Tom Drennen, associate professor of economics and chair of the environmental studies department at HWS, was interviewed by City Newspaper for an article on the complexities of hydrogen as an alternative fuel source.
The article notes hydrogen can have benefits, but also significant drawbacks. Among these, are those that occur in its production. Drennen notes, “If we go with hydrocarbons, we’re going to defeat a lot of the purpose in the first place.” The article explains, “The reason is simple: breaking apart a hydrocarbon molecule frees hydrogen, but it also frees carbon. If that carbon isn’t captured, it could add to carbon-dioxide emissions, not reduce them.”
Another drawback is related to simple supply and demand. Fueling stations are waiting for demand to take the first step in large-scale supply.
Drennen is quoted, “No fueling station would put in hydrogen unless people were demanding it, but nobody’s going to demand it. Nobody’s going to buy a car unless they’re sure they can fill it up.”
Another major setback is public interest, as Drennen asserts gas prices are currently too low to sustain public interest in energy alternatives.
“We start looking at alternatives when prices are high,” he is quoted. “When prices fall back down, people lose interest.”
A member of the HWS faculty since 1995, Drennen earned a B.S. in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Public Affairs from the University of Minnesota, and a Ph.D. in resource economics from Cornell University. In 2006, he received the Hobart and William Smith Excellence in Teaching Award.
Drennen is the author of the book, “Pathways to a Hydrogen Future,” which seeks to untangle competing visions of a hydrogen economy, explain the trade-offs and obstacles, and offer recommendations for a path forward. The results are based on “The Hydrogen Futures Simulation Model,” developed at Sandia National Laboratories, where he is senior economist.
The full text follows.
A flash point for hydrogen fuel
Jeremy Moule • August 12, 2009
Hydrogen’s promise as the ultra-clean, ultra-domestic transportation fuel of the future has been around for decades.
Many skeptics thought the day would never come when they’d see hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road, yet the vehicles are out there now, rolling along and accumulating real-world miles as part of manufacturers’ test programs. And former President George Bush in 2003 embraced hydrogen fuel cell development as his administration’s flagship environmental and energy program – for whatever that’s worth.
But hydrogen has been viewed by critics as an energy boondoggle that will suck up too much government money while providing too few economic or environmental benefits.
The fact is that the most abundant element on earth is caught up in an intricate, tangled debate between politicians, scientists, environmentalists, businesses, and other groups. At issue is hydrogen’s merit as an energy solution.
That much was apparent in the political maneuvering that happened after White House Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced in May that the Department of Energy would slash funding for vehicular hydrogen fuel cell research. Chu said the technology is too far from being market-ready and he instead wanted to shift the focus to technology that was closer at hand, such as electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.
Automakers and scientists were not the first to speak out against the cuts, however; it was the politicians who came to the rescue. Representative Eric Massa was among the earliest – the Honeoye Falls fuel cell facility is, after all, in his district. He was joined by 12 members of Congress, including Louise Slaughter and Dan Maffei, who signed a letter urging the Obama administration to reverse the cuts. A Congressional committee later added some of the money back into the budget. Soon after, Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand spoke out, too.
Schumer argued for $190 million in federal funding for hydrogen fuel cell research and development during a recent speech on the Senate floor – the Senate has since approved the funding. The United States already leads the rest of the world in hydrogen fuel cell research, Schumer said, and it’s critical to protect those advances.
“We’ve come too far to close the doors on this research,” Schumer said.
Hydrogen is an attractive fuel for two major reasons: It can be extracted from a variety of domestic resources, so it reduces dependence on foreign oil. And when it’s used as an energy source, whether in a combustion engine or in a fuel cell, its only byproduct is water – there’s no carbon dioxide or other harmful emissions.
As with most energy sources, though, the case isn’t that simple; there are benefits, but there is also the potential for serious drawbacks.
Hydrogen does have significant potential as an alternative to foreign petroleum. The most common way of producing hydrogen is to break down methane from natural gas, of which the US does have substantial, though finite, reservoirs. Similar processes can be used to break apart other hydrocarbons, such as coal. And some common industrial chemical processes generate hydrogen as a byproduct – the manufacture of chlorine, for example.
