The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate

The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate

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by Joseph J. Romm

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"Vital, very readable guidance for investors, environmentalists, and interested bystanders looking toward a future without fossil fuels." -BOOKLIST"It's hard to argue with the relentless logic...." -E/THE ENVIRONMENTAL MAGAZINE"Readers looking to separate facts from hype about cars running on hydrogen and large-scale fuel cell systems will find a useful primer


"Vital, very readable guidance for investors, environmentalists, and interested bystanders looking toward a future without fossil fuels." -BOOKLIST"It's hard to argue with the relentless logic...." -E/THE ENVIRONMENTAL MAGAZINE"Readers looking to separate facts from hype about cars running on hydrogen and large-scale fuel cell systems will find a useful primer here."-PUBLISHERS WEEKLYLately it has become a matter of conventional wisdom that hydrogen will solve many of our energy and environmental problems. Nearly everyone -- environmentalists, mainstream media commentators, industry analysts, General Motors, and even President Bush -- seems to expect emission-free hydrogen fuel cells to ride to the rescue in a matter of years, or at most a decade or two.Not so fast, says Joseph Romm. In The Hype about Hydrogen, he explains why hydrogen isn't the quick technological fix it's cracked up to be, and why cheering for fuel cells to sweep the market is not a viable strategy for combating climate change. Buildings and factories powered by fuel cells may indeed become common after 2010, Joseph Romm argues, but when it comes to transportation, the biggest source of greenhouse-gas emissions, hydrogen is unlikely to have a significant impact before 2050.The Hype about Hydrogen offers a hype-free explanation of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, takes a hard look at the practical difficulties of transitioning to a hydrogen economy, and reveals why, given increasingly strong evidence of the gravity of climate change, neither government policy nor business investment should be based on the belief that hydrogen cars will have meaningful commercial success in the near or medium term. Romm, who helped run the federal government's program on hydrogen and fuel cells during the Clinton administration, provides a provocative primer on the politics, business, and technology of hydrogen and climate protection.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush seized the nation's attention with his advocacy of a "hydrogen economy," with fuel cells that produce energy and water taking the place of fossil fuels in cars that produce greenhouse gases. As Romm (Cool Companies), a former Department of Energy official in the Clinton administration, points out, however, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source (at least until we tame nuclear fusion). Hydrogen can be extracted from biomass or seawater, but the primary source today is natural gas-which produces greenhouse gases as a byproduct. Romm expresses extreme pessimism about the potential for hydrogen fuel cells in automobiles, even as car manufacturers jump on the fuel cell bandwagon. Romm maintains that it will take decades to solve the infrastructure demands presented by a hydrogen-powered car, such as hydrogen's propensity to embrittle metal. There are also safety issues: an electrical storm several miles away can ignite hydrogen, as can a slight charge from a cell phone. Romm believes that stationary fuel cell systems to provide power to companies and homes hold much more potential (and he works with companies promoting this technology). His central chapter lays out the case for global warming and the potential for catastrophic climate change in the next few decades. Readers looking to separate facts from hype about cars running on hydrogen and large-scale fuel cell systems will find a useful primer here. (Mar. 11) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Romm, a former administrator in the U.S. Department of Energy under President Clinton and the author of Cool Companies: How the Best Businesses Boost Profits and Productivity by Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions, presents his views on a future hydrogen economy. Projecting a more conservative timetable than Peter Hoffman's Tomorrow's Energy and Jeremy Rifkin's The Hydrogen Economy, he makes a strong argument that global warming will be the driving force behind U.S. energy policy and private-sector energy-related investment. However, Romm doesn't expect to see a complete switch to emission-free hydrogen power before 2050. Stationary fuel cells for providing power to buildings and factories may be common after 2010, but the real difficulties lie in the transition to a hydrogen-based transportation system, owing to high costs, storage and safety issues, and our current fueling infrastructure. Much progress has been made in renewable technologies such as hybrid automobiles, especially in relation to their costs and fueling convenience, but Romm cautions that success with pure hydrogen may be more difficult to achieve in the near future. Using extensive research studies, the author makes a thoughtful and balanced case for this highly debated energy source that will interest informed readers in public and academic libraries.-Eva Lautemann, Georgia Perimeter Coll. Lib., Clarkston Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Journal of Scientific Exploration

