Switching to hydrogen requires commitment
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger often wistfully mentions a 'hydrogen highway' stretching the length of California. It's a worthy goal. It's also realistic. It can be built. The state will need vast new energy supplies and trade-offs the governor may not like.
Why hydrogen? Its production by electrolytic breakdown of water generates no CO2.
Its use in hydrogen fuel cells directly generates electricity. The byproduct is plain water. Electricity is ideal for propelling vehicles. All global warming adherents should love it. The only catch - Where do you get enough electricity to make hydrogen for the large California auto fleet?
Hydrogen can also be made by converting fossil fuels. While fuel cells are more efficient than direct combustion, any improvement in over-all efficiency is iffy.
Right now California imports huge amounts of petroleum, electricity and water.
It refuses to build ports to import the LNG that it needs. (Officials want Oregon to build the ports and pipe the gas to them.) It has refused more nuclear plants. The governor stiffly opposes offshore drilling, although the state might become financially solvent with the 50 percent share of oil sales revenue that would fall into its treasury. Its starving public school system would thrive.
Because hydrogen is not easily transported over distance it must be produced near the point of use. It can be produced from all of the different energy sources that California now uses. Hydrogen can be made from all fossil fuels, biomass methane and electrolytic breakdown of water. Electricity, which is easily distributed via the grid, is available from hydro dams, solar power farms, nuclear reactors, wind power farms and fossil-fueled power plants. Hydrogen plants could easily use surplus power from wind farms that now cannot be utilized.
The hydrogen future depends on answering these questions:
n How much of the present energy supply can be effectively used to produce hydrogen?
n How much new power grid construction will it take?
n How much will it cost to build the hydrogen conversion plants?
n Can the feed-stock supply chain needed for the fossil-fueled conversion plants be created?
n How many new wind and solar farms can be built?
n Will new nuclear plants be authorized?
n Who will make the huge capital investments?
How much energy will be needed to run autos, trucks and trains on hydrogen? Well, how much gasoline and diesel do they use now? They will need that much energy plus the amount consumed while converting it into hydrogen.
All of the present energy sources are fully utilized. We want to eliminate the imported oil segment. Switching motor fuel to hydrogen will not yield more total energy. So … the wind, solar, biomass, offshore drilling and nuclear sources will still need to be vastly increased to replace imported oil.
General Motors has done the engineering to produce fuel-cell-powered vehicles. They can be manufactured when the fuel is there for them. Honda and Volkswagen are making prototypes in Asia. Some will be used at the summer Olympics in China. Electric cars can use the same grid-supplied juice to charge their batteries. But batteries are heavy and not as efficient as fuel cells.
The present petro fuels system has emerged during a century of time. Much time will pass while new vehicle technology is put in place and a new fuel supply system is being built. There will be false starts. You can expect political opposition every step of the way.
Such a vast reordering of the economy probably cannot be accomplished without a strong political commitment from government equivalent to a declaration of war. I wonder if we have the national political will to bring it off. Mr. Schwarzenegger yearns to see a large portion of California's cars running on hydrogen. Will Mr. Schwarzenegger also commit California's political leadership and economic resources to the massive effort?
George E. Edens is a resident of Lake Oswego.