There’s no denying it: Hydrogen is suddenly hip. If you haven’t been paying attention to the news lately, you might think that hydrogen is still stuck in the dark and dusty corners of our minds, along with all the other useless things we learned in high school. In fact, this most elemental of elements is back in the limelight for the first time since Jules Verne trumpeted the possibility of a clean energy future based on hydrogen in “The Mysterious Island”: “Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable … water will be the coal of the future.”
If you doubt it, just consider the evidence. George W. Bush, the oilman branded the “toxic Texan” by the British press, stunned the energy world by committing America to a hydrogen future during his State of the Union speech in 2003. The press coverage at the time focused on his questionable claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but future generations may see another part of the speech as more important: He vowed that “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution free.”
Not to be outdone, the European Commission also unveiled its grand Hydrogen Roadmap last year. The European Union vows to become the world’s first “hydrogen superpower” (whatever that means), and its president, Romano Prodi, longs to be remembered as the man who ushered Europe into the hydrogen age. Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the eve of California’s already bizarre recall election, baffled voters by promising to build a Hydrogen Highway in his state—and now vows it will stretch from Tijuana to Vancouver.
Hydrogen has clearly become the darling of politicians, but how much of this hoopla is really just hype? After all, the Terminator’s grand promises of clean energy come from a man who owns not one but seven Hummer SUV’s! I have grappled with this question in recent years as I followed this emerging technology for my magazine, The Economist—and even more so as I wrote my book on the future of energy, “Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution Will Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet.”
I determined that if we are to cut through the hype on this issue, we must first answer three questions:
- What exactly is hydrogen energy?
- Is it really worth bothering with?
- Or could this possibly be the beginnings of the Great Hydrogen Hoax?
First, to the basics. Hydrogen matters because it can be used as a fuel in clean-energy devices called fuel cells. Fuel cells are, in essence, big batteries that run for as long as hydrogen (from some primary energy source) and oxygen (from the air) are supplied. They produce electricity that can be used to run a laptop, a house, or a car.
All very interesting, one might think, but so what? The reason to care is that the only local emission produced by fuel cells is water vapor. That means that cars powered in this way would not contribute to smog or other air pollution concerns that bedevil the world’s cities. What’s more, if the hydrogen is made from a clean energy source like renewables, then this approach would emit virtually no greenhouse gases as well. That would be a dramatic boost to efforts to tackle global warming. In a nutshell, a shift from fossil fuel-combustion to hydrogen fuel cells would speed the arrival of a zero-emissions energy future.
Will we really get to this green utopia? Maybe, but there are influential voices in industry, in the environmental community, and in politics who argue that all the current interest in hydrogen is at best a distraction—and at worst a giant hoax. How well reporters handle this blizzard of claims and counterclaims will surely help shape the public debate on the matter and ultimately help the public in evaluating the true potential of this radically different approach to energy.
Evaluating Hydrogen’s Hoaxes
One camp of skeptics argues that hydrogen amounts to a technology hoax. Either it won’t work as promised, they say, or it will prove too dangerous to be viable. After all, we all remember the Hindenburg—the German passenger airship filled with hydrogen that blew up—and the H-bomb.
The first of these claims simply doesn’t wash. Fuel cells are hardly new: The basic concept is over 150 years old, and fuel cells have been used successfully by NASA to power several generations of space craft. In fact, astronauts on the space shuttles drink the perfectly pure water that is the only exhaust of their fuel cells.
As for safety, hydrogen is indeed dangerous—but any fair analysis (unfortunately, these are not too common) has to put that risk into proper perspective. Gasoline is also a dangerous fuel and, in fact, would almost certainly not be accepted by the Environmental Protection Agency if it were proposed as a brand new fuel today. Most experts from the automobile, energy and chemicals industries now agree that hydrogen can be used every bit as safely as gasoline so long as we use proper (i.e. different) measures in handling it. What’s more, a little digging reveals that the eye-catching Hindenburg anecdote is bogus. Excellent detective work done by Addison Bain, formerly the chief hydrogen scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, shows that the zeppelin did not blow up because of its hydrogen; rather, it caught on fire. That is because the Germans had unwittingly painted it with chemicals that we today use as rocket propulsion fuel.
In short, hydrogen is not a technology hoax.