"This book should be read and understood by every citizen."
Car and Driver

"Producing hydrogen for vehicular use from fossil fuels creates just as much pollution as burning gasoline does. For details on why this is so, read The Hype About Hydrogen by Joseph Romm, an energy department official who oversaw hydrogen and fuel-cell research during the Clinton administration."
San Diego Union-Tribune

"…this book serves as a primer on what to expect as the cost of energy becomes increasingly expensive. It is a must-read for environmentalists who may be expecting too much from hydrogen fuels and for business executives who may be promising too much in terms of next-generation energy technologies."
E-The Environment Magazine

"It's hard to argue with the relentless logic...."
Journal of Scientific Exploration - John Bockris

"This book should be read and understood by every citizen."


"Vital, very readable guidance for investors, environmentalists, and interested bystanders looking toward a future without fossil fuels."

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The Hype about Hydrogen

Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate

By Joseph J. Romm


Copyright © 2004 Joseph J. Romm
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-607-9


Why Hydrogen? Why Now?

When I first came to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 1993 to help oversee research and development (R&D) in clean energy, hydrogen R&D did not even have its own separate budget line but instead was nestled inside the renewable energy budget. For the previous decade, hydrogen research funding had languished in the $1–$2 million per year range, some one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the overall departmental budget—a penny in every $100.

Only ten years later, all the major car companies had hydrogen vehicle programs, the major oil companies had hydrogen production programs, dozens of new companies had been formed to develop hydrogen-related technologies with venture capital funding, and President George W. Bush had announced a major hydrogen initiative in his January 2003 State of the Union address:

Tonight I'm proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles. A single chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car—producing only water, not exhaust fumes. With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.

What caused this sea change in ten short years? I believe there are three reasons: a series of technological advances in the fuel cells most suitable for cars; growing concern about a variety of energy and environmental problems, especially global warming; and advances in technologies needed for greenhouse-gas-free hydrogen production.

Advances in Transportation Fuel Cells

Fuel cells are one of the Holy Grails of energy technology (see Chapter 2). They are pollution-free electric "engines" that run on hydrogen. Unlike virtually all other engines, fuel cells do not rely on the burning of fossil fuels. Hence, they produce no combustion by-products, such as oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, or particulates—the air pollutants that cause smog and acid rain and that have been most clearly documented as harmful to human health.

Fuel cells have been reliably providing electricity to spacecraft since the 1960s, including the Gemini and Apollo missions as well as the space shuttle. The leading manufacturer of fuel cells for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), United Technologies Corporation, has sold commercial units for stationary power since the early 1990s, with more than 200 units in service.

But finding a fuel cell with the right combination of features for powering a car or truck has proved much more difficult. Why is that hard? To begin with, you need a fuel cell that is lightweight and compact enough to fit under the hood of a car but that can still deliver the power and acceleration drivers have come to expect. You also need a fuel cell that can reach full power in a matter of seconds after start-up, which rules out a variety of fuel cells that operate at very high temperatures and thus take a long time to warm up. You also need cost and reliability comparable to that of the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, which is an exceedingly mature technology, the product of more than a hundred years of development and real-world testing in hundreds of millions of vehicles.

Further, these hardware hurdles are all quite separate from the way in which the fuel for fuel cells—hydrogen—would be produced and delivered to the vehicle. Hydrogen, first and foremost, is not a primary fuel, like natural gas or coal or wood, which we can drill or dig for or chop down and then use at once. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, true enough. But on Earth, it is bound up tightly in molecules of water, coal, natural gas, and so on. To unbind it, a great deal of energy must be used.

