Yesterday’s Fuel of the Future, Today: The Return of Hydrogen

Hydrogen itself is not the solution to our problems. It’s how we make it, and how we use it, that count.

If the classic 1967 movie, The Graduate, were remade and set in 2003, the “one word” of advice given to recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock might not have been “plastics,” but rather “hydrogen.”

The idea that our automobile fleet might be repowered with clean, emission-free hydrogen was all the rage a decade ago. President George W. Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union address, described to the American people how “a simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car, producing only water, not exhaust fumes” and dreamed that “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.”

That initial burst of enthusiasm led to some immediate action to bring hydrogen-powered cars to life, perhaps most notably former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s effort to create a “Hydrogen Highway” in that state. But, by and large, the momentum behind hydrogen-powered cars stalled. A decade later, according to the San Jose Mercury-News, there are only about 300 hydrogen cars on California’s highways.

Now, however, hydrogen seems to have gotten a new lease on life, with the announcement this week by Toyota that it plans to sell a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in the United States in 2015. Perhaps, with five years to go before children born in 2003 get their driver’s licenses (if they get them at all!), President Bush’s dream could yet become a reality.

Back during the peak of hydrogen hype in 2004, I wrote a white paper for the state PIRGs called Making Sense of Hydrogen that walked through the potential benefits, challenges and uncertainties of the “hydrogen economy.” The verdict then, which I think still holds true today, is that hydrogen itself is not the solution to our problems. It’s how we make it, and how we use it, that count.

The most important thing to understand about hydrogen is that, while it is the most abundant element in the universe, it also exists on its own almost nowhere in nature. To get it, one either needs to extract it (using a process called “reformation”) from fossil fuels such as natural gas, or split water into hydrogen and oxygen using the highly energy-intensive process of electrolysis.

Using natural gas as a feedstock to produce hydrogen, or renewably generated electricity to power hydrolysis, might seem like a cleaner, more environmentally sustainable way to power vehicles than the use of gasoline-powered internal combustion engines. And in a narrow sense it is.

The problem is that the natural gas or renewable energy used to produce hydrogen could, for the moment at least, be used far more productively in other ways. The highest, best use of natural gas for addressing global warming, for example, is to support the expansion of renewable energy. And the highest, best use of renewable energy is to replace highly polluting coal.

Over the last several decades, we’ve actually made tremendous progress in making cars cleaner, both in terms of tailpipe emissions and – through stronger fuel economy standards and the introduction of hybrid and plug-in battery-electric vehicles – in terms of fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions as well. There is still plenty of room to improve and build on those technologies, which weakens the case for the urgent, massive investment in new hydrogen fueling infrastructure that would be needed to make hydrogen cars a mainstream option.

That said, however, hydrogen does hold promise in some important ways.  For one thing, hydrogen-powered vehicles do not suffer from the range-related challenges of battery electric vehicles, making them a potential low-emission option for vehicles commonly used on long journeys, including buses and long-haul trucks. In addition, hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles use electric drivetrains, just as battery-electric vehicles do. At least some of the engineering work needed to improve the function of fuel cell vehicles, therefore, should also benefit all forms of electric vehicles.

Lastly, and most importantly, hydrogen provides yet another option for energy storage, which is the critical challenge facing the transition to an all-renewable grid. It is not hard to imagine electricity from solar panels being used to create hydrogen, which is then run through a fuel cell to produce electricity at night. Or to imagine a grid in which thousands of fuel cell cars are pressed into service to generate electricity at times of peak demand, relieving the need to fire up expensive (and often dirty) peak generators. These same grid-supporting functions can be played by battery-electric vehicles as well, but a little competition in the urgent race to solve the energy storage problem certainly can’t hurt.

In short, after all these years, policy-makers still need to be careful when it comes to hydrogen. If used intelligently as part of an overall strategy to de-carbonize our energy system, hydrogen and fuel cells can play an important role in moving America toward a clean energy future. But if hydrogen is used solely as a Trojan horse for the natural gas industry to crack the transportation fuel market, the benefits for consumers and the environment are likely to be limited – if they arise at all.



Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.