Study: Hydrogen-Fueled Cars Offer False Promise

Published September 1, 2003

As politicians and the public leap aboard the hydrogen fuel bandwagon, a University of California – Berkeley energy expert suggests we all step back, take a critical look at the technology, and consider simpler, cheaper options.

More Economical Alternatives

In a paper published in the July 18 issue of Science magazine, Alex Farrell, assistant professor of energy and resources at UC Berkeley, and David Keith, associate professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, present various short- and long-term strategies they say would achieve the same results as switching from gasoline-powered vehicles to hydrogen cars.

“Hydrogen cars are a poor short-term strategy, and it’s not even clear that they are a good idea in the long term,” said Farrell. “Because the prospects for hydrogen cars are so uncertain, we need to think carefully before we invest all this money and all this public effort in one area.”

Farrell and Keith compared the costs of developing fuel cell vehicles to the costs of other strategies for achieving the same environmental and economic goals.

“There are three reasons you might think hydrogen would be a good thing to use as a transportation fuel–it can reduce air pollution, slow global climate change, and reduce dependence on oil imports–but for each one there is something else you could do that would probably work better, work faster, and be cheaper,” Farrell said.

President George W. Bush has proposed a federally funded, five-year, $1.7 billion FreedomCAR and Fuel Initiative to develop hydrogen-powered fuel cells, a hydrogen infrastructure, and advanced automotive technologies. Many scientists have praised the initiative. Several announced candidates for President also have proposed major research efforts to develop hydrogen-fueled vehicles and technologies to produce, transport, and store the hydrogen.

Pollution Will Continue

For many people, the attraction of hydrogen is that it produces no pollution or greenhouse gases at the tailpipe. For others, the attraction is that hydrogen is a research program, not a regulation, and that some hydrogen-related research will also help develop better gasoline-powered cars.

But Farrell, an expert on energy and environmental issues, noted the rosy assessment of hydrogen’s environmental impact glosses over the issue of where the hydrogen comes from. Current methods of producing hydrogen from oil and coal produce substantial carbon dioxide. Unless and until those emissions can be captured and stored, renewable (wind or solar) and nuclear power, with their attendant problems of supply and waste, are the only means of producing hydrogen without also producing greenhouse gases.

Setting up a new infrastructure to distribute hydrogen would cost at least $5,000 per vehicle, Farrell points out. Transporting, storing, and distributing a gaseous fuel as opposed to a liquid raises many new problems.

More billions of dollars will be needed to develop hydrogen fuel cells that can match the performance of today’s gasoline engines, he said.

Less Radical Solutions

The benefits might be worth the costs of fuel-cell development and creating a new infrastructure, however, if air pollution, greenhouse gases, and petroleum imports could not be reduced in other ways. But they can, said Farrell.

Improvements to current cars and environmental rules would reduce air pollution at a cost 100 times less expensive than hydrogen cars. And for several decades, the most cost-effective method to reduce oil imports and CO2 emissions from cars will be to increase fuel efficiency, the two scientists found. Technologies are now on the shelf to achieve better fuel efficiency, Farrell said.

“Automobile manufacturers don’t need to invest in anything fancy–a wide number of technologies are already on the shelf,” Farrell said, citing, among other studies, a 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences. “The cost would be trivial compared to the changes needed to go to a hydrogen car.”

Petroleum substitutes like ethanol that can be used in today’s vehicles also are a possible way to reduce oil imports, the researchers said, but more research is needed to reduce the environmental impact and cost of these options.

If one goal is to reduce greenhouse gases, it would be cheaper, Farrell and Keith argue, to focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from electric power plants than to focus solely on hydrogen-powered vehicles. But if passenger cars are targeted, fuel economy is the key.

If it becomes necessary to introduce hydrogen into the transportation sector, the scientists say, a better alternative is to develop hydrogen-powered fuel cells for vehicles such as ships, trains, and large trucks instead of cars. Because these heavy freight vehicles have higher emissions, this strategy could provide greater air quality benefits. On-board hydrogen storage would be less of a problem also, and serving such vehicles would require a smaller fuel distribution network.

Farrell and Keith provide figures that support their arguments and conclude more research needs to be done before committing ourselves to a hydrogen economy, which might begin to make sense 25 years down the road.

“Hydrogen cars are an attractive vision that demands serious investigation, but it’s not a sure thing,” they wrote.

Robert Sanders is a science writer and public relations representative with the University of California at Berkeley.