For all these reasons—plus the sharp drop in both the price of oil and government funding for alternative energy—hydrogen fuel cell vehicles received little attention through most of the 1980s. Still, a few government and industry laboratories (together with a small and ardent group of hydrogen advocates and state energy experts) kept plugging away, particularly on proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells.

PEM fuel cells were developed in the early 1960s by the General Electric Company for the Gemini space program. Fuel cells require catalysts to speed up the electrochemical reaction, and PEM fuel cells use platinum, a very expensive metal. An early 1981 analysis for the DOE had presciently argued that PEM fuel cells would be ideal for transportation if the catalyst loading could be significantly reduced. By the early 1990s, Los Alamos National Laboratory (and others) did succeed in cutting the amount of platinum by almost a factor of ten, a remarkable improvement. This still did not make PEM fuel cells cost-competitive with gasoline engines—we are a long way away from that—but it did dramatically reinvigorate interest in hydrogen-powered vehicles because PEMs were exactly the kind of low-temperature fuel cell that could be used in a car.

In 1993, DOE funding for PEM fuel cells was just less than $10 million. Within days of my arrival, I was briefed on Los Alamos' PEM work and began pushing for increases in funding for PEM fuel cells as well as for the development of a transportation fuel cell strategy. President Bill Clinton's entire team was very supportive of R&D for fuel- efficient technologies, including PEMs. Funding for hybrid vehicles, including fuel cells, was significantly increased. So, too, was funding for hydrogen R&D.

In mid-1995, I moved to the DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. I was principal deputy assistant secretary, the number two slot, in charge of all budget and technology analysis. In that capacity, I was able to work with other fuel cell advocates in and out of the administration, especially my DOE colleagues Brian Castelli and Christine Ervin, to keep the PEM fuel cell budget creeping upward even as the entire budget for the office was cut 20 percent by a 1995 Congress that was extremely skeptical of all energy R&D.

It seemed likely that long before PEM fuel cells would be cost-effective for powering cars, they would be cost-effective for providing electricity and hot water to buildings. Yet Congress had repeatedly rejected our office's request to start a small ($1 million) program to advance the effort to put fuel cells into buildings. In 1997, when I was acting assistant secretary, we managed to launch the program for stationary PEM fuel cell research, the budget for which ultimately grew to several million dollars.

By 1998, the year I left the DOE, the hydrogen budget was ten times larger than in 1993, and the proposed PEM fuel cell budget was more than three times larger. The investment paid off: The cost of fuel cells (PEM and others) had steadily declined as performance increased. Harry Pearce, vice chairman of the General Motors Corporation, said at the North American International Auto Show in January 2000, "It was the Department of Energy that took fuel cells from the aerospace industry to the automotive industry, and they should receive a lot of credit for bringing it to us."

There were promising developments in hydrogen production and storage. Hydrogen budgets were ballooning everywhere in a race for patents and products. William Clay Ford Jr., chairman of the Ford Motor Company, said in October 2000, "I believe fuel cells will finally end the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine"—a poignant statement from the great-grandson of the man whose manufacturing innovations had begun that reign a century ago with the Model T.

The federal government's increasing commitment to hydrogen and fuel cells, together with the technological successes already spawned by that funding, has spurred private sector interest, much as similar support does in medicine and national defense. Since the late 1990s, hundreds of millions of dollars from venture capitalists and investors in the stock market have flowed into start-up companies and divisions of existing companies, all working to develop hydrogen-related technologies and fuel cells, although, as discussed in Chapter 3, this investment funding has proved as erratic as the stock market.

The U.S. government was hardly the only source of funding for hydrogen and PEM fuel cells. Governments in Europe and Asia have major programs, as do Japanese car companies such as Toyota and Honda. Canada has a significant program because of the leadership of Ballard Power Systems Inc. in PEM technology.

