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Fuel-economy standards are still the best green bet
Berkeley expert on energy and environment issues says hydrogen-fueled cars aren’t the ideal way to reduce pollution, greenhouse gases, and U.S. oil dependency

| 20 August 2003


The GM Autonomy (right), powered by a stack of hydrogen fuel cells, is less efficient than the gas-electric hybrid SUV that Lexus will introduce next year.

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

In a paper appearing in the July 18 issue of Science magazine, Alex Farrell, assistant professor of energy and resources, and David Keith, associate professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, presented various short- and long-term strategies that they say would achieve the same beneficial 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,” says 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,” says Farrell. “It can reduce air pollution, slow global climate change, and reduce dependence on oil imports. But for each of those benefits there is something else you could do that would probably work better, work faster, and be cheaper.”

President Bush — to the applause of many scientists — 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. Several announced candidates for president have also proposed major research efforts to develop hydrogen-fueled vehicles and technologies to produce, transport, and store the hydrogen.

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.

One problem, says Farrell, an expert on energy and environment issues, is that this 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 this carbon 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.

In addition, Farrell points out, setting up a completely new infrastructure to distribute hydrogen would cost at least $5,000 per vehicle. Transporting, storing, and distributing a gaseous fuel as opposed to a liquid one 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.

The benefits might be worth the costs of fuel-cell development and creating a new infrastructure, however, if air pollution, greenhouse gases, and our reliance on imported petroleum could not be reduced in other ways. But, says Farrell, they can: “Probably the cheapest strategy for reducing petroleum consumption would be to raise the fuel-economy standard, or fuel prices, or both. This would actually have no net cost, or possibly even a negative cost: buying less fuel would save more money than the price of the high-efficiency cars. The vehicles would still be large enough for Americans, and they would still be safe.

“Current average fuel economy in this country is about 20 miles per gallon, the lowest value since 1987,” continues Farrell. “Doubling that average is achievable today — a wide number of technologies are already on the shelf. All that’s lacking are economic incentives to encourage automakers to make fuel-efficient cars, and to encourage drivers to buy them.”

Petroleum substitutes like ethanol that can be used in today’s vehicles also are a possible way to reduce oil imports, the researchers say, 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 still 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 a smaller fuel-distribution network would be required.

Farrell and Keith conclude that 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,” they wrote, “but it’s not a sure thing.”