Second Thoughts On A Hydrogen Economy

Date: 24 Feb 2003 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Second Thoughts on a Hydrogen Economy

By David Morris

Originally Published on Alternet, February 24, 2003

When George Bush proposed a $1.7 billion program to promote hydrogen-fueled cars in the State of the Union Address, both sides of the aisle applauded. Almost everyone supports a hydrogen economy – conservatives and liberals, tree huggers and oil drillers. Such unanimity forecloses serious discussion. That’s unfortunate. An aggressive pursuit of a hydrogen economy is wrongheaded and shortsighted.

To understand why, we need to start with the basics. Hydrogen is the most abundant element on the planet. But it cannot be harvested directly. It must be extracted from another material. There is an upside to this and a downside. The upside is that a wide variety of materials contain hydrogen, which is one reason it has attracted such widespread support. Everyone has a dog in this fight.

Renewable energy is a very little dog. Environmentalists envision an energy economy where hydrogen comes from water, and the energy used to accomplish this comes from wind. Big dogs like the nuclear industry also foresee a water-based hydrogen economy, but with nuclear as the power source that electrolyzes water. Nucleonics Week boasts that nuclear power “is the only way to produce hydrogen on a large scale without contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.”

For the fossil fuel industry, not surprisingly, hydrocarbons will provide most of our future hydrogen. They already have a significant head start. Almost 50 percent of the world’s commercial hydrogen now comes from natural gas. Another 20 percent is derived from coal.

The automobile and oil companies are betting that petroleum will be the hydrogen source of the future. It was General Motors, after all, that coined the phrase “the hydrogen economy”.

What does all this mean? A hydrogen economy will not be a renewable energy economy. For the next 20-50 years hydrogen will overwhelmingly be derived from fossil fuels or with nuclear energy.

Consider that it has taken more than 30 years for the renewable energy industry to capture 1 percent of the transportation fuel market (ethanol) and 2 percent of the electricity market (wind, solar, biomass). Renewables are poised to rapidly expand their presence. A hydrogen economy would be a potentially debilitating diversion.

As the President’s 2004 budget demonstrates, any new money for hydrogen will be taken largely from budgets for energy efficiency and renewable energy. From a federal point of view, then, the more aggressively we pursue hydrogen, the less aggressively we pursue more beneficial technologies.

To be successful, a hydrogen initiative will require the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars to build an entirely new energy infrastructure (pipelines, fueling stations, automobile engines). Much of this will come from public money. Little of this expenditure will directly benefit renewables. Indeed, it is likely that renewable energy will have about the same share of the hydrogen market in 2040 as it now has of the transportation and electricity markets.

Far better to spend the billions the President wants to spend on hydrogen to increase renewable energy’s share of the energy market from 1-2 percent to 25, 35, or even 50 percent in the same time frame.

Not only will a hydrogen economy do little to expand renewable energy, it will increase pollution. Making hydrogen takes energy. We are using a fuel that could be used directly to provide electricity or mechnical power or heat to instead make hydrogen, which is then used to make electricity. Back in 1993 William Hoagland, senior project coordinator at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s hydrogen program, prophetically told Time Magazine, “I can’t see why anyone would invest in additional equipment to make hydrogen rather than simply putting the electricity on the grid.”

We can, for example, run vehicles on natural gas or generate electricity using natural gas right now. Converting natural gas into hydrogen and then hydrogen into electricity increases the amount of greenhouse gases emitted.

There is another energy-related problem with hydrogen. It is the lightest element, about eight times lighter than methane. Compacting it for storage or transport is expensive and energy intensive. A recent study by two Swiss engineers concludes, “We have to accept that [hydrogen’s] … physical properties are incompatible with the requirements of the energy market. Production, packaging, storage, transfer and delivery of the gas … are so energy consuming that alternatives should be considered.”

The most compelling rationale for making hydrogen is that it is a way to store energy. That could benefit renewable energy sources like wind and sunlight that can’t generate energy on demand. But batteries and flywheels can store electricity directly. The all-electric vehicle has not yet found a commercial market, but we should acknowledge the rapid advances made in electric storage technologies in the last few years.

Many people see the new hybrid vehicles as a bridge to a new type of transportation system. I agree, but with a different twist. Toyota and Honda are selling tens of thousands of cars that have small gas engines and batteries. American automobile companies will soon join them. Toyota and Honda and others are looking in the future to substitute a hydrogen fuel cell for the gasoline engine. That work should continue, but policymakers should also develop incentives and regulations that channel engineering ingenuity into improving the electric storage side of the hybrid system.

Currently, a Toyota Prius may get 5 percent of its overall energy from its batteries and could only go a mile or so as a zero emission vehicle. A second generation Prius might get 10 percent of its energy from batteries and might have a range of 2-3 miles. Why not encourage Toyota and Honda and others to increase the proportion of the energy they use from the batteries?

We need to get beyond the glib, “we can run our cars on water,” news bites and soberly assess the value of a massive national effort to convert to a hydrogen economy. When we do so, I believe, we will conclude that the hydrogen economy has serious, perhaps fatal shortcomings.

David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.