Argument: Hydrogen is only as clean as the electricity producing it

Issue Report: Hydrogen vehicles


Arthur St. Antoine. “Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and Reality”. Motor Trend. – “electrolysis is only as economical and clean as the electricity going in, which is to say “not very” in most of the world today”

Barry C. Lynn. “Hydrogen’s Dirty Secret”. Mother Jones. May/June 2003 – Although the fuel-cell cars themselves may emit nothing but water vapor, the process of producing the fuel cells from hydrocarbons will continue America’s dependence on fossil fuels and leave behind carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming.

Mike Nicklas, chair of the American Solar Energy Society, was one of 224 energy experts invited by the Department of Energy to develop the government’s Roadmap last spring. The sessions, environmentalists quickly discovered, were dominated by representatives from the oil, coal, and nuclear industries. “All the emphasis was on how the process would benefit traditional energy industries,” recalls Nicklas, who sat on a committee chaired by an executive from ChevronTexaco. “The whole meeting had been staged to get a particular result, which was a plan to extract hydrogen from fossil fuels and not from renewables.” The plan does not call for a single ounce of hydrogen to come from power generated by the sun or the wind, concluding that such technologies “need further development for hydrogen production to be more cost competitive.”

But instead of investing in developing those sources, the budget that Bush submitted to Congress pays scant attention to renewable methods of producing hydrogen. More than half of all hydrogen funding is earmarked for automakers and the energy industry. Under the president’s plan, more than $22 million of hydrogen research for 2004 will be devoted to coal, nuclear power, and natural gas, compared with $17 million for renewable sources. Overall funding for renewable research and energy conservation, meanwhile, will be slashed by more than $86 million. “Cutting R&D for renewable sources and replacing them with fossil and nuclear doesn’t make for a sustainable approach,” says Jason Mark, director of the clean vehicles program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The oil and chemical industries already produce 9 million tons of hydrogen each year, most of it from natural gas, and transport it through hundreds of miles of pipelines to fuel the space shuttle and to remove sulfur from petroleum refineries. The administration’s plan lays the groundwork to expand that infrastructure — guaranteeing that oil and gas companies will profit from any transition to hydrogen. Lauren Segal, general manager of hydrogen development for BP, puts it succinctly: “We view hydrogen as a way to really grow our natural-gas business.”