Energy Crisis Needs to be Addressed on Many Fronts; the Hydrogen Car Can be Part of the Answer

Stephen Pociask*

How would you describe the current state of U.S. energy policy — record high gas prices, refinery shortages, Middle East supply disruptions, increasing energy demand and 7 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions?  This ConsumerGram looks at the hydrogen car, as part of the answer to developing a better, more comprehensive energy policy.



Driving Pollutes

In 2005, there were 247 million motor vehicles registered in the U.S., according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.  By some reports, the use of personal vehicles accounts for 30% to 50% of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as similar affects on toxic water and air pollutants.  According to the EPA, the typical vehicle produces 5.0 tons of carbon dioxide annually, as well as methane, nitrous oxide and various man-made gases.  Given the increasing demand for energy and rising prices, there is a need to develop a comprehensive energy program that looks at many factors – including conservation, investing in domestic alternatives and recycling.  


A number of legislative proposals have called for requiring more energy efficient automobiles and have encouraged the production of alterative fuels.  While providing benefits, however, some of these proposals are likely to produce more expensive automobiles and significantly higher carbon-based fuel costs.  The most popular alternative fuel, ethanol, is typically produced from corn and is somewhat more expensive than gasoline.  Since corn prices have increased faster than other goods and services, the outlook for ethanol as an alternative source of energy will mean that corn prices are likely to continue to increase faster than the price of other goods and services.  Since corn is used as feedstock, as well as for cereals and other foods, higher prices will mean higher food prices for consumers, in addition to higher energy prices.  Moreover, the use of many of these alternative fuels, like ethanol and other bio-based energies, still result in carbon emissions just like gasoline.  In short, alternate fuels are important, but still leave policymakers with difficult choices that could ultimately pose high costs for consumers. 


Hydrogen is Green, Well Mostly

There is not a single solution to solving the energy problem, but a multi-pronged approach can help by increasing energy sources, reducing prices, changing consumption behavior and reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions.  Hydrogen could be part of that solution.  Hydrogen can be used as an effective energy source without any of the harmful byproducts of carbon-based sources.  Significantly, hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the world, making it a promising source for future energy.


While hydrogen is the most plentiful element, it is typically found in compound forms such as H20.  This means that hydrogen needs to be isolated from these compounds, which requires energy to do so.  As a result, to produce 100% pollution-free hydrogen, the process to isolate hydrogen will expend about 60% of the original carbon that would be saved.  Effectively, the environment still comes out ahead. 


The Benefits of the Hydrogen Car

I test drove a hydrogen car and expected the car to be particularly sluggish and impractical – but it was not.  The car was the General Motors’ HydroGen3 vehicle, which is a retrofitted European Opel Zafira five-passenger car.  The car ran on a stack of hydrogen fuel cells and an electrical drive system.  While the car was far from peppy, it had adequate pick-up for normal driving and commuting.  I found the car to be fun to drive and suitable for everyday use.  In terms of fuel costs per mile, the hydrogen car was at or below the current expense of a gasoline driven vehicle. 



So, why are there no hydrogen cars on the road?  These cars have been referred to as million dollar cars, because of the high cost of building early prototypes.  However, with mass production and scale economies, engineers report that the cost of these cars could be comparable to today’s gasoline driven cars.  While hydrogen cars may avoid some maintenance costs associated with gasoline cars, hydrogen car will need their fuel cell stacks recycled every 5 years or so.  Still, that is not a deal breaker.  In terms of emissions, in operation, the hydrogen car produces no emissions at all.  In terms of safety, early tests suggest that these cars can be equally as safe as gasoline cars, despite their hydrogen tanks.  All in all, it sounds like a promising technology that can benefit consumers and the environment.


Any Drawbacks?

One big problem facing hydrogen cars is their somewhat smaller driving range.  In the car that I drove, had a 250 mile range with a liquid hydrogen storage tank and a 170 mile range with compressed storage.  Newer versions promise to cover a somewhat greater distance between fill-ups.  Due to the smaller driving range, these vehicles require more frequent visits to gas stations, and each visit will take at least 10 minutes or longer to fill the tank.  Nonetheless, this is still a small price to pay for affordable and cleaner energy use. 


However, another major drawback is the lack of infrastructure to support hydrogen vehicles.  U.S. infrastructure is designed to move gasoline to stations, not alternatives like ethanol and certainly not hydrogen fuels.  That means that having a hydrogen car will do you little good until thousands of gas stations offer hydrogen fuel and there is an infrastructure is in place to transport it.  Herein rests the classical “chicken-and-egg” problem. 



Hydrogen and hydrogen vehicles offer much promise as environmentally-friendly consumer products.  However, for these vehicles to be reasonably priced, they need to reach mass production and be supported by adequate infrastructure upgrades.  By one estimate, hydrogen cars could be available to the public sometime after 2010.  However, for this is to be the case, public policies need to be mindful to encourage investment and innovations in this and similar green technologies, including policies that streamline regulations that would otherwise impede with the introduction of these alternatives to consumer markets.

* Stephen Pociask is a broad member of the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research.  The Institute and the author have never received funding or support from any group with ties to energy or automobile issues.