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December 2001/January 2002
Hydrogen: The New Power Source?

The Satya Interview with Seth Dunn


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 elements in water, living matter, and hydrocarbons. Ninety-nine percent of the hydrogen that is produced today is from hydrocarbons or fossil fuels—natural gas, oil, and coal—through 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 sources—which can be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be used directly or, more likely, in fuel cells. Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water. They have been used widely in the U.S. space program but only now are being developed for use on Earth. Other possibilities for producing hydrogen include tinkering with the metabolism of algae or using sunlight directly. With fuel cells, hydrogen can become the carrier of energy to run everything 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 in 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 BP’s 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 business.

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 wasn’t 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 price spikes 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 Systems—one 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 power?
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 world’s energy needs could, in theory, be provided by hydrogen alone? And for how long?
There’s really no theoretical limit to the amount of energy requirements that could be met by hydrogen, or to the length of time. But it’s important to note that hydrogen is not an energy source but an energy carrier or currency—moving energy from one point to another. In other words, the hydrogen has to come from somewhere—coal, oil, natural gas, renewable energy. The related challenge of a hydrogen economy will be to develop renewable energy to its full potential, which is also theoretically quite large and, because they are renewable sources, cannot be exhausted.

Do you know of any communities—or countries—that 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. Iceland has formal plans to become the world’s 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 Dunn’s report, Hydrogen Futures: Toward a Sustainable Energy System, online at or call (202) 452-1999 for more information.


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