The Viability of Hydrogen Powered Cars

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Hotline, Spring 2003

by Jonathan Nadle, GASP President

In his January State of the Union address, President Bush proposed a “hydrogen fuel initiative,” with $1.2 billion to be spent over the next five years on developing hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology for cars, trucks, homes and businesses. With a war being fought in Iraq, there hasn’t been much public discussion of the proposal, but there should be.

On the face of it, this plan sounds good. Who wouldn’t want us to develop cars that release only water vapor from the tailpipe and reduce our dependence on imported oil? Could it be that, despite his record, the president has suddenly become an environmentalist?

Not really. The president’s plan may speed fuel cell development, but does so at the cost of not fully funding other environmental programs. Also, all the major automakers are already spending millions of dollars on fuel cell development. Much of the plan’s funding for hydrogen production would go to developing nonrenewable sources of hydrogen – and be given to the same extractive industries that are some of the most heavily subsidized, worst polluters around.

Fuel cells are generators that, through a catalytic reaction, turn hydrogen into electricity, with water vapor and heat being the primary byproducts. Basically, it’s electrolysis in reverse, or the “cold burning” of hydrogen. In mobile (vehicle) applications, a fuel cell array produces electric current that powers an electric motor, or motors, used to propel the car. All of the major automakers are currently developing fuel cell powered vehicles. Some, like Honda and GM, already have running prototypes on the road. But major hurdles must be overcome before such cars will be available to the general public:

1) Technical. Manufacturers have made good progress and are working on second and third generation vehicles. But in order for these vehicles to be marketable and manufacturable, the size, weight, and complexity of the fuel cell systems need to be reduced. The fuel cells need to be made more durable and efficient in order to achieve realistic life expectancy and a practical vehicle cruising range. Storage systems for the hydrogen fuel, whether it’s in compressed-gas or liquid form, need to be improved. The high-pressure tanks commonly used need to be made compact and safe – able to withstand high-speed collisions and remain intact.

2) Cost. Honda is currently leasing 5 fuel cell powered compact cars, dubbed Honda FCXs, to the city of Los Angeles for use in their motor pool. Although Honda is charging L.A. $500 per month for each car, these hand-built FCXs are each valued at $1.6 million. Mass production would slash costs, but current fuel cell powertrains, even if mass-produced, would still cost about 10 times what a conventional motor costs, according to industry analysts. Reductions are needed for such cars to become commercially viable.

3) Infrastructure. A fleet of hydrogen-powered vehicles needs ready access to hydrogen. A refueling infrastructure would need to be developed from the ground up. Unlike for gasoline, natural gas, and electricity, no such system exists to distribute hydrogen. Such a comprehensive network of refueling stations could take a decade or more to implement.

4) Fuel. Hydrogen production would need to increase dramatically. Current production levels could only meet some 15% of the projected transportation need. Of critical environmental importance is how the hydrogen is produced. Today, most is extracted from natural gas, making it a fossil fuel product. The mining of the gas and the hydrogen extraction process are not pollution free, even if fuel cell powered cars essentially are. In order for the hydrogen to be truly “renewable” or “green,” it would have to be produced from water by electrolysis. Electrolysis requires a large amount of electricity, though, so the source of the electricity would also need to be renewable and clean if the whole process is to be.

With enough resources devoted to these hurdles, in time they likely will be overcome. Most experts think that practical, affordable fuel cell powered cars are some ways off.

As a nation, we should be investing in fuel cell research, but we should also be doing what we can right now to reduce air pollution and oil dependence. Things like fully funding federal energy efficiency and alternative energy programs. Supporting reasonable increases of the CAFE mileage standards, especially for light trucks and SUVs. Not rewarding businesses that purchase gas-hog SUVs with additional tax breaks. Signing on to international pollution control treaties. Considering carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as air pollutants and working to reduce them. The president isn’t leading on any of these issues, and instead recently made law that will weaken current air pollution standards and allow dirty power plants to stay that way or get worse. This is of particular concern to Pa residents, as we’re downwind of old, coal-fired Midwest power plants, as well as having some dirty ones of our own.

It’s easy to propose supporting a sexy, sometime-in-the-future technology like hydrogen-powered cars. It’s harder to make the tough decisions necessary to reduce pollution and protect our environment today. Like hydrogen, the president’s pro-environmental pronouncements are decidedly lightweight and are belied by his actions.