The New Power Source?
The Satya Interview with Seth
Seth Dunn is
a Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based
organization that analyzes global environmental and resource issues.
Dunn has authored several papers for the Institute, including Rising
Sun, Gathering Winds: Policies to Stabilize the Climate and Strengthen
Economies; Micropower: The Next Electrical Era, and his latest, Hydrogen
Futures: Toward a Sustainable Energy System. Dunn has participated in
four rounds of United Nations climate change negotiations and in meetings
of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and served as an environmental
advisor to the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and Green Mountain
Energy. Here, Dunn explains to Angela Starks the prospects of hydrogen
as a source of power.
What exactly is hydrogen power? Where
does it come from and how is it produced?
Hydrogen is the simplest and most abundant element in the universe,
and is already used as a raw material for oil refining and the manufacture
of ammonia fertilizer, resins, plastics, solvents, and other industrial
commodities. Hydrogen is naturally found in combination with other
in water, living matter, and hydrocarbons. Ninety-nine percent of
the hydrogen that is produced today is from hydrocarbons or fossil
gas, oil, and coalthrough either reforming or oxidation, basically
using heat or oxygen to separate the hydrogen.
In the long run, hydrogen will probably be produced from solar, wind,
and other renewable energy sourceswhich can be used to split
water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be used directly
more likely, in fuel cells. Fuel cells are electrochemical devices
that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water.
been used widely in the U.S. space program but only now are being
developed for use on Earth. Other possibilities for producing hydrogen
tinkering with the metabolism of algae or using sunlight directly.
With fuel cells, hydrogen can become the carrier of energy to run
from portable electronics to power plants to vehicles.
In your report, you talk about the incremental versus the direct path
to hydrogen power. What is the difference?
The more incremental path, which is where most of the automakers and
energy companies seem to be headed, would involve continued reliance
on gasoline, or perhaps using methanol, with the fuel reformed onboard
a vehicle carrying a fuel cell. In terms of emissions, this would probably
not provide much of an improvement over the hybrid-electric vehicles
that Toyota and Honda are already selling. A more direct path would
involve reforming natural gas at a fuel station, and using the hydrogen
directly in the vehicle. The emissions would be lower, and possibly
the cost to the consumer because no bulky reformer is needed on the
car. But the cost of storing the hydrogen is still seen as a big barrier.
In April of this year, a Texaco oil executive said that we are being inexorably propelled toward hydrogen energy. What
are the oil companies doing to embrace it?
Shell established Shell Hydrogen, a core business focused on hydrogen,
in 1998. British Petroleum followed suit with a hydrogen division
1999. Texaco has created a technology ventures division exploring
opportunities with fuel cells and hydrogen. And hydrogen is certainly
a factor in
the push by oil companies to rebrand themselves as energy companies
(such as BPs new motto Beyond Petroleum). These
investments are only a fraction of the resources spent on conventional
oil and gas
production, but they are still significant for the young hydrogen
What is the current state of technology
with hydrogen-powered cars?
Carmakers are now pouring several hundred million dollars annually into
fuel cell-related research. Most have plans to put their first vehicles
on the road somewhere around 2003 to 2005. Mass-produced vehicles are
still five to ten years away, but this timeline is much closer than
it was five years ago. Mass production will be key to making fuel cells
competitive with the internal combustion engine, which is three to five
times cheaper, though the fuel cell is several times more efficient.
Given the abundance and benefits
of hydrogen as an energy source, why wasnt it pursued sooner?
There have been spurts of interest in hydrogen dating back to the
World Wars, at moments when oil was not readily available. The oil
of the 1970s, and concern about running out of oil, also piqued interest
in hydrogen in some companies (General Motors coined the phrase hydrogen
economy in the 1970s), though this interest subsided with the
falling energy prices of the 1980s. But there are more durable forces
at work today: substantial improvements in the technology, thanks to
experience with space missions and research at corporations like Ballard
Power Systemsone of the leading fuel cell firms today; renewed
concern about oil import dependence and energy security; and growing
awareness of the risks of climate change and the need to actively decarbonize
the energy system. As with all previous energy transitions, these forces
will move us toward hydrogen long before we extract the last drop of
petroleum from the ground. As Don Huberts of Shell Hydrogen likes to
say, The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones.
And the Oil Age will not come to an end because we run out of oil.
Are there any down sides to hydrogen
There are safety issues that must and can be addressed. Hydrogen is
combustible, and has specific storage requirements. But most studies
suggest that, with these steps taken, hydrogen will be as safe as, or
safer than, gasoline as a fuel.
How much of the worlds energy
needs could, in theory, be provided by hydrogen alone? And for how
Theres really no theoretical limit to the amount of energy requirements
that could be met by hydrogen, or to the length of time. But its
important to note that hydrogen is not an energy source but an energy
carrier or currencymoving energy from one point to another. In
other words, the hydrogen has to come from somewherecoal, oil,
natural gas, renewable energy. The related challenge of a hydrogen
will be to develop renewable energy to its full potential, which
is also theoretically quite large and, because they are renewable
cannot be exhausted.
Do you know of any communitiesor
countriesthat are already producing a large percentage of their
energy needs from hydrogen?
Not yet, but keep an eye out on islands like Iceland and Hawaii,
where costly oil imports make hydrogen look relatively appealing.
has formal plans to become the worlds first hydrogen economy over
the next 30 years, and Hawaii recently approved state funding to explore
options for moving to hydrogen. We are at the dawn of the Hydrogen
Age, and these are some of the first glimmers of light.
You can read Seth Dunns report, Hydrogen Futures: Toward a
Sustainable Energy System, online at www.worldwatch.org
or call (202) 452-1999 for more information.