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Is Big Energy Hijacking Hydrogen?

If the oil, coal and nuclear fuel interests have their way -- and they have the support of the Bush Administration already -- the coming "hydrogen revolution" will just be Dirty Energy Redux.
 
 
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Whether or not hydrogen becomes "the people's energy" depends to a large extent on how it is generated and transported in the current, early stages of development. This sustainable gas can be generated locally via renewables like wind, biomass or solar power, but it could also be a new product for our large-scale, centralized oil and nuclear power industries. Mike Nicklas, chairperson of the American Solar Energy Society (ACES), warns that even though the Bush administration is publicly supporting hydrogen development through its new FreedomCAR program, its vision does not support clean energy technologies for hydrogen production.

"'Clean' in this case means coal, nuclear and natural gas," says Nicklas, who attended the federal National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap Workshop last April. Fossil fuel and nuclear industry representatives dominated the session on hydrogen production, Nicklas observes. "We're now at the point of making a transition to an entirely new energy paradigm, and we don't need to be continuing the carbon era by other means." Nicklas says that ACES is working with other groups, including Worldwatch and the World Resources Institute, to promote truly renewable hydrogen generation.

In what could be a parallel to its purchase of many solar companies, the oil industry is buying in to hydrogen: Shell established Shell Renewables in 1997 and Shell Hydrogen in 2000, BP/Amoco is investing $500 million in renewables over three years, and ChevronTexaco has purchased a 20 percent stake in Energy Conversion Devices, a Detroit-based photovoltaic, battery and fuel-cell company.

Large utilities are also interested in generating hydrogen from what they call "clean coal," coupled with a scheme to "sequester," or isolate the resulting carbon dioxide emissions to prevent them from entering the atmosphere. According to one scenario, coal would react with steam and oxygen before combustion to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide, with the carbon dioxide liquefied and stored underground in deep aquifers or other geological formations.

Going Nuclear

At the annual meeting of the World Nuclear Association in London last September, the group's director general, John Ritch, touted what he called the "hydrogen-nuclear economy." He envisions "an entirely clean energy global economy, with nuclear power supplying not only electricity and clean water, but also energizing transport of all kinds."

There are 400 conventional nuclear plants in the world, generating a sixth of global electricity. While these plants produce no emissions of carbon dioxide, the major global warming gas, they have created an intractable radioactive waste crisis and an ongoing safety debate that has made it extremely difficult to license any new facilities.

Some scientists see the need for large-scale hydrogen production as a way to jumpstart the moribund nuclear industry. Speaking at the International Youth Nuclear Congress in South Korea last April, Dr. Leon Walters, former director of engineering at Argonne National Laboratory, estimated that nuclear powernow just seven percent of U.S. power productioncould leap to 50 percent if it were harnessed to produce hydrogen for transportation. He estimates that a transition to a hydrogen-nuclear economy would take 30 years.

General Atomics held a workshop last May on producing hydrogen from both conventional nuclear fission and as-yet unproven nuclear fusion. L.M. Wagner of Boeing said at the forum that hydrogen could be profitably produced in off-peak hours from fusion reactors. Nuclear fusion, if it were feasible, would produce no radioactive waste or bomb-grade materials, but no practical process for a fusion reactor has yet been demonstrated, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in funding over the past 50 years.

Joan Ogden, a Princeton research scientist, says that the frontrunner for nuclear hydrogen production is a thermochemical heat process. "This is a difficult technology that is much further from commercialization than many other hydrogen production options," Ogden says. A recent analysis by Ogden's Princeton colleague, Robert Williams, found that thermochemical nuclear hydrogen would be an expensive and complicated procedure when compared to other methods.

Environmentalists have reacted with dismay to the attempt to nuclearize hydrogen production. "Nuclear-generated hydrogen is like a nicotine patch that causes cancer," says Dan Becker, energy program director for the Sierra Club. "This certainly explains one level of the Bush administration's sudden interest. But if we're looking to hydrogen to free us from old forms of energy, why would we suddenly go nuclear, with all the well-known problems?"

The federal Roadmap workshop that Nicklas attended did indeed give a prominent role to nuclear-generated hydrogen, and included representatives from General Atomics, Savannah River Technology Center and Entergy Nuclear. With funding from industry and the federal Department of Energy (DOE), participants projected that they could have a pilot plant for producing hydrogen from nuclear power in place by 2010.

DOE's hydrogen production scenario is bizarrely tilted toward nuclear power, echoing the emphasis of Vice President Dick Cheney's closed-door sessions for the 2001 National Energy Policy. The policy directs the Secretary of Energy to vastly expand the nation's nuclear generating capacity, and to "develop next generation technology including hydrogen and fusion." A paper prepared by DOE energy scientist Samuel Rosenbloom, "Hydrogen Development Program: A Perspective," is stridently pro-nuke, describing renewable production as "high risk" and "long term." The proposed goal: "Nuclear-driven hydrogen production demonstration by 2006," coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's relativity theory.

Speaking anonymously, a high-ranking official in DOE's Office of Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and Infrastructure Technologies said that hydrogen should be generated from "diverse feedstocks [including reformation of fossil fuels, nuclear and electrolysis of water using renewable sources], with some more suited to certain regions than others." The official said that many DOE scientists had concluded that nuclear generation of hydrogen "is the way to go," but added, "I personally don't think that they've addressed the waste issue in a way that alleviates the fears of the public."

A Level Playing Field

Thomas Jackson, president of Milford, Connecticut-based Avalence, which is working on residential hydrogen electrolyzers (essentially, a home-based hydrogen station), worries that federal incentives will go to the nuclear industry and strongly influence what would otherwise be a free market for new technologies. "There needs to be a level playing field that includes all the different approaches," Jackson says.

Similarly skeptical is C. E. "Sandy" Thomas, president of Virginia-based H2Gen, which is moving rapidly to develop natural gas steam reformation technology to install hydrogen pumps at gas stations around the country by 2004. Thomas, an advocate of direct, renewable-generated hydrogen since his days as an advisor to Ford's fuel-cell efforts, is very dubious about nuclear fusion, which he notes has yet to reach the break-even point of energy production. Even if a breakthrough did occur, he says, "engineers would still have to design, build and test reactors that could produce a net increase in energy at an affordable cost." Thomas' vision calls for localized hydrogen production. "Make the hydrogen where people want it," he says, "at filling stations, at fleet operators' garages and even at home. Through economies of mass production, that could be the least costly way to make hydrogen in the long run."

Obviously, the world's dominant energy industries will not happily go out of business or voluntarily cede market share to renewables, though there is growing evidence that, at least in the long term, solar and wind power could be harnessed to produce a decentralized, completely zero-emission energy loop. Thomas, who champions steam reformation of natural gas as an interim step, advocates a truly spectacular zero emissions end game, in which the fuel is produced from a combination of regionally appropriate photovoltaic collectors, wind generators or biomass. "Imagine," he says, "a motor vehicle fuel so clean-burning that you could drink the effluent from the tailpipe, with urban smog a distant memory."

Even the most ardent environmentalists admit that this vision is still many years down the road, and that short-term solutions (probably a mix of steam reformation of natural gas or electrolysis of water) will be needed to make the transition from fossil fuels. But if hydrogen is captured by today's big energy interests, the dream of zero emissions and local control will almost certainly never be realized. "A fair question to ask is whether the hydrogen future will be driven by big energy companies or done over their dead bodies," says Jason Mark, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean vehicle program. "We don't want to wake up in the middle of the night and find that our dream of a clean hydrogen revolution has become a nightmare."

Jim Motavalli is the editor of E Magazine.