D. Dowd Muska


The Tenth Anniversary of a Hydrogen Bomb

January 24, 2013

In his 2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush called for America to “lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.”

A decade later, the most prominent company working to build the “hydrogen economy” was, as the Hartford Business Journal put it, “likely sold for a song.”

A division of the multinational conglomerate United Technologies Corporation, Connecticut-based UTC Power had access to its parent’s deep pockets, and the fuel-cell manufacturer’s pedigree stretches back to the Apollo program. But an investment analyst told the Journal that he would “fall off my chair” if ClearEdge Power, a small startup headquartered in Oregon, acquired the company for as much as $200 million. “Maybe UTC just gave it to them,” he speculated, “saying, ‘Just take this off our hands.’”

The sale is a dose of reality for an “industry” based on subsidies, tax perks, and public-sector “customers.” But don’t expect local, state, and federal pols to stop playing the giveaway game.

Long before Bush put the pomp of the presidency behind it, bubble-headed reporters were parroting the talking point that hydrogen is “the most abundant element in the universe.” Rarely did the media bother to ask why such a ubiquitous substance hadn’t already been adopted for the developed world’s transportation needs.

Economist Vaclav Smil provides the beginning of an explanation: “[H]ydrogen is merely an energy carrier and is not found in large amounts underground or in the atmosphere. It has to be produced first by a considerable investment of energy, be it the reduction of methane, the hydrolysis of water, or bacterial metabolism.” Worse, noted John H. Gibbons, former director of the Office of Technology Assessment, hydrogen has “low energy density” and is not “readily storable.”

The fuel is problematic and unavailable, the tech it’s supposed to power is pricey. Fuel cells react hydrogen with oxygen in a combustion-free process that generates the juice to run an electric motor. But the machines don’t trace their roots to NASA engineers or Silicon Valley geeks. The first “gaseous voltaic battery” was invented by an Welshman in 1839. Despite more than a century and a half of improvements by hobbyists, tinkers, and dilettantes dreaming of a Hydrogen Age -- and companies that received billions of dollars in taxpayer funding -- fuel cells remain egregiously expensive. Even if manufacturers were able to make them for a ludicrously optimistic per-kilowatt cost of $500, a 115-horsepower unit would be $42,500. (A hydrogen car’s electric motor, chassis, tires, doors, seats, climate controls and such would probably add a couple more dollars to its price tag.)

Learn the facts, ignore pols’ press releases and photo ops, and it’s not difficult to see why the “fuel of the future,” as Bush called it in 2003, contributes nothing to the nation’s transportation system. Yet the “problem” of reliance on foreign oil and the obvious need to cut unemployment, two oft-cited justifications for government goodies to “alternative” energy, are trending in encouraging directions.

Fresh finds offshore, “fracking,” enhanced oil recovery -- in the 21st century, hydrocarbon production has soared. The U.S. is experiencing an oil-and-gas renaissance, and incumbent energy sources are grinding “green” options into irrelevancy. It won’t be long before the American-Canadian economy extracts all of the crude it uses (not many terrorism-funding sheiks in Canuckistan), and exports of liquefied natural gas are possible from all three coasts.

Gasoline consumption, as computed by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, peaked in 2007. Super-efficient diesels, quite popular in Europe, are finding buyers here. Hybrids (developed in Japan, not by a U.S. Department of Energy-auto industry “partnership”) have carved out a niche -- SUV-hating blue states love them. Looking ahead, the cheapness of natural gas is making it a legitimate fuel for vehicles. Millions of NGVs are driven throughout the world, and between 2001 and 2011, U.S. consumption of compressed natural gas for transportation more than doubled.

In the last five years, the U.S. hydrocarbon sector has created 45,000 jobs, and there’s no reason to expect the hiring surge to stop. There aren’t good data on how many Americans are employed in hydrogen. But after decades of subsidization, it’s doubtful that the folks working on fuel cells, for both transportation and stationary power generation, number more than a few thousand.

“Energy,” wrote the legendary physicist Richard Feynman, “is a very subtle concept. ... It is very, very difficult to get right.”

The 10th anniversary of Bush’s address should prompt “public servants” to rethink their hydrogen bomb. But it won’t. Getting energy wrong is a political-class specialty.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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