of creating and distributing hydrogen that may be the biggest test of the technology’s future success. “The infrastructure question is looming large and near,” said Geyer. “The (fuel cell) industry has been making leaps and bounds but the greatest challenge is infrastructure.” The infrastructure challenge should not be understated. Geyer said the dilemma is much like the question of which came first: the chicken or the egg. Without an adequate refueling infrastructure to, a mass market for these cars does not exist. And, although car manufacturers have developed fuel cell powered prototypes, production versions of these cars depends on an as yet built infrastructure. “Certainly the funding will help bring down the cost faster, especially the infrastructure issues,” said Geyer. “We don’t want to run into the same problems that battery powered cars encountered. We need to try and make sure it won’t be bad for consumers.” Electrical vehicles were offered throughout the 90s but didn’t encounter much success since the cars were geographically limited to their charging stations – mostly car owner’s homes. While hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth, it’s not readily available in its natural form and must be removed from other elements. This process of distilling pure hydrogen requires energy and the best way to do it is still being developed. “That’s another question that’s being looked at,” said Geyer. “Even if you pull your car up to a station that offers hydrogen, where are they getting the hydrogen from?” Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), who has directed much of his attention toward fuel cell vehicles through RMI’s spin-off research project, Hypercar, Inc. believes that infrastructure hurdles won’t be too formidable to solve. “The supposed problems of safety, storage and cost have already been solved for using hydrogen in cars,” Lovins told SolarAccess.com News. “The key is to make the cars very efficient first, so the fuel cells become small enough to afford and the compressed-hydrogen-gas fuel tanks become small enough to fit nicely.” While hydrogen can be distilled or “cracked” from many substances, natural gas may be the best current option for hydrogen production. “Natural gas is a very energy-efficient and cost-effective way to make hydrogen, with climate impact initially halved and later eliminated,” said Lovins. “The fuel cost per mile would be less than gasoline’s cost today.” PRAISE FOR PLAN FROM AUTO INDUSTRY Automakers in the United States, which have been slower than their Japanese counterparts in adopting fuel cell technology, have come out in praise of Bush’s plan. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), a trade organization that represents manufacturers who represent more than 90 percent of US vehicle sales said fuel cells hold great promise for greater fuel efficiency and cleaner emissions, generating twice the fuel economy of conventional engines. “Automakers commend President Bush’s dedication to forging a government-industry partnership to develop fuel cells,” said AAM President & CEO Josephine S. Cooper. “Fueling infrastructure is one of the major challenges for making fuel cell vehicles commercially available, especially delivery of hydrogen. Proper government and consumer incentives will be needed to initiate this this infrastructure. For environmental gains to be realized, consumers must be convinced that the new technologies will deliver the performance, function, safety and utility they desire.” The Bush announcement has raised concerns however, that efforts toward increasing the efficiencies of current technologies may take a back seat to a hydrogen and fuel cell efforts that may not reach fruition for many years. “Many environmentalists think FreedomCAR will be more convincing if accompanied by actions to speed adoption of the interim, already available car-efficiency improvements that can save a lot of oil and pollution while the fuel-cell cars are being brought to maturity,” Lovins said. He cited currently available hybrid-electric vehicles such as the one he drives that averages 64 miles per gallon. CRITICISM, SUPPORT Not everyone is coming out in praise of the administration’s plan. As an environmental group, the Sierra Club might be expected to welcome Bush’s announcement, but Daniel Becker, the director of the Sierra Club’s Global Warming and Energy Program feels otherwise. “The auto industry is using the promise of future fuel cells as a shield against using existing technology to dramatically cut our oil dependence, and pollution, today,” said Becker. “This technology is sitting on the shelf while Detroit dithers. The biggest single step we can take to curb global warming and cut our dependence on oil is to make our cars and light trucks go farther on a gallon of gas “.” George Earle of Plug Power, a leading US Fuel Cell company, doesn’t see it that way. “Minor efficiency improvements in current technologies won’t get you there,” Earle said. Scott Redmond of FST Energy, a Hydrogen Energy company, said that relying solely on current fuel efficiency improvements will not solve the country’s dependence on foreign oil. “Not for the scope, the urgency and the long-term future of America and the world,” said Redmond.” As Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The Hydrogen Economy and many contemporary reports validate: the world is running out of oil almost 100 years earlier than everybody thought.” While fuel cells operate on a renewable fuel, the process by which the hydrogen is created takes energy and many feel that the best scenario in the long run would be to use Renewable Energy such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and hydro as the energy source to create the hydrogen. “Fossil fuels will be an important stepping stone to make hydrogen available in the short term while we are demonstrating and building the interest in fuel cell technology,” Earle said. “As interest in fuel cells grows, support for building a hydrogen infrastructure should increase. Ultimately, the hydrogen must be produced from renewable resources to truly realize the benefits of this technology (economic, security and environmental).”
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