Reviewed 1/03/2006

The Hype about Hydrogen, by Joseph J. Romm

Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate
Joseph J. Romm
John H. Gibbons (Fwd.)1
Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004




ISBN-13 978-1-55963-703-9
ISBN 1-55963-703-X 238pp. HC/GSI $25.00

This book is about meeting the energy challenge of the near future. From the Foreword by Dr. Gibbons:

Evidence of the challenge abounds. Despite concerted, sustained, and fruitful efforts, human population still expands at 70 million people per year, and debilitating sprawl is everywhere. Earth's climate is suddenly showing deeply disturbing changes for the worse. Petroleum production is peaking now, and the production peak for natural gas will follow within several decades, threatening the end of our long joyride with "cheap energy". A comic strip character once observed, "From here on down, it's going to be uphill all the way." I get that feeling when I think of the human bolide spinning its way into the twenty-first century.

Dr. Romm gets right down to cases in his Introduction. He describes the challenge as moving the world toward a hydrogen economy as rapidly as possible. The benefits of this will be: reducing our dependence on oil imported from the politically unstable Middle East; weaning us away from fossil fuels before they begin to run out; and slowing the rate of production of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

It is important at the outset to draw a distinction between the "hydrogen economy" and devices using hydrogen as a fuel. In the former, the hydrogen is produced by a renewable (wind, solar) or nuclear power source. This is crucial because the objective is to cut greenhouse gases and pollution. Electrolyzing water to get bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen from the electrodes, the way you did in science class, gobbles energy. Today, most hydrogen used as fuel is made from natural gas. Either way of getting the hydrogen produces plenty of carbon dioxide. So, while hydrogen fuel cells have been practical for decades (NASA designed them into its Gemini and Apollo spacecraft back in the 1960s, as well as into the Space Shuttle), and while cars using hydrogen fuel cells have been commercially available since December 2002, there is still no such thing as a hydrogen economy.2

Another distinction: Dr. Romm is fully in favor of bringing on the hydrogen economy as soon as possible. What he doesn't want is a "sound-bite solution" (my phrase), meaning that short-sighted politics leads to early adoption of fleets of fuel-cell cars without the low-pollution infrastructure. In that event, he foresees, CO2 emitted by the fossil-fuel plants making the hydrogen for the cars will completely negate their advantage in reducing global warming. As he puts it on page 5:

Our current policy ignores clean energy technologies available today. Worse, our status quo energy policy works only if new technologies under development today become competitive in the marketplace quickly and if global warming is mild compared with most leading projections. Neither is likely to be the case. Thus, the path we are on is fraught with unnecessary risks.

He cites examples of this politically expedient but impractical thinking, not only from government but from businesses like General Motors.3 Overestimating the speed with which customers will snap up hydrogen-powered cars, GM is devoting a major fraction of its research budget on developing them — far too soon, says Dr. Romm. In addition to the pure technology issues, there is the factor of competition from improvements in existing transportation technology. The internal-combustion gasoline engine benefits from a hundred years of refinement; diesel engines have nearly as much. Both are the object of much research directed toward better fuel economy and lower emissions. (Despite Detroit's perennial protests, much improvement is possible.) Then there is the hybrid car. It marries well-understood battery technology with a load-optimized gasoline engine. The result: vastly better efficiency with little loss of performance, and no breakthroughs required.

Many technological obstacles remain to be overcome before fuel cells for private vehicles will be both practical and affordable. More obstacles of cost, technology and safety block the way to a true hydrogen economy. Until they are overcome — until we can produce and distribute hydrogen safely, at reasonable prices, without adding to our greenhouse-gas burden — Dr. Romm rightly concludes that using hydrogen to power personal vehicles4 makes neither economic nor environmental sense.

Joseph Romm has considerable experience in the business and legal aspects of energy production. He understands the cost-benefit analysis of technological systems very well. He demonstrates that throughout the book, and especially on page 144, where he has this to say:

For a full year, I supervised an effort by some of the best analysts at five U.S. national laboratories. The result was the September 1997 report Scenarios of U.S. Carbon Reductions: Potential Impacts of Energy-Efficient and Low-Carbon Technologies by 2010 and Beyond. It concluded that significant emissions reductions were possible for the country with no net increase in the nation's energy bill, plus a much lower price for CO2 emissions reductions, $7 or $14 per ton — a long way from the $60 per ton predicted by others. Achieving this would take a significant effort by the government to accelerate the deployment of a variety of clean energy technologies, but the conclusion was based on existing commercial or near-commercial products — energy-efficient lighting, cogeneration, hybrid electric vehicles, wind power. It would require no major technology breakthroughs.

It's worth noting that this report's5 conclusion flies in the face of frequent pronouncements from the Bush administration that signing on to the Kyoto Accords would severely damage America's economy. It even contradicts the estimate of Paul O'Neill, Treasury Secretary for Bush from 2001-2003, that implementing Kyoto would mean cutting U.S. energy consumption by 30 percent in the out-years 2008-2012. (O'Neill, former CEO of Alcoa, is a straight shooter and not one to parrot the Bush party line. See The Price of Loyalty by Ron Suskind.) While Romm refrains from taking sides in the political debate over energy policy, he minces no words in saying that current energy policy is deficient (see e.g. pages 160-162) and warning that the impact of keeping on our current course could be more drastic than we imagine.

Joseph Romm has more expertise in business and legal matters than in science and technology. Thus it is understandable that he makes some elementary mistakes when explaining in Chapter 2 how fuel cells work. (Those mistakes are detailed on my Errata page, along with the usual typographical errors.) His words nevertheless are well worth heeding — both for his analyses of energy options and his warnings about business as usual.

1 John Gibbons was the Director of Congress's Office of Technology Assessment from 1979 to 1993. Following the abolition of the OTA, he served as President Clinton's Science Advisor.
2 Dr. Romm points out that stationary fuel cells have found many practical uses. He reports becoming involved with the first stationary fuel cell system, installed by SurePower Corporation in the Technology Center of the First National Bank of Omaha in mid-1999. Despite the system's ultra-reliability and superior environmental performance, Dr. Romm reports, SurePower was unable for more than four years (emphasis in original) to secure a second order. He explores the reasons for this in chapters 2 and 3.
3 To my cynical side, speaking of businesses and General Motors in the same sentence seems vaguely wrong, somehow. They missed the first onslaught of reliable small cars from Japan, even though some of their own executives like John DeLorean tried to warn them. Then they dragged their feet on the CAFE standards, claiming that higher mileage standards imposed a crushing burden on them. Lately they stuck with gas-guzzling SUVs until sales drooped; now comes the news that they will lay off 30,000 employees and shut down 9 production plants. But this trouble is no surprise; their market share has been declining (down 5.2% in the first quarter 2005), and since 2000 the corporation lost 74% of its market value. See here: Why GM's Plan Won't Work (modern browser required.)
4 Dr. Romm refers to cars in his text. I may be stretching a bit here by using the more inclusive term, but I think it's a fair extrapolation.
5 The report can be downloaded section by section in PDF form. The links are at the bottom of the Executive Summary page on Lawrence Berkeley Lab's Web site.
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