Even if the technology works, argues another camp of skeptics, it still doesn’t make any economic sense. Such voices note that hydrogen is not in itself an energy source. To make hydrogen requires the use of a primary energy source, and that inevitably involves efficiency losses and “energy penalties.” Given that we have a cheap and cheerful energy system that is wonderfully efficient today, they say, why bother with a costly and disruptive transition to something that could prove an economic hoax?
At one level, these critics are certainly right: Hydrogen is not a magical new source of energy. Shamefully, some reporters writing about this topic imply that it is. More often, though, even careful reporters bury this unobvious fact deep in the story—and so leave casual readers with a very misleading impression. Though hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is never found in its free state on earth—and so must be released from its molecular bond to carbon in hydrocarbon fuels or (along the lines of Verne’s vision) from its bond to oxygen in ordinary water. That does take some energy and involves some inefficiencies. So it is really an “energy carrier” like electricity that has to be created from some primary energy source, be that windmills or coal plants or nuclear power.
But this does not necessarily mean that making hydrogen is economic nonsense. Journalists must look beyond the self-serving arguments offered by some critics (such as certain oil companies) to the fuller picture. Hydrogen conversion inefficiencies must be put in the proper context, for today’s energy system is hardly a paragon of efficiency. More than half of America’s electricity, for example, comes from aging coal-fired power plants; many run at barely 35 percent efficiency. Because they are located far from consumers, the heat produced is wasted, and more power is lost in transmission and distribution. We then burn more fuel to heat our homes since we didn’t do “co-generation” (as in Thomas Edison’s original vision for micropower plants situated close to users—a vision that fuel cells could help revive) in the first place. The iron nexus of the internal combustion engine and gasoline is even worse than the power plants: A typical car engine is so inefficient that it converts only about 15 percent of the energy content of gasoline into useful motion. In contrast, after just a few short years of commercial research, fuel cells are already converting more than 40 percent of the energy content of hydrogen into useful power.
So today’s energy system is clearly no paragon of efficiency—but that glaring and relevant fact rarely gets much ink in articles about hydrogen. What’s more, its economics look decidedly suspect if the hidden costs of guzzling fossil fuels are taken into account. Burning coal takes a tremendous toll on human lungs, leading to millions of premature deaths each year worldwide. Consuming gasoline contributes to global warming, a problem that may have devastating impacts on parts of the world. And at least part of the cost of stationing American troops in the Middle East must be attributed to Western nations’ interest in the region’s oil.
General Motors Vice President Lawrence Burns (left) stands with President George Bush in front of the Hy-wire concept car at an event promoting the use of hydrogen fuel cells in Washington, D.C. in February 2003. Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press.
Hidden Costs and Motives
Balanced reporting that integrates energy and environmental issues would make clear to readers that all these “externalities” add up to a hidden cost that society pays for its use of fossil fuels—a price not paid at the pump, of course, but nonetheless paid through the health of our children, flora and fauna, and in the use of military troops. Investigative reporting would expose an even bigger outrage: Billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies and tax breaks are quietly lavished on the oil, gas and nuclear industries. Agricultural subsidies get lots of bad press, but not energy subsidies. Why not? Because too often the press allows self-righteous politicians or interest groups (be that oil companies or wind lobbies) to get away with claims that such subsidies enhance “energy security” or “energy independence” or other completely bogus notions. We must do much more to expose these claims for what they really are: efforts by wealthy and influential interests to get financial assistance through the political process.
Too often, reporters in the United States take the view that the current way of pricing energy is the only way possible—that is, the market sets the price for gasoline. That is too naive a view: For a start, the OPEC cartel does more to set the price than any market forces. That is also too parochial a view, as a look at environmental policies across the world reveals. If the external costs of fossil fuel are priced properly, as some European countries are now starting to do with “eco-taxation” reforms, then hydrogen would surely not appear so uneconomic.
So if the skeptics are wrong about the technology and economics of hydrogen, where exactly is this Great Hydrogen Hoax? The answer is that there is a political hoax underway today in America—and that lazy journalists risk falling victim to it. Both left and right are busy making claims about the virtues or villainy of this technology, and neither is being entirely honest with the public.
