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We Should Double Down on Hydrogen

Curt Suplee’s article on hydrogen in the Washington Post, “Don’t Bet on a Hydrogen Car Anytime Soon”, is still circulating in Washington and deserves a response.  Suplee prides himself on colorful writing, but I’m afraid this time he has let his appetite for shocking adjectives overwhelm his judgment.  Everyone’s entitled to an opinion.  But the dialogue over the motor vehicle of the future was clouded enough without this contribution.

Suplee rightly notes that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles offer a more secure and planet- friendly transportation future.   Hydrogen is such a good energy carrier that it is added to gasoline today in ever increasing quantities to improve performance and lower emissions.  Hydrogen can be extracted from fossil fuels, biofuels and even water.  This flexibility is a strength, not a weakness.  It allows motor fuel to be produced from a variety of locally available sources, just as our electric grid includes coal, natural gas, renewable and nuclear power. 

This is not a Bush Administration plot.  The ramping up of federal interest in fuel cell vehicles began with the Clinton Administration.  It has produced exceptional results, rivaling the best of DOE’s research programs.  And best of all from the taxpayers’ perspective, government funding is a small fraction – no more than 20% — of what the auto industry itself has invested.  And the total invested in hydrogen over the past 20 years is less than we are spending on batteries this year alone. 

There is a robust and ubiquitous hydrogen production and distribution network in the US and worldwide, and the industry has compiled an exemplary safety record over the past 50 years.  Like all fuels hydrogen needs to be treated with respect, but you can make a case that, if anything, hydrogen is safer than gasoline today, and because it is used so much more efficiently there is much less fuel on board a hydrogen vehicle. 

It is true that nearly all the hydrogen produced commercially today is extracted from natural gas, but once again that is good news not bad news.  US supplies of natural gas are abundant and increasing.  Natural gas will always be cheaper than oil on an energy equivalent basis.  It is a clean fuel, used for decades in the US to displace dirtier fuels such as coal or oil for power generation.  It is an even better fuel when converted to hydrogen for use in a fuel cell, for two reasons. 

The process of extracting hydrogen begins with a 50-50 mix of natural gas and water – a low carbon mix.  But the real benefit comes when the fuel is used in a fuel cell.  The fuel cell relies on chemistry and not combustion, and is inherently efficient.  Today’s best fuel cell vehicles get 60 miles per gallon equivalent or better, and these are full-size vehicles that have all the room and creature comforts that consumers demand. 

Sure, it takes energy to make hydrogen.  But it takes energy to make any fuel.  The bottom line – from independent tests — is that fuel cell vehicles are nearly three times more efficient and nearly two-thirds cleaner than today’s gasoline cars, and cleaner and more efficient than today’s hybrids.

This efficiency translates to savings for the consumer.  The consumer price of hydrogen at the pump today competes with gasoline on per-mile basis in some locations and the price will fall rapidly as demand increases. 

Natural gas is a fossil fuel.  But every energy pathway open to cars today relies exclusively or largely on fossil fuel. In the Midwest for example an electric vehicle will “run” mostly on coal.  It is also true that hydrogen will need to be delivered to the consumer.  But hydrogen gives us options we don’t have with gasoline.  We can move hydrogen by truck, or by pipeline, or produce it close to the point of use, depending on local economics.

Electricity shares many of the benefits of hydrogen; fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles, after all.  And there is room for both pathways in our motor vehicle future.  There is also a role for biofuels, and the biofuels-to-hydrogen pathway is an exciting renewable option already opening up.  But it is a disservice to imply that the battery electrical vehicle pathway will be easy or cheap.  A coalition of electric utilities this week asked for $120 Billion from the federal government over eight years to facilitate the commercialization of EV’s.  For less than half that amount we could establish a profitable nationwide network of hydrogen stations and deploy millions of full-function, marketable fuel cell vehicles, according to the National Academies of Science.

A hydrogen fuel cell future is no more difficult than any other transportation future.  It is a realistic, cost competitive option that offers tremendous flexibility and tremendous value.  It is no tailpipe dream; in fact there is no tailpipe at all.


- Bob Rose

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  1. December 7, 2009 @ 3:47 pm
    Jennifer says...

    hear, hear!

  2. December 7, 2009 @ 7:49 pm
    Mike S. says...

    I agree.  One way to do this may be to support and vote for the only hydrogen fuel cell car that the green car journal has listed among five finalists for the Green Car Vision award.  This award will be announced in Washington DC at the Washington DC Auto Show at the end of January.The link to the Autblog article and voting page is: fully support the electrification of transportation products, in all its iterations.  Having been involved with fuel cell vehicles for about 10 years, and working for Mercedes-Benz, I am of course partial to Mercedes Benz products.  I am suggesting that since it is the only hydrogen fuel cell car in the running, a large number of votes for it will show that hydrogen is a serious contender in the future of automobiles.  It is a shame that the Honda FCX Clarity lost to the Volt last year.