Growing Energy Risks

Many other trends have driven the renewed interest in hydrogen. At the top of the list are worries about oil consumption and air pollution, including global warming. America's dependence on imported oil has accelerated since the mid-1990s, as many people predicted—including Charles Curtis, then deputy secretary of the DOE, and me in a 1996 Atlantic Monthly piece titled "Mideast Oil Forever?" By 2002, we were importing more than half our oil, an outflow of $100 billion per year to foreign governments, including those in the politically unstable Persian Gulf region.

The terrible September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks heightened this concern. Less than two weeks later, the DOE was commenting publicly. "It is clear that our reliance on imported oil—56% of the oil we use—has complicated our response to the terrorist attack," noted David Garman, the Bush administration's assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, on September 24, 2001. "There is also little doubt that some of the dollars we have exported in exchange for foreign oil have found their way into the hands of terrorists and would-be terrorists."

These seismic problems, together with worldwide population growth, economic growth, and urbanization, will dramatically increase global oil consumption in the coming decades, especially in the developing world. If by 2050 the per capita energy consumption of China and India were to approach that of South Korea, and if the Chinese and Indian populations increase at currently projected rates, those two supergiant countries by themselves would consume more oil than the entire world did in 2003.

Since oil is a finite, nonrenewable resource, analysts have attempted to predict when production will peak and start declining. Some believe this will occur by 2010. The Royal Dutch/Shell Group, probably the most successful predictor in the global oil business, adds fifteen to thirty years to that gloomy forecast. Worry about oil supplies is one of the factors behind Shell's growing research into hydrogen (see Chapter 7). This debate will not be resolved here, but it does appear credible that oil production will peak in the first half of this century and will possibly decline at a relatively rapid rate thereafter, even as demand increases. Thus, delaying action until we are past the peak may put us at significant risk.

Growing Environmental Risks

A whopping two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption is in the transportation sector, the only sector of the U.S. economy wholly reliant on oil. The energy price shocks of the 1970s helped spur growth in use of natural gas for home heating and drove the electric utility sector and the industrial sector to reduce their dependence on petroleum. But roughly 97 percent of all energy consumed by our cars, sport utility vehicles, vans, trucks, and airplanes is still petroleum-based.

Not surprisingly, a high priority of R&D funding by the United States—and by any country, state, or company that takes the long view—is to develop both more fuel-efficient vehicles and alternative fuels. Only a limited number of fuels are plausible alternatives for gasoline, and one enormous benefit of hydrogen over others is that it can be generated by a variety of different sources, thus potentially minimizing dependence on any one. Most important, hydrogen can be generated from renewable sources of energy such as wind power, raising the ultimate prospect of an inexhaustible, clean, domestic source of transportation fuel. Also, since fuel cells are more efficient than gasoline internal combustion engines, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are, potentially, a double winner in the race to replace oil.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would seem to be the perfect answer to our burgeoning and alarming dependence on imported oil. For some, like Peter Schwartz, chair of the Global Business Network, they are almost the deus ex machina—the quick, pure technological fix—that will avoid the need for difficult policy choices, such as federal mandates for increased vehicle efficiency. That is overoptimistic hype, as we will see.

The pollution generated by internal combustion engine automobiles is another key reason why so many people are drawn to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The transportation sector remains one of the largest sources of urban air pollution, especially the oxides of nitrogen that are a precursor to ozone smog and the particulates that do so much damage to our hearts and lungs. Vehicle emissions of such pollutants, however, have been declining steadily, and, by 2010, federal and state standards will have made new U.S. cars exceedingly clean.

Yet, even as new internal combustion engine vehicles dramatically cut the emissions of noxious urban air pollutants by automobiles, their contribution to global warming has begun to rise. In the 1990s, the transportation sector saw the fastest growth in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of any major sector of the U.S. economy. And the transportation sector is projected to generate nearly half of the 40 percent rise in U.S. CO2 emissions forecast for 2025.

When the United States takes serious action on global warming, the transportation sector will need to be a top priority. The two most straightforward ways to reduce vehicle CO2emissions are, first, by increasing the fuel efficiency of the vehicles themselves and, second, by using a fuel that has lower net emissions than gasoline. Again, the attractiveness of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is that they afford the possibility of pursuing both strategies at the same time: Fuel cells are more efficient than traditional internal combustion engines, and hydrogen, when produced from renewable energy sources, would create no net greenhouse gas emissions.

