The Many Uses Of Hydrogen

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Because transporting hydrogen over long distances would be costly, each generation plant would serve the surrounding region. The first users would most likely include fleet vehicles such as trucks and small vehicles that now use electric batteries (for example, forklifts at a warehouse). Hydrogen fuel cells could also power marine engines and provide supplemental electricity for office buildings. The owners of fuel-cell cars could stop at hydrogen stations or even generate their own hydrogen at home using the power from solar arrays.

Because transporting hydrogen over long distances would be costly, each generation plant would serve the surrounding region. The first users would most likely include fleet vehicles such as trucks and small vehicles that now use electric batteries (for example, forklifts at a warehouse). Hydrogen fuel cells could also power marine engines and provide supplemental electricity for office buildings. The owners of fuel-cell cars could stop at hydrogen stations or even generate their own hydrogen at home using the power from solar arrays.

focus on fleet vehicles—local delivery vans, buses and trucks— that do not require an extensive refueling network. Marine engines and locomotives could also run on hydrogen, which would eliminate significant emissions of air pollutants. Hydrogen fuel cells might power small vehicles that now use electric batteries, such as forklifts, scooters and electric bikes. And fuel cells could also be used in stationary power production: for example, they could generate electricity for police stations, military bases and other customers that do not want to rely solely on the power grid. These niche markets could help bring down the cost of fuel cells and encourage energy companies to build the first commercial hydrogen stations.

To make a substantial dent in global oil use and greenhouse gas emissions, however, hydrogen fuel will have to succeed in passenger vehicle markets. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have concluded that 5 to 10 percent of urban service stations (plus a few stations connecting cities) must offer hydrogen to give fuel-cell car owners roughly the same convenience enjoyed by gasoline customers. GM has estimated that providing national coverage for the first million hydrogen vehicles in the U.S. would require some 12,000

hydrogen stations in cities and along interstates, each costing about $1 million. Building a full-scale hydrogen system serving 100 million cars in the U.S. might cost several hundred billion dollars, spent over decades. This estimate counts not only the expense of building refueling stations but also the new production and delivery systems that will be needed if hydrogen becomes a popular fuel.

Those numbers may sound daunting, but the World Energy Council projects that the infrastructure costs of maintaining and expanding the North American gasoline economy over the next 30 years will total $1.3 trillion, more than half of which will be spent in oil-producing countries in the developing world. Most of these costs would go toward oil exploration and production. About $300 billion would be for oil refineries, pipelines and tankers—facilities that could eventually be replaced by a hydrogen production and delivery system. Building a hydrogen economy is costly, but so is business as usual.

Furthermore, there are several ways to deliver hydrogen to vehicles. Hydrogen can be produced regionally in large plants, then stored as a liquid or compressed gas, and distributed to refueling stations by truck or gas pipeline. It is also possible to make hydrogen locally at stations—or even in homes—from natural gas or electricity [see box on page 96]. In the early stages of a hydrogen economy, when the number of fuel-cell vehicles is relatively small, truck delivery or on-site production at refueling stations might be the most economical options. But once a large hydrogen demand is established—say, 25 percent of all the cars in a large city—a regional centralized plant with pipeline delivery offers the lowest cost. Centralized hydrogen production also opens the way for carbon sequestration, which makes sense only at large scales.

In many respects, hydrogen is more like electricity than gasoline. Because hydrogen is more costly to store and transport than gasoline, energy companies will most likely produce the fuel all over the country, with each generation plant serving a regional market. What is more, the supply pathways will

The development of the hydrogen fuel infrastructure will be a decades-long process moving in concert with the growing market for fuel-cell vehicles. Through projects such as the California Hydrogen Highways Network and HyWays in Europe, energy companies are already providing hydrogen to test fleets and demonstrating refueling technologies. To enable fuel-cell vehicles to enter mass markets in 10 to 15 years, hydrogen fuel must be widely available at a competitive price by then. Concentrating hydrogen projects in key regions such as southern California or the Northeast corridor might help hasten the growth of the fuel-cell market and reduce the cost of infrastructure investments.

In the near term, the bulk of the hydrogen fuel will most likely be extracted from natural gas. Fueling vehicles this way will cut greenhouse gas emissions only modestly compared with driving gasoline hybrids; to realize hydrogen's full ben-

Building a hydrogen economy is costly, but so is business as usual.

vary with location. A hydrogen economy in Ohio—which has plentiful coal and many suitable sites for carbon dioxide sequestration—might look entirely different from one in the Pacific Northwest (which has low-cost hydropower) or one in the Midwest (which can rely on wind power and biofuels). A small town or rural area might rely on truck delivery or on-site production, whereas a large, densely populated city might use a pipeline network to transport hydrogen.

Developing a hydrogen economy will certainly entail some financial risks. If an energy company builds giant production or distribution facilities and the fuel-cell market grows more slowly than expected, the company may not be able to recoup its investments. This dilemma is sometimes called the "stranded asset" problem. The energy industry can minimize its risk, though, by adding hydrogen supply in small increments that closely follow demand. For example, companies could build power plants that generate both electricity and a small stream of hydrogen for the early fuel-cell cars. To distribute the hydrogen, the companies could initially use truck delivery and defer big investments such as pipelines until a large, established demand is in place.

The First Steps the road to a hydrogen transportation system actually consists of several parallel tracks. Raising fuel economy is the essential first step. Developing lightweight cars, more efficient engines and hybrid electric drivetrains can greatly reduce carbon emissions and oil use over the next few decades. Hydrogen and fuel cells will build on this technical progression, taking advantage of the efficiency improvements and the increasing electrification of the vehicles.

efits, energy companies must either make the gas from zero-carbon energy sources or sequester the carbon by-products. Once hydrogen becomes a major fuel—say, in 2025 or be-yond—governments should phase in requirements for zero or near-zero emissions in its production. And in the meantime, policymakers should encourage the ongoing efforts to develop clean-power technologies such as wind, solar, biomass gasification and carbon sequestration. The shift to a hydrogen economy can be seen as part of a broader move toward lower-carbon energy.

Although the transition may take several decades, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles could eventually help protect the global climate and reduce America's reliance on foreign oil. The vast potential of this new industry underscores the importance of researching, developing and demonstrating hydrogen technologies now, so they will be ready when we need them. ®

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