Excerpt from Chapter 2 of Hydrogen and Fuel Cells: A Comprehensive Guide by Rebecca L. Busby, now available at http://store.yahoo.com/pennwell/hydandfuelce.html
Drivers and barriers
Just a few years ago, American automakers could hardly give away an all-electric car, despite generous tax credits. California had forced manufacturers to offer zero-emission vehicles, but customers roundly rejected them.
Yet today, people are eager to join months-long waiting lists to buy hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles, and automakers are tacking several thousand dollars onto their prices. In this case, government policy didn’t work to mandate a market for an environmentally beneficial product-instead, technology advances and customer demand created it.
Several interrelated forces are driving the world’s industrial nations toward a hydrogen economy that could use fuel cells for much of its electricity, from multi-megawatt plants down to home generators and car engines. Eventually our supplies of hydrogen could be provided by renewable, pollution-free sources. What are the most important forces driving us toward this vision, and what are the chances that hydrogen energy systems will become a reality?
Although our dependence on oil imported from the Middle East is often cited as a reason to develop alternative energy, environmental concerns are just as crucial, given the mounting evidence of global warming. As an added propellant, energy markets have become less constrained by regulation, especially in America and Europe, allowing greater opportunities for entrepreneurs. And technological innovation is unleashing a wave of improvements in the cost and convenience of energy services and products.
Chief among these improved technologies are fuel cells, which could launch hydrogen into the world’s energy mix. Fuel cells and other micropower applications are enjoying a renaissance, due partly to the difficulty and cost of expanding our conventional electric power infrastructure. Micropower (also called distributed generation) could provide the higher quality, more reliable electricity required by our increasingly computerized economy.
The automotive industry is pioneering the development of practical, desirable hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles, joined by oil companies and equipment manufacturers. Governments worldwide are funding research, often via public-private partnerships aimed at developing products that will succeed in the marketplace. Demonstrations of hydrogen energy in all kinds of applications are taking place around the globe with widespread support.
But there are some clouds on the horizon. Environmental advocates find fault with some pathways toward a hydrogen future, most notably production of hydrogen from coal and nuclear power or even from natural gas. Fuel cells could still stumble badly on the road toward mass production. And a few years of low oil prices could distract efforts to increase our energy independence, which many analysts say is a questionable venture anyhow.
Some scientists conclude that the prospects for a hydrogen economy are uncertain, despite many advantages in its favor. In Issues in Science and Technology, Daniel Sperling and Joan Ogden express the need to cultivate a shift toward hydrogen:
The transition to a hydrogen economy will be neither easy nor straightforward. Like all previous alternatives, it faces daunting challenges. But hydrogen is different. It accesses a broad array of energy resources, potentially provides broader and deeper societal benefits than any other option, has no natural political or economic enemies, and has a strong industrial proponent in the automotive industry.
In the end, though, the hydrogen situation is precarious. Beyond a few car companies and a scattering of entrepreneurs, support for hydrogen is thin. Although many rail against the hydrogen hype, the greater concern perhaps should be the fragile support for hydrogen….It appears to us that hydrogen is a highly promising option that we should nurture as part of a broader science, technology, and policy initiative. The question is how, not if.
Other observers also cherish the hope that we can move toward a cleaner, smarter, more sustainable energy future. In Power to the People, Vijay Vaitheeswaran pins his optimism on micropower:
Stopping the use of fossil fuels completely and immediately would be foolish and needlessly expensive, but a thoughtful, phased shift to hydrogen-fired micropower would not. On the contrary, the innovative technologies unleashed by market liberalization and environmental demands hold out the promise of an inexpensive, and maybe even profitable, transition to a cleaner energy world. If we grasp that opportunity, then there is every reason for hope about our planet’s future. Indeed, there is every reason to think that today’s nascent energy revolution will truly deliver power to the people.
Many different factors, from the desires of wealthy consumers to the plight of the world’s poor, are attracting international attention to hydrogen and stimulating business and government to invest in research and development. Here we’ll take a look at the reasons behind this unprecedented attention, and we’ll identify the jumble of proponents-some of them traditional rivals-who are getting involved in a big way.