  3. December 8, 2009 @ 7:04 pm
    David Redstone says...

    The part about the “ramping up of federal interest in fuel cell vehicles [having] produced exceptional results” is just laughable. Federal spending on FCVs has produced no results in terms of marketable vehicles, which is all that matters.In an August 2009 Rochester NY newspaper article, Dan O’Connell, the director of fuel cell commercialization at GM’s Honeoye Falls facility, says, unequivocally: “the [fuel cell] vehicles cost about 10 times more than company officials think they need to cost. That means engineers and researches are looking for engineering and materials improvements that would reduce cost and maintain or improve performance.“Yet Bob Rose claims that FCVs are a “cost competitive option”.Seems to me that the director of fuel cell commercialization at GM is much more credible on the question of cost competitiveness than is the head of a trade group whose primary mission is to keep the taxpayer dollars flowing.

  4. December 9, 2009 @ 3:30 pm
    Bob Rose says...

    David Redstone is a little too selective in his choice of quotes from the Rochester City Paper.  Here is some more from the same source, selected by me but otehrwise unedited.
    “Engineers have made remarkable progress on hydrogen vehicle technology. [emphasis theirs]
    “During a press event earlier this year, several Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell vehicle prototypes sat in front of the GM’s Honeoye Falls facility. More than 100 test vehicles have been deployed in Rochester, New York City, and Los Angeles.
    “The technology in the vehicles is about four years old, says Dan O’Connell, the lab’s director of fuel cell commercialization. There’s a new generation of technology that could go into higher volume production when the time is right, he says. That new technology is smaller, lighter, and more efficient. It’s also less expensive.
    “What GM has been focusing on is getting the price of the vehicles down. Right now, O’Connell says, the vehicles cost about 10 times more than company officials think they need to cost. That means engineers and researches are looking for engineering and materials improvements that would reduce cost and maintain or improve performance. And these vehicles are hand-built prototypes, not mass-assembled autos.
    “”We know it’s hard to do, but if it’s the right thing to do, let’s do it,” O’Connell says.”

  5. December 11, 2009 @ 3:25 pm
    Zachary Alexander says...

    Green technologies will always appear more expensive as long as the true cost of using oil and coal are hidden. The United States Congress places the hidden cost for health care and environmental damage at $120 Billion a year. The only way to truly assess the value of hydrogen convergence is to remove the subsidies that are currently distorting the markets.

  6. December 13, 2009 @ 9:56 am
    Jim Callahan says...

    Could the “Picken’s Plan” which involves using natural gas for transportation be a bridge to using hydrogen for transportation?  For example is there an easy path for natural gas stations to also sell hydrogen?The “Picken’s Plan” natural gas for transportation bridge would operate in parallel to the hybrid car to fuell cell car bridge as well as the natural gas car to hydrogen car bridge.Jim CallahanOrlando, fl

  7. December 14, 2009 @ 11:45 am
    Zachary Alexander says...

    Personally, I’m not a fan of burning natural gas. Fuel Cells are much more efficient. However, I am huge fan of using natural gas as raw material or feedstock for hydrogen production. The natural gas pipelines and onsite hydrogen production could be used by current filling stations to fuel hydrogen cars.

  8. December 14, 2009 @ 4:08 pm
    Patrick at HEF says...

    This is a wonderful piece.  It’s a shame Mr. Suplee didn’t consult many experts in the industry before forming and then publishing his opinions.  A hydrogen fuel cell future is a realistic, cost competitive option when compared other alternative fuels and technologies–many of which are complementary options, not competitive ones.

  9. December 17, 2009 @ 9:38 pm
    Kevin Harris says...

    Why would you use 3 times as much electricity to produce hydrogen when you could put the same amount straight into a battery? Hydrogen is a dead horse. It is a convenient way for the auto industry to extract money from the Government – which has been done over the last decades. Of course, as a manufacturer I can ramp up my costs to make the tax payers funding look like being only 20% of my investments. Easy!Plus, it is another way to tie the consumer to the big corporations. What options do I have at the moment if the price of fuel sky rockets? Almost none. If I have a battery car and the electricity price skyrockets I just produce my own electricity. So they can’t dictate the price.Plus, having less parts than in a conventional vehicle there is less to go wrong, to be replaced and to be serviced. This hydrogen fool cell is just another way to put us into a new dependence. Thanks – but no thanks.And with all the progress made in battery design it is just a matter of time (years or months) until range is not an issue anymore. However, if you prefer to talk about today: Just use the same amount you spend on a hydrogen car TODAY and use it on a battery car TODAY – your battery range would be far superior than that of a fool cell. Hydrogen – rest in peace!

  10. December 18, 2009 @ 11:08 am
    Jennifer says...

    Kevin – have you seen the NRC report and the recent article on Auto Blog Green    Battery range is still a big issue and costs are still very high.   Plus, charging time is a lot longer unless you have one of the advanced charger systems which aren’t quite here yet (and will be very expensive, too).   As Bob’s piece says, the amount of money batteries got this year is more than what’s been spent on fuel cells in the last 20 years, AND fuel cells have acheived every goal set forth by DOE, and then some.   

    I choose to listen to all the automakers as well as independent researchers like the NAS when they say we need a portfolio approach to satisfy everyone – your BEV isn’t going to get the range and can’t charge fast enough or be light enough for a family, it is more of an urban vehicle for errands around town.  You need something with greater range and more room to take longer trips and fit more than 2 people – there is a role for fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen, a vital role if we want to reduce emissions and dependence on oil.  

    Fuel cell cars have less parts than a conventional vehicle, too, BTW.

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