The politics of the hydrogen economy

Hydrogen seems to promise clean air, a reduction in the need for Middle East oil, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and good jobs for Americans. This is very seductive to most Americans. There is wide spread interest and numerous websites, books, and magazine articles are devoted to the subject.

President Bush announced the FreedomCar and FreedomFuel Initiative in the State of the Union Address of January, 2003. [1]

hydrogen power can save americaHow Hydrogen Can Save America appeared in the April 2004 issue of Wired. [2] The authors propose a program equal in scope to the Apollo program that put men on the moon. They have been seduced too. Here is the introduction:

The cost of oil dependence has never been so clear. What had long been largely an environmental issue has suddenly become a deadly serious strategic concern. Oil is an indulgence we can no longer afford, not just because it will run out or turn the planet into a sauna, but because it inexorably leads to global conflict. Enough. What we need is a massive, Apollo-scale effort to unlock the potential of hydrogen, a virtually unlimited source of power. The technology is at a tipping point. Terrorism provides political urgency. Consumers are ready for an alternative. From Detroit to Dallas, even the oil establishment is primed for change. We put a man on the moon in a decade; we can achieve energy independence just as fast. Here's how.

The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth, a popular book by Jeremy Rifkin, is an example. [3] The subtitle suggests that Rifkin has been seduced by hydrogen. It seems worthwhile to include a review of Rifkin's book that appeared in the March-April 2003 issue of American Scientist.

The age of oil is about to end, which will come as a surprise to most people. Depletion of the rest of the fossil fuels may not be far behind. And if we do go on merrily burning up the planet's legacy, the result may be irreversible damage to our climate. This crucially important idea is the starting point of The Hydrogen Economy, a new book by Jeremy Rifkin, a former peace advocate who now crusades against biotechnology and various other perceived ills.

Rifkin believes that oil will be replaced by hydrogen fuel cells. Unlike the oil economy, which requires a top-down, capitalist-corporate order, the hydrogen economy will be something like the Internet, he says, with users who are also providers, generating their own hydrogen and sharing any surplus on the Hydrogen Energy Web. After all, unlike oil, hydrogen is everywhere: It's the most common element in the universe, the "forever fuel" that we can never run out of. The revolution brought about by the hydrogen economy will lead to a democratization of society and give a whole new meaning to the word globalization.

But wait a minute. Doesn't Rifkin understand that it takes energy to generate hydrogen from water, or from any other source? Well, yes, he even says so in a couple of places, but he seems to have trouble holding that thought. And when he does come to grips with it, he believes all the energy will come from "renewable resources-photovoltaic, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass." There will be no nuclear reactors in a world designed by Jeremy Rifkin. At present, all the renewables on Rifkin's list aside from hydroelectricity collectively generate less than 1 percent of our energy needs.

Is Rifkin's proposed solution physically possible? Well, yes, sort of, but it's extremely implausible that all the power generated today by fossil fuels, about 10 terawatts worldwide, could ever be replaced from those sources. Biomass is a terribly inefficient use of sunlight. There are only a few places on Earth where enough geothermal energy to generate electricity is within drilling distance of the surface. Hydroelectric capacity is already saturated, and wind is an intermittent, low-density (and often ugly) source of power. According to an article by Martin I. Hoffert and colleagues in the November 1, 2002, issue of Science (298:981-987), to replace the 10 terawatts with photovoltaics would require an array covering more than 200,000 square kilometers, whereas all the photovoltaic cells shipped between 1982 and 1998 would cover only 3 square kilometers.

Our best hope in the short run is that somebody will start building nuclear power plants in a hurry, before the oil starts to run out. In the longer run, when the fossil fuels are gone or sequestered and the uranium starts to run low, if we haven't yet brought thermonuclear energy under control, heroic measures like huge arrays of photovoltaics on Earth, or somewhat smaller ones in space (where the solar flux is about 8 times the average at the Earth's surface), may be in order. That is not to say we should not do our best to develop renewable energy sources. We certainly should. But they will not replace fossil fuels anytime soon.

