The Hydrogen Debate: Rose vs Romm

TreeHugger recently sat in on a public "debate" on the future of hydrogen as an energy source. The occasion was a "Town Square Roundtable" sponsored by the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. PBS carried it, and you can still download the audio file. The atmosphere was fascinating. After the two hydrogen experts...Robert Rose of the US Fuel Cells Council (the "proponent", representing an industry point of view), and Dr. Joeseph Romm, Executive Director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions (the "skeptic", author of "The Hype About Hydrogen", and organizational partner of the World Wildlife Fund)... had finished their individual talks, questioners lined up. The audience was diverse. The everpresent perpetual motion machine proponent asked a question. Even a biodiesel advocate spoke up. But, frankly, there seemed to be a social buzz that far outweighed the signal of hydrogen technology.Something had us in its grip. What hellhound got an East Coast elite so pumped over hydrogen? One questioner proclaimed 'people say hydrogen is an energy source; but it's not; it's just an energy carrier' "Yeah", I thought, "and gasoline is just a hydrogen carrier". Don't think so? Octane: eight carbons bound to nineteen hydrogen atoms. That cloud coming out of your exhaust pipe is water. Even this writer got caught in the buzz. Presumably the rational part of the audience was staying still?

Climate Change, it seemed, had become the evening's provacateur, tempting energy geeks (from whom we are certain to hear from after publishing this piece) to get a notch more shrill, and making their heads spin with ideas. Impatient activists are the long standing norm. But impatient and testy scientists are something else. Perhaps an abiding fear had already begun to permeate those who have studied energy and climate risks. That would help explain why anything that seemed to take too long to help is being looked at with greater skepticism. Enough speculation. See what you think.

On the "pro" side, the audience listened intently to Mr. Rose's authoritative sounding anecdotes: Here's a sampling of what he had to say. [Note: remarks that follow are paraphrased.]

* Hydrocarbon combustion for transportation results in 1 to 3 million asthma cases.
* All major automakers are committed fo fuel cell car development.
* A fuel cell powered vehicle sheds 600 Kg over a hybrid due to the inherent lightness of the electrical architecture.
* When someone points out that a fuel cell car costs a million bucks, its because of the 6 engineers standing around watching it get tested. Its not a production model.
* Nine million tons of H2 are moved around in the US every year: when was the last hydrogen accident you heard of?
* National Academy of Science is currently studying hundreds of storage options.
* Hydrogen burns at one tenth the flame temperature of gasoline.
* Gasoline results in approximately 7,400 gasoline fires and explosions, annually, at gas stations. Gasoline is often the first material ignited, but we accomodate it.
* When a car lights up, the gas spills down, and burns up the car; but H2 disperses upward and leaves car underneath.
* A fuel cell powered vehicle gives you electrical generation on wheels, and a source of water for emergencies.
* H2 can be made and stored while a fuel cell car is parked: usually most of the day.

On the "con" side, Dr. Romm next pointed out that these are dire times for science in general, citing the fact that the next day Congress had invited SciFi writer, Micheal Crichton, to be lead witness to a hearing on climate change. Among his major points:
[Note: remarks that follow are paraphrased]

* Practical H2 powered cars will be sold after 2025, and we don't have that long to wait to take mitigating action against climate change.
* Hybrids are the "no compromise car" to solve climate change.
* Ten (10) degrees of warming over the rest of the century is the business as usual outcome if nothing is done to mitigate climate forcing gas emissions.
* We must deal with cars and coal now, or be prepared for a 20 foot sea change.
* High oiil prices will not solve the oil problem.
* Four (4) tons of coal are needed to make 1 ton of diesel fuel with Fisher Tropff process, which is where China is headed now.
* Hybrids will be such tough competition for fuel cell cars that they will hold them back". (He later clarified that fuel cells have a valid position in stationary applications that is unaffected by hybrid cars).
* Hydrogen opponents typically use driving range of 300 miles as an absolute criteria, pointing out that storage of sufficient hydrogen to achieve that is infeasible; yet average driving distance is still 35 miles per day
* Reformation of natural gas to produce hydrogen fpor transportation will drive up prices of a vital fuel needed for clean electricity production, making winter heating less affordable for those already on low incomes.
* The short and long term policy and investment priority is to displace coal with natural gas for making electricity, not to burn it to make H2 for cars. Therefore, the use of natural gas as H2 source is a poor strategy.
* H2 is not projected to significantly penetrate the US vehicle fleet until after 2035, which is too late to get started seriously on fighting climate change.
* Cellulosic (non-corn) ethanol fueled cars or the E-hybrid (directly chargeable hybrids)are a preferred strategic choice over hydrogen fuel cell propulsion. * Argueably, the e-hybrid 'uses electricity more efficiently than fuel cell cars do, overall.
* Society will soon immerse itself in "global desperation" about global warming, which will increase political pressure for immediate and practical action: hybrids will fit that bill.

Q & A
The most interesting question, and which led to what we felt were seminal answers, came from the session moderator. Perhaps you can guess which answerer is which? Or not.

Q: What is one recommendation you each would make to government? [Note: question and answers are paraphrased]

A1: 'More imortant than picking a single technology winner is a comprehensive strategy to reduce GHG emissions. Once C02 has a price, let the market pick the winner'.

A2: 'Now is not the time to pick a winner due to politics. If I was king of the world I would drive a massive international effort to pursue several technologies. Goverment should be part of the planning'.

These two answers seem to closely overlap, to where two diametrically opposed experts ended up in almost the same place after an evening's debate.

Overall, we think the hydrogen skeptic got the most positive audience response. However, both presenters did a great job and the moderator was quite effective.

Near the end, the moderator asked for a show of hands from those who currently drove a hybrid car, and then for those who bicycled to work. The proportion of the audience that did both was high, far higher than would be expected for a larger sampling of the populace. Wouldn't you know, its those darn TreeHuggers again.


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