We will wonk you
DR: You’re a big supporter of hydrogen, which is a storage medium for electrical energy. Moving our transportation infrastructure to hydrogen means offloading the power burden from oil and liquid fuels to electricity sources — predominantly natural gas and coal. How is that an environmental gain, to go from oil to coal?
TT: It isn’t, but that’s a false choice. There are lots of other ways we get hydrogen that are a lot more efficient, cheaper, and more environmentally benign.
Every city that’s got a sewage treatment plant vents hydrogen and often methane into the atmosphere. A lot of them are capturing it and burning it as natural gas. That can all be converted to hydrogen through biological processes that cost nothing. And there’s a lot of hydrogen in the sewage water they release; they then spend a lot of money and energy, in the case of Los Angeles, for example, to pump that water seven miles offshore. They dump it into the Pacific Ocean. There’s enough water dumped from Los Angeles sewage treatment plants alone to power the entire U.S. transportation fleet on hydrogen.
Of course you need the electricity, or some other way of breaking hydrogen out of the water. But we’re not short of hydrogen. A lot of it can come from agricultural waste. We’re working on cellulosic ethanol — when you break down cellulose, you can also break out hydrogen from that using biodigest. There’s wind power. Hydrogen’s a chance to unlock the potential of wind, which right now is only fractionally used because a lot of wind is generated in places at the wrong time of day. But with hydrogen, you can let the wind blow whenever it blows and use that electricity to break the hydrogen out of sewage water or waste product; make the hydrogen go back through a fuel cell during the day for electricity when you need it, or as a transportation fuel.
We have a long way to go to exhaust supplies of clean hydrogen before we would ever have to consider coal. And you can gasify coal — get the hydrogen directly from the coal. That sets aside the environmental hazard of actually extracting the coal, which is a whole other discussion. I’m not advocating it.
Right now we make 3 trillion cubic feet of hydrogen from natural gas, not from coal — and that hydrogen is used to strip sulfur from petroleum to make gasoline. It’s absurd.
DR: Aren’t there other methods for storage that are simpler and easier than hydrogen? Batteries, for instance?
TT: I hadn’t had a chance to see Who killed the Electric Car? until the other night, so it’s fresh in my mind — the rather short-hand and bogus argument that’s set up between hydrogen and batteries. I’m a big proponent of battery electric. I drove one in Sacramento for the first two years I was up there. As Ed Begley says, they only serve the needs of 90 percent of the American public. They’ll make a comeback as gasoline becomes more expensive.
That said, imagine you could flip a switch and everyone was driving a battery electric car tomorrow. Where would all the batteries come from? How much energy would we have to put in to produce them? When they burn out in about five years, which is the useful life for most batteries, and they’re about $3,500 a set … imagine if you had to replace your gasoline engine and transmission for about $3,500 every five years.
And what would you do with all those waste batteries?
It’s like the problem with electronic waste — in the last 20 years, as we’ve gone into this technological revolution, we’re generating tons and tons of e-waste. We never thought about that as we were suddenly going into the computer age. Well, if you could suddenly do that with cars, where would the energy and materials come from to make all the batteries, and then what about the electricity? What about recharging? The grid can barely keep up now.
Yes, you can use even traditional natural gas and coal and nuclear during off-peak hours, which is when most people would probably recharge their cars, at night, but at what cost in emissions? If you’ve got to recharge all those batteries, you take up what could be transportation fuel or electricity for the rest of the grid; now you make us dependent on fossil fuels for the rest of the grid.
In California, we have one of the most aggressive renewable portfolio standards — we’re aiming to get a third of our electricity from renewables by 2020. That means two-thirds is still going to come from nukes and traditional fossil fuels. If a lot of those renewables are peeled off to make electricity for electric cars, you’re going to push demand for more nukes or more coal to continue to power the grid.
The other problem is, for those times when you do drive a long distance — 200, 300 miles — a hydrogen car you can stop and refuel in five minutes. But a battery, no matter how efficient you make it, is going to take six or eight hours to recharge. I don’t know too many people who, if they’re going to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, want to stop for 8 hours in the middle of that trip to refuel their car. So it isn’t as useful or as flexible as a hydrogen car with a hydrogen fueling infrastructure.
There’s no free lunch. I’m not saying that makes the case for hydrogen against battery electric. I’m simply saying that we probably need all of these technologies. If we’re going to displace a significant percentage of petroleum in our lifetime, we need the cleanest possible sources used in the most thoughtful way.
DR: Why not choose the existing electrical infrastructure over this speculative new hydrogen infrastructure?
TT: First of all, we don’t have the infrastructure, if everyone switched to an electric car tomorrow. We don’t have enough transmission and generation stations. We would have to build significantly. Look at blackouts in the northeast. Look at the California energy crisis. Let me tell you, as the cabinet secretary that had to deal with daily energy briefings to the governor: that problem is not over. And it’s not over throughout the rest of the country.
We would have to build an entirely new infrastructure if we were going to charge that many vehicles and get that many units of energy for our transportation system. By contrast …
I really hate this discussion, to be honest — it’s vilifying one at the expense of the other, and my whole message is we’ve got get all these technologies improved. Collectively, they can displace petroleum. That’s the enemy. The enemy is not hydrogen or coal or the electric grid or the electric car or this or that. The enemy, in my view, is petroleum. There’s nothing that has caused more damage to our society, to our health, to our politics, to our values as Americans, to every single thing we value in this world than petroleum. Whatever you can name as second is so far behind it’s not even worth mentioning.
TT: Even coal. I mean, as devastating as mountaintop mining is in Kentucky, and the emissions, we’re not in foreign countries killing people and creating entire generations of people who hate us and want to fly airplanes into our buildings over a ton of coal. Anyway, that’s a whole separate discussion.
My point about this is, yes, you would have to create a whole new and expensive infrastructure if you were going to start charging all those cars, including the new vehicles. For hydrogen we’d have to make new vehicles, admittedly. But hydrogen stations — there’s already 350 natural gas fueling stations in California, and a pretty robust national network across the country. Every one of those you can make hydrogen. It’s a gaseous fuel under pressure, the exact same pump. You can actually make hydrogen from natural gas — admittedly that’s a fossil fuel, but natural gas also comes from landfills and waste materials and sewage. There are renewable sources. So there’s already a nascent infrastructure in place.
The American Petroleum Institute came out with an estimate that to build a sufficiently robust fueling network for hydrogen would take about $140 billion nationwide. $140 billion — is that the amount we spent in Iraq in the first 14 months?
DR: In the last five minutes.
TT: A lot of people disputed that number — Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute and others — but let’s assume you go with what the American Petroleum Institute says. We could have paid for that many, many, many times over with what we give in subsidies to the oil industry today, not to mention the cost of the war in Iraq.