Try hybrids, biofuels to wean us from oil

Date: 9 Jan 2004 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Try hybrids, biofuels to wean us from oil

by David Morris

Originally published in Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 9, 2004

Caught up in the euphoria that swept the nation after President Bush announced a $1.3 billion hydrogen initiative in his State of the Union Address, the Minnesota Legislature declared last June, “It is a goal of this state that Minnesota move to hydrogen as an increasing source of energy for its electrical power, heating and transportation needs.”

The Legislature gave $10 million to the University of Minnesota primarily to investigate hydrogen and ordered state agencies to recommend further initiatives to encourage hydrogen-related businesses.

Why this infatuation with hydrogen? Because at first glance it seems an ideal fuel. Hydrogen is the planet’s most abundant element. It can be extracted from water (H2O). Fuel cells in homes and cars can use hydrogen to generate pollution-free electricity.

A closer look, however, reveals that a hydrogen economy suffers from three potentially fatal flaws.

  • Hydrogen exists only in combination with other elements. To uncouple hydrogen from hydrogen-carrying substances like water or natural gas or coal requires a great deal of energy. In many cases, the energy needed to produce, deliver and store hydrogen exceeds the energy contained in the hydrogen itself.
  • A hydrogen economy will be a nonrenewable economy at least for the foreseeable future. Hydrogen made from fossil fuels is half to two-thirds cheaper than hydrogen made from renewable energy. Now almost 100 percent of worldwide industrial hydrogen is made from natural gas, coal or oil.
  • A hydrogen economy is frightfully expensive. Before we can displace even a modest amount of oil we will need to invest hundreds of billions of dollars to build a hydrogen production, delivery and storage infrastructure and tens of billions of dollars more to put vehicles on our roads capable of using hydrogen.

I commend Minnesota policymakers for being willing to embrace a bold and far-reaching transportation fuel strategy. I’m hopeful that this boldness can be reapplied to another alternative that can eliminate our reliance on imported oil at a fraction of the cost, far more rapidly and with far greater economic benefits than can a hydrogen economy.

This strategy is based on a new automotive technology that dramatically changes the context for the conversation about transportation futures: the hybrid electric vehicle (HEV).

Hybrids like Toyota’s Prius or Honda’s Insight can use electric motors as well as an engine to drive the car. The motor is used for acceleration, which avoids the significant energy losses (and pollution) that result when the car idles or in stop-and-go urban driving. Hybrids achieve fuel efficiencies today that are as high as those anticipated by fuel cell cars in the distant future.

When Toyota introduces its 40-mile-per-gallon hybrid SUV this fall, the nation will realize that high-efficiency cars do not require compromising performance or size.

The first step in a self-reliant transportation fuel strategy is to make hybrids the cars of choice. The second step is to expand the electric-only driving range of these vehicles by enlarging the battery capacity. The electricity for these batteries could come from the existing electricity grid. Such vehicles are now described as Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs). The average car travels only 20 miles a day. A hybrid car that can travel 60 miles on its batteries can displace almost all of the fuel needed for the engine.

The widespread use of HEVs and PHEVs enables the third step, running cars on biofuels. To contrast this with the hydrogen economy we can call this a sugar economy. Ethanol is made from sugars. In the United States, corn is the primary source of the sugars. In Brazil sugar comes from sugar cane, in Europe from wheat. Soon the sugars will be extracted from astonishingly abundant cellulosic materials like corn stalks, wheat straw, grasses and urban organic wastes.

Thanks to previous public policy, Minnesota boasts some 14 biorefineries. The majority are owned by farmers. To displace 85 percent of our imported petroleum we would need to triple or quadruple this number, in the process creating hundreds of new jobs and injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into rural economies.

Sugar-derived fuels compare favorably with hydrogen fuels. Ethanol is half the cost of hydrogen, without subsidies. Converting a gas station to an ethanol station costs 1 to 10 percent the cost of converting it to hydrogen. Minnesota already boasts 90 of the E85 (85 percent ethanol) pumps.

To modify a car to run on either ethanol or gasoline costs only $150. More than 3 million flexible-fueled cars already are on the road. To substitute a fuel cell for an internal combustion engine costs tens of thousands of dollars.

The hydrogen economy is an alluring vision. But we would be better served by looking in our backyards and to our own resources to wean ourselves off of imported oil.

David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance ( and author of Seeing the Light: Regaining Control of Our Electricity System.

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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.