“If we go with hydrocarbons, we’re going to defeat a lot of the purpose in the first place,” says Tom Drennen, an environmental science professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges who’s studied hydrogen fuel.
The reason is simple: breaking apart a hydrocarbon molecule frees hydrogen, but it also frees carbon. If that carbon isn’t captured, it could add to carbon-dioxide emissions, not reduce them.
Whether hydrogen can be produced on a commercial scale without the use of fossil fuels as a base is a big sticking point. Many hydrogen advocates view electrolysis – using electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen – as the solution. But that method is more expensive than reforming natural gas, and the environmental value depends on the source of the electricity. That means looking at the big picture and not just focusing solely on what comes out of the tailpipe. If the electricity used in electrolysis comes from a coal plant, the hydrogen will contribute far more pollution to the atmosphere and environment – from both burning and mining the coal – than it would if the electricity came from wind or hydro power.
Using nuclear power and its processes is another possibility. There are also less conventional feedstock sources, like methane from sewage or decomposing garbage. Again, there are tradeoffs to each approach.
A 2005 issue paper from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, recommended “continued research and development support in fuel cell vehicle technology and advanced hydrogen system technologies,” along with efforts to research, develop, and deploy hydrogen produced via wind, solar, and biomass, or at least fossil fuel sources with carbon capture and storage.
But the report also said that existing and near-term technologies, like hybrid vehicles, rechargeable electric vehicles, or cellulosic ethanol, have just as much potential as hydrogen to cut oil consumption and to reduce harmful vehicle emissions. And it favored further research, development, and deployment of such technologies.
Engineers have made remarkable progress on hydrogen vehicle technology.
During a press event earlier this year, several Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell vehicle prototypes sat in front of the GM’s Honeoye Falls facility. More than 100 test vehicles have been deployed in Rochester, New York City, and Los Angeles.
The technology in the vehicles is about four years old, says Dan O’Connell, the lab’s director of fuel cell commercialization. There’s a new generation of technology that could go into higher volume production when the time is right, he says. That new technology is smaller, lighter, and more efficient. It’s also less expensive.
What GM has been focusing on is getting the price of the vehicles down. Right now, O’Connell says, the vehicles cost about 10 times more than company officials think they need to cost. That means engineers and researches are looking for engineering and materials improvements that would reduce cost and maintain or improve performance. And these vehicles are hand-built prototypes, not mass-assembled autos.
It’s not just GM that’s testing hydrogen vehicles. Honda began leasing test models of its FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle in California last year – the monthly payment was reported by Bloomberg.com as about $600. BMW, meanwhile, has been demonstrating a liquid hydrogen powered sedan, which can also run on standard gasoline, since 2006. There are other hydrogen vehicles that haven’t yet hit US shores.
In Germany, “They’re looking at hydrogen as a long-term energy carrier,” O’Connell says. “They have a pretty aggressive program laid out on a national level.”
In a statement late last month, a GM spokeswoman said that the company needs $50 million to $70 million a year “dedicated to a focused effort to commercialize automotive fuel cell technology within five years” to match efforts under way in Europe and Asia.
The US also needs a cohesive national policy that recognizes hydrogen as an automotive fuel, establishes standards for it, and gives consumers economic incentives to buy the cars, much like the government did with hybrid vehicles, O’Connell says.
“We know it’s hard to do, but if it’s the right thing to do, let’s do it,” O’Connell says.
Representative Eric Massa is staking a lot on hydrogen fuel cells.
“This is no longer a matter of convenience,” he says. “It is a matter of national survival.”
Massa refused to vote for a landmark climate bill in part because of the White House’s plans to slash hydrogen fuel cell funding; he says that he thinks the technology is essential to meeting any large-scale emissions cuts.
He also suffered some early-career ridicule after he drove Chevrolet Equinox hydrogen fuel cell test vehicles to his inauguration. The key word there is “vehicles.” The fuel tanks couldn’t store enough hydrogen to travel from Massa’s home to the capital, so he switched from one Equinox to another partway through his trip. Each vehicle was towed by a hybrid SUV at some point.
His detractors claimed he was engaging in a publicity stunt.
