Hydrogen—The Next Snake Oil?

Monday Magazine | April 18, 2005
How about this for a solution to our looming energy crisis?

Come up with a system that uses more energy than present technology, exists only with the help of huge taxpayer subsidies, has no real-world applications in place, will boost pollution levels, and raises new questions about safety.

It sounds crazy. Yet that’s the kind of energy system some apparently well-intentioned technocrats claim is the hope for the future. And they’ve already started to unload wads of public funds—our funds—on it.

The system is hydrogen, and unfortunately, it doesn’t work. As well, it will cause more environmental damage than the fuels we use now.

“The oceans are full of hydrogen,” advocates tell us. They are indeed: Each molecule of water contains two hydrogen atoms. So why not power your car with water? Fire up that Annihilator SUV! Outta the way!

Not so fast.

The hydrogen in water is not in usable form.

To split off the hydrogen, a standard technique is to run electricity through it, using the process known to every high school science student as electrolysis.

Another way of producing hydrogen—cheaper than electrolysis—is to pump steam into natural gas or other fossil fuel in a heated vessel, in a process called “steam reforming.” Hydrogen is the result.

An important advantage to replacing our current addiction to fossil fuels with hydrogen, say advocates, is that it will cut pollution.

For instance, last February, energy minister Richard Neufeld concluded his remarks on hydrogen technology in the legislature with these words: “I’d love to talk a little bit more about all the things we’ve done for the environment— clean cars and those kinds of things . . .”

But hydrogen-powered cars are far dirtier than the gasoline-powered ones we have today. To understand this, the entire hydrogen system must be examined—not just the car alone.

The key to the “hydrogen economy” is to use hydrogen gas, not by burning it, but using fuel cells, a kind of “gas battery.”

In one end goes hydrogen and oxygen, and out the other comes electricity. The only byproduct, besides heat, is water. See? No pollution!

Well, not quite. There’s a slight problem: Where is the electricity going to come from to create the hydrogen in the first place?

If the world was overflowing with abundant, environmentally-friendly electricity, that would be one thing.

But it isn’t.

Among the most likely sources for the electricity needed to create that wonderful, clean-burning hydrogen are generating stations powered by coal, gas or nuclear fission.

Burning more coal and gas hardly sounds like a solution to the problem of greenhouse gases. Nor does it sound like a way of eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels. Nuclear power? Somehow, that doesn’t quite fit with the clean image that hydrogen advocates would have us buy into. In any case, the nuclear power industry has survived only because of heavy taxpayer subsidies of its own. Unsubsidized, the private sector won’t touch it.

California environmentalist Donald Anthrop has calculated the efficiency of the fuel cell system, including the energy needed to separate the hydrogen in the first place.

Using coal-fired electricity for the electrolysis, 140.8 kilowatt-hours of energy is required to produce 17.4 kilowatt-hours of electricity from a fuel cell in a car, Anthrop wrote in a December, 2004, paper completed for the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute. In other words, the hydrogen-fuel cell process uses eight times more energy than it produces.

What about pollution?

Thanks to emissions from coal-burning generating stations, switching all gasoline-powered U.S. motor vehicles to hydrogen-powered fuel cells would almost double net carbon emissions.

In other words, using coal-fired electrolysis to produce hydrogen that would in turn power fuel cells, makes no sense from the viewpoint of either efficiency or the environment.

There are similar problems with using the steam reforming process to produce hydrogen. Once you count the energy required to generate the steam, heat the reformer tank and separate out the hydrogen, the system uses more than twice as much energy as it produces. As well, Anthrop calculates, to replace all U.S. gasoline-powered vehicles with fuel cells operating on steam-reformed hydrogen would require a 66 percent increase in the usage of natural gas, a substance that is in diminishing supply.

Nor are solar and wind power solutions for the hydrogen economy. The energy required to manufacture photovoltaic panels—which turn sunlight into electricity—is greater than the energy produced by the fuel cells.