For a start, consider the reaction from most big environmental groups to the unveiling of America’s hydrogen strategy. You might think that the vision for a net zero-emission future would have been applauded by them. After all, this is a far more ambitious energy goal than anything in current law. When Tony Blair unveiled a climate-friendly, hydrogen-intensive energy strategy for Britain recently, he was feted by greens as a visionary. Yet in America, most environmental groups have been deeply skeptical or outright hostile to the Bush administration’s hydrogen plans. Their view is that this Texan oilman has proven so un-green in so many ways that he simply can’t be trusted on this new-fangled hydrogen thing. Besides, they often whisper to reporters, Bush surely just wants to distract attention from shorter-term measures on efficiency and renewables. As clinching proof, they point to the fact that he wants to include evil coal as a possible source of hydrogen in the future—thus allowing “black” hydrogen to compete with “green” hydrogen made from renewables. Therefore, goes the argument, his hydrogen plan must be a scam.
Frankly, part of the environmental skepticism is justified. Hydrogen makes for sexy copy and surely gives an otherwise un-green administration an environmental veneer. But most independent energy pundits argue that neither short-term efficiency measures nor a long-term switch to hydrogen are enough: We need to do both if we are to tackle the very serious environmental problems that are linked to our energy use.
But rather than reflect that nuanced argument, much of the reporting on this topic picks up on the justified critiques of Bush environmental policies in order to damn hydrogen altogether. That surely kills a virtuous message because of the failings of the messenger. Richard Nixon didn’t go to China because he loved Communists— he went because domestic and international political realities forced him to embrace an audaciously different strategy that undeniably changed the course of world history.
Set aside Bush’s motivations, and you find that the vision for a net zero-emission future is actually even more breathtaking than Nixon’s embrace of the Middle Kingdom. Look beyond the navel-gazing of Beltway politics, and one will see that the governments of Japan and Europe are also now forging ahead on hydrogen fuel cells—and nobody can accuse Eurocrats of being in the back pockets of the Texan oil lobby. Even China (which is very concerned about future reliance on OPEC oil and Russian gas) now has more than 400 different agencies, university labs, military divisions, and private firms working on fuel cells.
But where in the American press did you last read or hear about that intriguing aspect of the hydrogen story? Much broader coverage of this is found in the European and Canadian press than in most American outlets. In fact, that China example explains why the criticism of coal-to-hydrogen is misguided, or at least needs to be placed by reporters in proper context. It is true that coal used in today’s filthy combustion plants is a big part of our environmental problem. However, that is not what the White House (or its partner in crime, the European Commission) proposes in its hydrogen vision: It wants to derive hydrogen from coal to use in tomorrow’s clean energy plants and to “sequester” the resultant carbon dioxide emissions into the ground so that they won’t contribute to global warming. Frankly, that’s pretty green—and has little to do with the filthy way that coal is used in America today.
The inclusion of coal matters not just because it helps Bush’s cronies in the domestic coal industry, though that is surely one of his motivations. The real reason this might be laudable arises from the distressing fact that India, South Africa, and especially China have nearly limitless domestic supplies of coal. As their economies soar in coming years, they will use that coal. If they do so with the same inefficient and filthy technologies that America uses today, as they are set to do on current trends, then many millions of unfortunates in those countries will die prematurely from air pollution.
What’s more, any hopes of climate stabilization will be sunk—so much carbon dioxide would be released by China alone that the U.N.’s Kyoto Protocol becomes irrelevant. On the other hand, if the rich countries can speed the arrival of hydrogen-from-coal and carbon sequestration technologies and help transfer those technologies to the poor countries, then perhaps growth and greenery can be made compatible after all.
Reporters taking a global view would see that the question of hydrogen cuts right to the heart of the great debate over sustainable development itself: How can we reconcile the energy-guzzling growth required to alleviate poverty with the need to preserve the natural environment for future generations? This dilemma explains why the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group with impeccable credentials and lots of lawsuits pending against the Bush administration, has courageously broken with the green herd and now supports efforts to develop hydrogen from coal.
The world will need more such creative thinking if it is to tackle the thorny challenges posed by the collision of energy, environment and economy— and it will need reporters willing to take a long-term, multidisciplinary, global view to explain this story to readers. The tension between the future economic growth and concerns about the environment lies at the heart of the debate over sustainable development—the greatest challenge of this new century. Clean hydrogen energy could well play an important part in the transition to a clean energy future and help us solve the sustainability puzzle—but only if we first debunk the Great Hydrogen Hoax.
Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran is the environment and energy correspondent for The Economist. He is also the author of “Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution Will Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet,” published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2003. More information about his book can be found at www.vijaytothepeople.com.