Hydrogen cars may be a long time coming

WASHINGTON—President Bush's goal of putting the next generation of Americans into cars fueled by hydrogen is slipping away.

Technology, economics and human behavior are proving to be formidable obstacles to the president's dream of using hydrogen—the most abundant element in the universe—to reduce America's dependence on gasoline.

The administration's plan is to combine hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell, a boxy device that takes in those elements and puts out water, heat and electricity. The electricity can power an electric motor or recharge a battery to drive a car.

However, experts say there are quicker, cleaner, safer and cheaper ways to reduce the tail-pipe emissions from cars and trucks that pollute the air and contribute to global warming.

"A hydrogen car is one of the least efficient, most expensive ways to reduce greenhouse gases," said Joseph Romm, a physicist who was in charge of renewable energy research in the Carter administration. "If you want to slow down global warming, you're not going to do it with a hydrogen car."

"Other technologies may be less expensive and more quickly implemented," acknowledged JoAnn Milliken, the director of the Hydrogen Program in Bush's Energy Department. "We could decide hydrogen is too far out for major investment" and that there are "other more promising initiatives to invest in."

Alternatives include hybrid cars, plug-in hybrids, diesels, biofuels, improved conventional fuels and more efficient engines. (A plug-in hybrid runs on both gasoline and a battery that can be plugged into a socket in your garage at night.)

"A strong case exists for continuing fuel-efficiency improvements from conventional technology at relatively low cost," said K.G. Duleep, the managing director of Energy and Environmental Analysis Inc., a consulting firm in Arlington, Va.

Milliken and Duleep were among a panel of scientists, engineers and industry experts that the National Academy of Sciences assembled last month to review the president's $1.2 billion hydrogen initiative, which he launched in his January 2003 State of the Union address.

"A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car producing only water, not exhaust fumes," Bush told Congress at that time. "Join me in this important innovation to make our air significantly cleaner, and our country much less dependent on foreign sources of energy."

A White House fact sheet said Bush's initiative "will make it practical and cost-effective for large numbers of Americans to choose to use clean, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles by 2020."

But experts say only a tiny fraction of the nation's 140 million automobile drivers will be able to pull up to service stations and take on loads of hydrogen by then.

"Maybe a few hundred, rising to a few thousand," said Romm, the executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, in Arlington, and the author of a new book on global warming titled "Hell and High Water."

"Hydrogen is not going to make a huge dent in oil use by 2020," said Joan Ogden, an energy specialist at the University of California, Davis. "A 30- to 40-year time frame is more likely."

The panelists agreed that multiple technology breakthroughs will be required to develop practical, cost-effective fuel cells that will persuade consumers to use them. In addition, a vast network of hydrogen service stations will be needed. Safety issues are also crucial, since hydrogen gas is highly flammable.

Another government expert, Steve Plotkin, a fuel analyst at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, cautioned that "the transition to a new fuel involves a huge change in the energy system. It will never work in the real world unless costs come way down."

"Consumers are very risk averse in making a car-buying decision," Duleep said. "They need time to know about and become comfortable with the next technology. ... It takes a long gestation period."

The panel also heard cautionary words from industry witnesses.

Ben Knight, a vice president of Honda Motor Corp., which is building an experimental hydrogen car, called it "the most challenging technology the auto industry has ever done."

"It's a major change," said Phillip Baxley, the president of Shell Hydrogen, which has opened half a dozen service stations equipped to handle several hundred experimental hydrogen cars in the Los Angeles area. "It may be a long time before it happens."

Asked when he thinks hydrogen cars will be broadly available, Romm, the hydrogen skeptic, replied: "Not in our lifetime, and very possibly never."


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