“I looked at them and I said, ‘You’re right. That’s exactly what it is,'” Massa says. “It got them talking about it. That’s part of my job is to create awareness of these great opportunities.”
Whether it was intentional or not, Massa highlighted a major issue with the technology: infrastructure. If engineers can build an affordable, durable vehicle that consumers will buy or lease, then someone will have to build hydrogen filling stations.
“That’s really their biggest problem, is that nobody has hydrogen at a fueling station,” says Hobart and William Smith’s Drennen. “No fueling station would put in hydrogen unless people were demanding it, but nobody’s going to demand it. Nobody’s going to buy a car unless they’re sure they can fill it up.”
For hydrogen vehicles to catch on, 8,000 to 10,000 filling stations, spread across the United States, need to be operational in the next five to 10 years. General Motors built stations in California and near New York City, and governments and energy companies have also built stations. Shell recently opened one in New York City, a joint project with GM, and operates others in White Plains.
This is where, hydrogen fuel supporters argue, the government needs to step in. New York, for example, could install hydrogen stations along the Thruway, so that it would be possible to cross the state in a hydrogen-powered vehicle. Or the federal government could work with energy companies to get hydrogen pumps installed at gas stations.
There’s also the approach taken by Monroe County and General Motors officials. The county has taken one test Equinox and is working hand in hand with General Motors to put it through its paces. They’ve also installed a hydrogen fueling station at the county’s Scottsville Road fleet center.
“The government in the US has done a lot of work over the years in helping with the implementation of new technology by using their purchase power and their own ability to run a huge fleet in a variety of government agencies,” says Nabil Nasr, director of RIT’s Golisano Sustainability Institute and its Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies. “It could be that the government could take the lead in being the first user of some of this technology that helps create some of the infrastructure.”
If hydrogen fuel cells become a national priority, the Rochester region stands to benefit greatly.
Local UAW President Dan Maloney says that since pioneering fuel cell work was done in the Rochester area, the fuel cells should be manufactured here, as well, which would mean new jobs.
“It’s our technology,” he says.
Delphi and General Motors, additional local facilities that work on fuel cells, employ more than 800 workers, in total.
Delphi Corp developed a fuel cell here, and there are plans to manufacture it here. Professors at the University of Rochester have done studies to help improve hydrogen fuel cell efficiency while researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology do education and outreach about hydrogen vehicles, both fuel cell and hydrogen internal-combustion vehicles.
Two black-and-white Ford Escape SUVs patrol Rochester Institute of Technology’s Henrietta campus throughout the day.
By most standards, the Escapes are unremarkable: They bear the standard marks of campus security vehicles – the decals, the spotlights, the roof-mounted light bars.
They circle the road that surrounds the building, occasionally stopping to refuel. And here’s where they start to differ. First, there are the yellow stickers that call attention to the hydrogen fuel they require. Second, instead of pumping in gasoline from a standard pump, the driver hooks up to a computer-controlled pump, which injects extremely high-pressure hydrogen into a composite fuel tank – RIT built the pumps with a grant from the state energy research agency. There are two other hydrogen stations throughout the Rochester area, one built by GM and one built by Monroe County government.
The Escapes were once standard hybrids, powered by gasoline and electric motors. RIT had them – along with another truck used by its Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies – retrofitted to run on hydrogen. (The conversion work was done by a California company.) Behind the wheel, the Escape isn’t much different than any other internal combustion engine vehicle; it just shifts at higher r.p.m.’s, which makes the engine whine a little more.
“We’re interested in renewable energy in general, and hydrogen is one of the promising technologies we’re looking at,” Nasr says.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are about 10 to 20 years from commercial viability, but RIT researchers say the combustion engine vehicle will likely be ready before the fuel cell vehicles. Putting hydrogen combustion engine vehicles on the road would provide an incentive for the development of a hydrogen infrastructure, so the pumps would be in place when the fuel cell vehicles are ready for public consumption.
It’s the public that may be the biggest obstacle, however, at least as long as gasoline prices are relatively low.
“We start looking at alternatives when prices are high,” Drennen says. “When prices fall back down, people lose interest.”