Technology Review: It used to be thought, five to eight years ago, that hydrogen was the great answer for the future of transportation. The mood has shifted. What have we learned from this?

Steven Chu: I think, well, among some people it hasn’t really shifted. I think there was great enthusiasm in some quarters, but I always was somewhat skeptical of it because, right now, the way we get hydrogen primarily is from reforming [natural] gas. That’s not an ideal source of hydrogen. You’re giving away some of the energy content of natural gas, which is a very valuable fuel. So that’s one problem. The other problem is, if it’s for transportation, we don’t have a good storage mechanism yet. Compressed hydrogen is the best mechanism [but it requires] a large volume. We haven’t figured out how to store it with high density. What else? The fuel cells aren’t there yet, and the distribution infrastructure isn’t there yet. So you have four things that have to happen all at once. And so it always looked like it was going to be [a technology for] the distant future. In order to get significant deployment, you need four significant technological breakthroughs. That makes it unlikely.

If you need four miracles, that’s unlikely: saints only need three miracles.

That was Energy Secretary Steven Chu nearly 2 years ago in a Technology Review interview, explaining why he didn’t think that hydrogen fuel cell vehicle research should be a priority for the DOE.

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Back then he tried to sharply reduce the bloated hydrogen budget and redirect the funds toward clean energy technology development and deployment programs that could actually achieve significant benefits for the American public in the foreseeable future, something I’ve been recommending for years. (see “Chu agrees with Climate Progress and slashes hydrogen budget“).  But the Congress restored the money.

Now he’s trying again.  In a blog post Friday, “Winning the Future with a Responsible Budget,” the Nobel prize-winning physicist explains, “In the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the Department is reducing funding for the hydrogen technology program by more than 41 percent, or almost $70 million, in order to focus on technologies deployable at large scale in the near term.”  Chu said in May 2009 that the multiple technological and infrastructure challenges meant it was unlikely we would convert to hydrogen car economy in the next two decades.

For a detailed analysis of the 4 miracles needed — indeed of the challenges facing all alternative fuel vehicles — see “Hydrogen fuel cell cars are a dead end from a technological, practical, and climate perspective — Chu & Obama are right to kill the program.“  The Nobel Laureate Burton Richter has explained in detail why “The present hydrogen fuel cells are losers… Losers. They have to go back to the R&D lab.”

One reason climate hawks should hope that he succeeds is that hydrogen cars are one of the least cost-effective strategies for reducing carbon emissions ever imagined:

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In fact, Well-to-Wheels Analysis of Future Automotive Fuels and Powertrains in the European Context, a January 2004 study by the European Commission Center for Joint Research, the European Council for Automotive R&D, and an association of European oil companies, concluded that using hydrogen as a transport fuel might well increase Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions rather than reduce them (JRC, 2004). That is because many pathways for making hydrogen, such as grid electrolysis, can be quite carbon-intensive and because hydrogen fuel cells are so expensive that hydrogen internal combustion engine vehicles may be deployed instead (which is already happening in California).

Using fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen from zero-carbon sources such as renewable power or nuclear energy has a cost of avoided carbon dioxide of more than $600 a metric ton, which is more than a factor of ten higher than most other strategies being considered today.

If we lived in some imaginary post-partisan Bizarro world where we had the prospect of spending as much money on clean energy as we ought to based on the realities of climate science and peak oil, then cutting the hydrogen doesn’t wouldn’t be needed.  We’d just increase the R&D and deployment programs for energy efficiency and renewable energy and electric drive vehicles several times.

Similarly, if the anti-science, pro-pollution conservatives and their enablers hadn’t killed the climate and clean energy jobs bill, again, we would have had more than enough money to fund even the implausible clean energy strategies.

But we’ve entered a period where political and budget realities mean we have to focus resources on the clean energy technologies and low carbon strategies that deliver the biggest bang for the buck.  Hydrogen not only has massive technological problems that will require large amounts of continued R&D funding.  It has a staggering infrastructure costs that would require tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars to jumpstart a genuine hydrogen economy.

The one state in this country that was seriously contemplating even a modest infrastructure came to its senses and essentially abandoned their effort (see “California Hydrogen Highway R.I.P”).

There simply isn’t a prospect that anybody is going to fund the thousands of low-carbon hydrogen fueling stations needed to make an initial introduction of the vehicles plausible, let alone the tens of thousands of low-carbon fueling stations required to make mass entry of the vehicles viable.

As Washington Post piece, “Don’t bet on a hydrogen car anytime soon” explained, hydrogen cars are a “techno-turkey,” and the research program is “stupendously difficult and probably pointless.”

Kudos to Obama and Chu for trying again to put some rationality into the budget of the efficiency and renewable office that I once helped run — where, ironically enough, I was probably the biggest supporter of hydrogen fuel cell research and worked hard to stop the auto companies from slashing the program prematurely.   But after 15 years and some $2 billion in R&D, with remarkably little to show for it — especially in infrastructure or vehicles on the road — while other technologies, notably electric drive vehicles, have made remarkable advances, it’s time to pull the plug on hydrogen cars.

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