Bush Call for Hydrogen Funding Fuels Debate

Published May 1, 2003

At an April 9 auto trade show in Hanover, Germany, General Motors and BMW announced a cooperative effort to develop refueling devices for liquid hydrogen vehicles. “Both GM and BMW are stretching to have hydrogen-based vehicles on the road by 2012,” Larry Burns, GM’s head of research and development, told the Reuters news service.

GM and BMW will work to establish global standards for the refueling devices. “When you’re developing products and you’re looking for ways to be cost-effective, sometimes you can get frustrated by all these subtle differences” in global standards, Burns explained.

The automakers’ announcement followed closely on the heels of the Senate Energy Committee’s April 8 vote to authorize funding for President George W. Bush’s plan to spend $1.3 billion over the next five years to encourage research on hydrogen cars and infrastructure.

But lawmakers rejected a Democratic proposal to put 100,000 hydrogen-powered cars on the road by 2010 and 2.5 million by 2020. Pollution-free hydrogen-powered automobiles represent the future of American transportation, said President George Bush in a February 6 speech to Congress. Building on themes mentioned in his January 2003 State of the Union address, Bush urged Congress to spend $1.2 billion to speed the pace of hydrogen fuel cell research.

Too Good to Be True?

“Hydrogen fuels represent one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era,” said Bush. “If you’re tired of the same old endless struggles, let us promote hydrogen fuel cells as a way to advance into the 21st century. If we develop hydrogen power to its full potential, we can reduce our demand for oil by over 11 million barrels per day by 2040.” The prospect of pollution-free cars and trucks fueled by the most prevalent element in the universe has captured the imagination of scientists and policy analysts alike. But is the idea too good to be true?

For now, the answer is yes, according to Detroit News columnist and automobile industry commentator Tom Bray. “Backward reels the mind to 1993, when President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore–also citing energy independence and a cleaner environment–announced almost exactly the same sum for research into electric-powered vehicles. After a decade of trying, both the auto companies and the government threw in the towel last year. Nobody seemed terribly interested in tiny cars that could barely get to the corner store and back before they had to be plugged into the wall.

“A hydrogen economy sounds like a fine thing–if it actually works as advertised,” wrote Bray.

Automobile journalist Larry Weitzman of TechCentral Station noted some of the significant hurdles standing in the way.

“First is the problem of manufacturing hydrogen,” said Weitzman. “It is not abundant on Earth in its pure form, so it must be extracted from other compounds such as water. The process is called electrolysis, whereby electricity is used to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen. It is a proven process, but an expensive one. And it takes more energy to manufacture it than the resultant hydrogen will produce. In short, the process is an energy deficit. “Second is the issue of where do you get the energy to power electrolysis? If it’s from gas-fired electrical plants, there is no ‘greenhouse’ benefit due to substantially reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Since most of the hydroelectric power dams have been built (most locations have already been utilized), the only other clean source of electricity available is nuclear–and you know the resistance there will be to building more nuclear power plants. “Third, hydrogen is difficult to transport and handle. To create the density necessary for adequate energy, hydrogen must be cooled and liquefied to temperatures hundreds of degrees below zero. The cost of the infrastructure including the transportation system will be enormous–possibly prohibitive. Attendants at filling stations will have to be expert in handling hydrogen, and filling your car could be a hazardous event.”

“Step in the Right Direction”

Industry experts were not so quick to throw in the towel.

“We think this is a great step in the right direction,” said General Motors spokesman Christopher Preuss. “The President showing leadership in hydrogen is critical to making the jump. We’re very pleased.”

Philip Chizek, marketing manager for Ford Motor Company’s fuel cell vehicle company, is “very certain” the auto industry can solve the problems currently facing hydrogen fuel vehicles. “We’ve been working on fuel cells since the early ’90s,” said Chizek. “We’ve put a lot of money in the program and a lot of support.”

Defenders of the President’s proposal point out that the promised funding, spread out over five years, pales compared to ongoing investments by the government and private sector in clean coal and renewable energies such as solar and wind.

“This is not a major new commitment of taxpayer dollars,” said Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast. “While libertarians might prefer government play no role in this arena, the reality is that there is considerable pressure on elected officials to ‘do something’ about energy security and climate change.

“Continued funding of public-private research efforts for new transportation technologies is a lot better than raising CAFE standards, raising motor fuels taxes, or imposing more strict environmental standards,” according to Bast. “We should be glad the President chose the route he did.”

Criticism from the Left

Jeremy Rifkin, who claimed in a 1991 book that the planet was on “the verge of ecocide,” more recently wrote The Hydrogen Economy, a book calling for a rapid, government-subsidized transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen. According to Rifkin, the President’s proposal represents a “paltry gesture” at replacing the petroleum industry.

“What is required,” said Rifkin, “is a government-private partnership on a grand scale with a financial commitment at least equal to the monies currently being spent on homeland security and the preparation for war with Iraq.”

Rifkin’s radical views found some allies in Congress.

Senators Hillary Clinton (D-New York) and Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) introduced a bill tripling the President’s proposed funding for hydrogen research. The $6.5 billion proposal is necessary, said Clinton and Dorgan, because the Bush bill does not go far enough to promote hydrogen.

“There’s an old saying: When elephants fly, you don’t criticize them for not being perfect,” said Dorgan. “That saying applies to this administration, in my judgment.”

Former Vermont Governor and Democratic Presidential contender Howard Dean criticized the Bush plan for failing to fund programs designed to cut oil consumption while hydrogen fuel is being researched. According to Dean, Saudi Arabian oil profits “build schools all over the Islamic world that teach small children to hate Americans, Christians, and Jews.”

“The President’s plan serves as a shield to protect automakers from improving fuel economy, which would reduce our oil dependence and cut pollution today,” added Daniel Becker, energy director for the Sierra Club.

“The President’s plan relies too heavily on sources like coal, nuclear power, and oil to produce hydrogen, which are the dirtiest ways possible to do the job,” said Becker. “It would even spend $19.6 million to create hydrogen from gasoline.”

But using renewable energy sources to extract hydrogen from oxygen would be even more expensive.

Environmental policy analyst Paul Georgia of the Competitive Enterprise Institute points out auto maker Honda has “constructed a bank of solar panels in Torrance, California for the purpose of generating ‘clean’ electricity to produce the hydrogen. But it takes a whole week to generate enough power to produce one tank of hydrogen at a cost of $40,000 per tank. Call me crazy, but that’s a long way from affordable transportation.”

Libertarian Critics

Pat Michaels, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, observed that if hydrogen has a promising future, private citizens and companies should be willing to invest in the technology with or without the government’s assistance. After all, it was Henry Ford–not the federal government–who mastered production of the automobile.

“The federal government has a very bad track record in ‘jump starting’ automotive technologies,” said Michaels, referencing the failed Clinton-Gore efforts of the early ’90s. “When government gets in the science and technology business, it is largely inefficient compared to the private sector.”

Summarized CEI’s Georgia, “The history of federal funding of energy-technology research is downright depressing. It is a landscape littered with dozens of multibillion-dollar failures. It is unlikely that this new endeavor will result in anything more than wasted money.”

“Several private firms are already doing this, funded by individual investors,” added Michaels. “Ballard Power Systems has been working with both Honda and Ford on hydrogen fuel-cell technology. Toyota has its own program. There is nothing preventing anyone from investing in these companies.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].