Hydrogen without Greenhouse Gases

The possibility that hydrogen and fuel cells could play a key role in combating pollution, particularly global warming, is, I believe, the strongest argument for expanded efforts in research and development. John Heywood, director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues, "If the hydrogen does not come from renewable sources, then it is simply not worth doing, environmentally or economically."

The idea that hydrogen could be generated without releasing any pollution is not a new one. In 1923, John Haldane, who later became one of the century's most famous geneticists, gave a lecture predicting that Britain would ultimately derive its energy from "rows of metallic windmills" generating electricity for the country and, when there was excess wind, producing hydrogen. "Among its more obvious advantages will be the fact that ... no smoke or ash will be produced."

The problem with the vision of a pure hydrogen economy has been that, until recently, most greenhouse-gas-free sources for hydrogen have been far too expensive to be practical. Haldane himself was imagining a future "four hundred years hence." Even today, nuclear, wind, and solar electric power would produce hydrogen that is far more expensive than hydrogen from fossil fuels. But for more than two decades, renewable energy, especially wind and solar energy, has been declining in price sharply. That has created a renewed interest in renewable hydrogen, although it will still be two or more decades before this is a competitive way to generate hydrogen.

There is another, more unexpected possible source of greenhouse-gas-free hydrogen: fossil fuels. In the mid-1990s, Princeton University professor Bob Williams (and others) produced detailed reports arguing that fossil fuels could be both a cost-effective and an environmentally benign source of hydrogen if the CO2 released during the production process could be captured and stored in underground geologic formations so that it would not be released into the atmosphere and thereby accelerate global warming. His briefings to DOE officials and others in government were a major reason why the department launched a major effort to explore this possibility. Today, carbon capture and storage is the subject of considerable research as well as demonstration projects around the globe and is widely seen as a potentially critical strategy for addressing global warming in the longer term (see Chapters 7 and 8).


Excerpted from The Hype about Hydrogen by Joseph J. Romm. Copyright © 2004 Joseph J. Romm. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Joseph J. Romm served in various positions in the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration. Currently the Executive Director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, and a Principal with the Capital E Group, he is the author of Cool Companies: How the Best Businesses Boost Profits and Productivity By Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Island Press, 1999).

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The Hype about Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How about gallade?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Shadow laps up water.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yeah ill tell them as soon as my message gets across. Idiots,the whole lot of them. Emma did do bad things but no reason to tell her those things that rudely! Jerks.
Ruadhe More than 1 year ago
The author looks at all the pros and cons of hydrogen: "It is the best of fuels, it is the worst of fuels". He looks at many forms of generating hydrogen, and different types of fuel cells, both fixed and mobile. Many facts, analyses, efficiencies presented and some recommendations presented, both his and others. I didn't detect any real errors or misconceptions, although GM has now demonstrated over 300 miles with a fuel cell vehicle, which was not the case when the book was written. The author leaves room for scientific breakthroughs and even estimates how much certain efficiencies are likely to improve. Good reference.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a senior staff scientist with the federal government, the author has been able to learn about and evaluate the possibilities in migrating to a 'Hydrogen Economy'. What he has found is that this promise is ill founded. Written objectively and in a way that empowers the reader to understand the very core of the issues, the author takes the reader through a course that clearly represents his personal and professional journey. These insights reflect the hard lessons of one optimist looking for answers and walking away empty handed and pessimistic. I recommend this book for all those who want to know the real scoop on hydrogen. The numbers tell the whole story. Electrolysis is inefficient in converting electricity to hydrogen. Fuel cells for autos must operate at lower temperatores in order to start up quickly, and this results in even greater inefficiencies. Learn the truth about the 'Hydrogen Economy', so you can devote your energies where the real opportunities are. Learn from the hard fought and painful lessons of those who have preceeded us.