Report Questions Bush Plan for Hydrogen-Fueled Cars
February 6, 2004
By MATTHEW L. WALD
WASHINGTON, Feb. 5 - President Bush's plan for cars running
on clean, efficient hydrogen fuel cells is decades away
from commercial reality, according to a report by the
National Academy of Sciences.
Promoting the technology in his State of the Union address
a year ago, Mr. Bush said a hydrogen car might be available
as the first vehicle for a child born in 2003. On Monday,
the Energy Department included $318 million for both fuel
cells and hydrogen production in its 2005 budget. "Hydrogen
is the next frontier; a hydrogen economy is where the world
is headed," said Spencer Abraham, the secretary of energy.
The Bush administration anticipates mass production of
hydrogen cars by 2020. But the academy study, released
Wednesday, said some of the Energy Department's goals were
Fuel cells produce electricity by putting hydrogen through
a chemical process, rather than burning, and their exhaust
consists solely of water and heat. Some scientists think
they have great promise, not only because they are clean,
but also because the hydrogen can be produced from solar or
wind power, thus reducing oil imports and the emission of
gases that cause global warming.
But the least-expensive methods of hydrogen production use
fuels like coal or natural gas, and those create pollution,
experts say. Hydrogen is also difficult to ship and store.
In addition, power from fuel cells is far more costly than
the same amount of power from a gasoline engine.
"Real revolutions have to occur before this is going to
become a large-scale reality," said one of the report's
authors, Dr. Antonia V. Herzog, a staff scientist at the
Natural Resources Defense Council. "It very possibly could
happen, but it's not a sure thing."
The report said battery-powered cars or hybrid cars, which
use gasoline and electric motors, could turn out to be
better choices. And over the next 25 years, the effects of
hydrogen cars on oil imports and global-warming gas
emissions "are likely to be minor," the report said.
A second pessimistic assessment came from Joseph J. Romm,
the chief Energy Department official in charge of
conservation and alternative energy in the Clinton
administration. His book "The Hype About Hydrogen" will be
published this spring.
"Fuel-cell cars will not be environmentally desirable for
decades, because there are better uses for the fuels you
can make the hydrogen out of," Mr. Romm said in a telephone
Most hydrogen produced today is made from natural gas, he
said, and using that gas to make electricity, and thus
replace coal-based electric plants, would do more for the
environment than using the gas to make hydrogen to replace
gasoline. He said society would get more energy from a
cubic foot of natural gas burned in a modern gas-powered
electric plant than if it was converted to hydrogen.
Mr. Romm also said there is currently no way to deliver the
hydrogen to vehicles. "People who want to build `hydrogen
highways' and drive a hydrogen car in 10 or 15 years on a
mass scale, are just kidding themselves," he said.
The Bush administration has shifted emphasis from a
Clinton-era program to develop hybrid cars into a far more
ambitious, long-term project to commercialize fuel cells.
Mr. Abraham, the energy secretary, said he had recently
been host of a meeting of energy ministers from around the
world, and they agreed that fuel cells offered promise for
reducing pollution and dependence on imported energy. "I
see it as not only a wise investment for America," Mr.
Abraham said, "but really where the world is heading."