Rifkin is certainly right to say that we will soon start running out of oil, that continued burning of fossil fuels is a grave threat to the Earth's climate, and that hydrogen, either in fuel cells or by combustion, is the best bet for the future of transportation. He has correctly identified the biggest problem we have. But this book is not part of the solution.-David Goodstein, Physics, California Institute of Technology

Turning food into ethanol and turning ethanol into hydrogen

Surplus corn can be turned into ethanol by fermentation. Ethanol can be added to gasoline to increase the octane rating and lower emissions. (Ethanol also lowers mileage.) It seems like a good idea. Farmers would benefit, the environment would benefit, and an agricultural surplus would be consumed. This is an idea that plays very well in agricultural states. But it takes natural gas to make fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides to grow corn. The farmer needs oil to run agricultural machinery. The corn must be harvested and transported using oil powered machinery. An energy source is needed to triple distill the ethanol. When the energy content of the oil and gas is subtracted from the energy content of the the ethanol, the result is negative! [4] Subsidizing ethanol derived from corn does not reduce dependence on OPEC oil. This is an example of an energy returned over energy invested (EROEI) calculation.

It is possible to derive hydrogen from ethanol using a process called "reforming." Hydrogen economy advocates suggest that a hydrogen economy could be sustained in this way. But part of the chemical energy in ethanol is lost when the ethanol is reformed. That makes the EROEI calculation even more unfavorable.

Other takes on the hydrogen economy

Tom and Ray Magliozzi are approachable MIT graduates. They are syndicated nationally and they have a show on public radio called Car Talk.

Dear Tom and Ray:

President Bush talked about a "hydrogen car" in his State of the Union address. Is this a realistic possibility during the Bush administration? -- Jim

Ray: Maybe during the Jenna Bush administration, Jim. The technology itself works, but people "in the know" say it's going to be at least 20 years before hydrogen-powered cars are viable on a large scale -- if then.

Tom: The main problems are: (1) the fuel cell "stacks" are still incredibly expensive to build, (2) the range of the cars is insufficient and (3) there's no national infrastructure (like gas stations) to support hydrogen. So it's not going to happen anytime soon.

Ray: So, why is the president talking about hydrogen-powered cars? Well, in my humble opinion, he's creating a distraction.

Tom: I think so, too. You probably know that we now import boatloads of foreign oil every day. And almost everybody agrees that this is not a good thing (except for the countries that sell us the oil). So what do you do about it?

Ray: Well, you can try to find more oil here at home, by drilling in Alaska's forests, for instance. Or you can force people to use less oil. The president knows that both of these options are pretty unpopular. So he's doing what any good politician would do: He's changing the subject.

Tom: Here's another reason why he might want to distract us from thoughts of fuel economy and foreign oil. With no pressure on American car companies to increase gas mileage, the Japanese have taken a significant lead in the most important new propulsion technology in decades: hybrid engines. Hybrid engines use battery power some of the time and gasoline power at other times, and they never have to be plugged in. They're a great way to increase mileage without sacrificing power or convenience. And you're going to see Americans adopting them in big numbers over the next five to 10 years.

Ray: Who makes the best-selling hybrid cars in America? Honda and Toyota. So, instead of urging America to make more fuel-efficient cars and cut down on foreign oil by raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, or urging U.S. manufacturers to catch up with the Japanese on hybrids -- which would make a huge difference right away -- the president's talk about hydrogen cars is, essentially, the old "Hey, everybody, look over there!"

Here is a cartoonist's take on the hydrogen economy.


The Bush Administration calls hydrogen "Freedom Fuel." They think it can solve all problems including reelection. The Democratic candidates propose a Manhattan Project to put Americans to work and to solve a lot of other problems including the election of a Democratic president. Rifkin thinks that the hydrogen can empower people and create a new kind of democracy. Schwartz and Randall think that Apollo style program can solve hydrogen's problems.

But they are all seduced and they are all wrong. None have given a satisfactory quantitative answer to the question; Where will the energy come from?

[1] http://www.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenfuel/ You could have learned about the Bush administration's hydrogen economy plan in 2003, but it has been taken down.

[2] http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.04/hydrogen.html How Hydrogen can Save America, by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall. The authors call for an Apollo--style program to develop the hydrogen economy.

[3] Other books by the prolific Jeremy Rifkin include Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World, and The Age of Access.

[4] http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Aug01/corn-basedethanol.hrs.html Ethanol fuel from corn is faulted as "unsustainable subsidized food burning" in an analysis by Cornell scientists.