Bush's Blind Hydrogen Vision

The Bush Administration is spending billions of dollars to replace fossil fuels with a hydrogen-based economy in order, they say, to achieve energy independence. The administration has been banging the drum that freeing us from our dependence on foreign petroleum is a matter of national security. The problem is, instead of investing in basic research that will generate hydrogen from renewable resources, the Department of Energy is primarily funding projects that either use the very fossil fuels we currently depend on or are simply "window dressing" demonstrations of technology that will never work.

On April 27, DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham opened the federal wallet by announcing $350 million in grants to fund hydrogen research projects during the next five years. The lion's share, $190 million, will go towards vehicle and infrastructure learning demonstrations, such as hydrogen fueling stations. These stations will allow a handful of fuel cell vehicles to be powered by hydrogen, which most likely would be created from natural gas.

However, this expenditure of taxpayer dollars came just weeks after the American Physical Society (APS) produced a report stating that the technology for storing and delivering hydrogen was too immature to justify spending money on such demonstration projects. The 17-page Hydrogen Initiative Report says demonstration programs "only benefit the overall program when a sufficient knowledge base exists, and "can also divert effort toward technology with limited potential." The report adds, "basic science is not receiving appropriate emphasis in the (hydrogen research) program."

Francis Skakely, associate director of public affairs for APS says that the high-pressure hydrogen storage technology currently being used in test vehicles is not viable, so spending millions on demonstration projects is a waste of money. "Unless we come up with a new technology for storing hydrogen, it's a showstopper." Meaning, we'll never drive hydrogen-powered cars.

The April DOE announcement does include spending $150 million during the next five years to address the hydrogen storage problem, but it doesn't provide a single dollar to solve what researchers say is the other great hydrogen technology hurdle -- cost-effective fuel cells that would replace internal combustion engines.

Skakely estimates that fuel cell technology, which converts hydrogen into electricity and water, must be improved by a factor of between 10 and 100 to become competitive with today's gas-craving cars. "The technology that's there now (in demonstration projects) isn't anything that people would want," Skakely says. Experts say that additional basic research needs to be done on fuel cell membranes, which separate the hydrogen into electricity and water, because they aren't durable enough and are too expensive.

Skakely also says that the amount of money dedicated to basic research should be doubled. The APS report notes that in 2004, Bush's hydrogen initiative did not provide any support for the nation's primary basic science agencies -- the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy.

Much of the $190 million being spent on infrastructure and demonstration projects will go to petrochemical and automotive companies, which also happen to make significant contributions to the Republican Party. DOE grant recipients ChevronTexaco, ConocoPhillps, Shell Oil, Progress Energy, Ford, Daimler Chrysler and General Motors have given more than $900,000 to Republican candidates, while giving Democrats about one-third of that amount, according to data from the website FECinfo.com.

Dr. Frano Barbir, a professor in residence at the Connecticut Global Fuel Center at the University of Connecticut, is frustrated that so much hydrogen research money is going to fossil-fuel companies while fuel cell researchers are scrambling for dollars. Barbir is working on a catalyst material for improving the flow efficiency of fuel cells, but his project is not eligible for DOE funding because it's not a demonstration project or for a fuel cell membrane: "If the government funds (a project) it should be basic research, not something that only benefits a few companies."

Joe Romm, a former acting assistant secretary of energy, and author of the recently released book "The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate," says that while the DOE's funding process does not allow favoritism, choosing to fund demonstrations based on hydrogen from natural gas biases who is eligible for the money. "There's no choice that if you want infrastructure expertise, then you talk with people who know fueling stations -- petroleum companies."

"We should be spending all of our money on long term research for fuel cell energy and advanced storage systems," says Romm.

This year the DOE will spend $171.5 million on deriving hydrogen from fossil fuels including natural gas, coal and petroleum, which Romm says is a mistake. "If I were the federal government I would not be subsidizing hydrogen infrastructure based on fossil fuels," Romm says. The DOE will spend $672 million in 2004 in subsidies to fossil fuel research and development, more than three times the overall hydrogen research budget.

Romm goes on to say that while creating hydrogen from renewable resources such as water, wind, or biomass is currently much more expensive than using fossil fuels, it is the only long term solution for energy independence. The Bush Administration actually reduced the allocation for biomass research and development related to hydrogen in 2004 by more than half, to $14 million. This cutback also runs contrary to the APS report, which calls renewable energy research "an important complement and contributor to the goals of a hydrogen economy."

"If the goal is energy independence, than we must eventually turn to biofuels or water (as hydrogen sources)," says Richard Gerth, the assistant director of the Center for Automotive Research at the Ohio State University. Gerth says that fuel cells of the future could be powered by hydrogen from biofuels, water or perhaps an undiscovered synthetic fuel. "It's hard to say what is the best solution, because we're at least 10 years away," Gerth says.

The DOE dedicated $47 million of its 2004 hydrogen research budget to fuel cell research and development, and $30 million to hydrogen storage, but again, according to the APS' Skakely, most of that money is pork -- congressional pet projects that will not contribute to the overall scientific effort. "This happens all the time, and if it's happening with basic research money, you're not going to solve the problem anytime soon."

John Gartner writes about environmental technology and alternative energy from his home in Philadelphia.

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