And relying on wind power—which is hardly favoured by all environmentalists—to produce hydrogen would need huge installations with a large overcapacity to compensate for the fact that wind power is intermittent.

According to a report recently compiled by Industry Canada, Fuel Cells Canada, a hydrogen industry lobby group, and consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers, $957 million will be needed for capital spending on the hydrogen economy in Canada over the next five years. The report expects that one-third of this will come from “the public sector”—i.e., taxpayers. In order to snare this money, warns the report, continued “education” of governments is needed to secure funding.

The B.C. government is among those helping out. Last February 24, B.C. energy minister Richard Neufeld boasted about the $2 million in public funds the Liberals are putting into a “hydrogen highway”—a series of hydrogen filling stations in Victoria, Vancouver and Whistler.

Neufeld noted that B.C. is a “world leader” in the hydrogen and fuel cell industries.

On July 27, 2004, economic development minister John Les said in a statement that B.C. is “well positioned to become the world leader in hydrogen technology.”

But the fantasizing around hydrogen power began under the New Democrats, who gave Burnaby-based fuel cell developer and manufacturer Ballard Power Systems $8.6 million in 1996. By 2000, the B.C. government had poured a total of $21.64 million into Ballard and its subsidiaries.

Canada isn’t the only country to get hooked on the hydrogen energy drug.

In the U.S., the Bush administration has launched a 10-year, $1.8 billion U.S. program to fund research on hydrogen-powered fuel cells. (The Democrats wanted to spend three times as much.)

Surely, if governments are pouring so much money into hydrogen, there has to be a thriving market for hydrogen-powered applications? There isn’t, apart from a handful of non-commercial, heavily subsidized demonstration projects. Not now, and not for decades—if ever.

B.C. Hydro, B.C. Transit and the provincial government have put $300,000 towards a test-driving program for five demonstration hydrogen cars, which began arriving last month.

The U.S. federal government estimates the cost of manufacturing a hydrogen-powered car today at $1 million U.S. And so far, hydrogen cars can travel only 200 miles before refueling—about half the range of ordinary, 20-year-old gasoline-powered cars.

Honda says it won’t have a mass-market fuel-cell car for at least 20 years.

DaimlerChrysler had promised a hydrogen-powered car would be commercially ready by 2004. Earlier this year, they said it would be 2010. Now it’s 2012.

And even though it’s a world leader in fuel cell technology—and a current darling of the federal and B.C. governments­—stock in Ballard Power Systems traded earlier this week at $6.08. That’s down from $160 in 2000.

In its April 15, 2005, edition, The Investment Reporter, an independent newsletter, advises: “[Ballard] should continue to lose money for many years to come. Sell.”

An incident at Ballard’s Burnaby headquarters last August points to another problem with hydrogen. A hydrogen tanker truck ruptured, and the escaping gas ignited, forcing the closure of a nearby highway and the evacuation of an area two miles in diameter.

Why the worry? Burning hydrogen is nearly invisible. Fire crews could see the flame in daytime only with infrared cameras. Experts were flown in from California and Seattle to help, according to the August 8 Province.

“It’s extremely flammable fluid and highly explosive,” Burnaby fire department Captain Mike Cafe was quoted as saying.

Eight hours later, the fire was extinguished, with the tanker driver receiving only minor burns to his face and neck. However, the incident demonstrates that new technology can introduce new problems.

Clearly, we need to sharply reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. But switching to hydrogen power will boost pollution and suck up huge sums of public funds.

“Before any more taxpayer money is spent pursuing the dream of a ‘hydrogen economy,’ however, policy makers need to get out their calculators and seriously consider the environmental costs of bringing this dream to reality,” Anthrop writes. “If they do, they’ll find that harnessing hydrogen for widespread use in the energy sector will consume more energy than it will save, and it will worsen, not better, environmental quality.”

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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