The Hype about Hydrogen:
Fact & Fiction in the Race to Save the Planet
by Joseph Romm
review by Mike Pope
Hydrogen has been touted as the replacement for fossil fuels and the panacea
for our global
warming woes. Moreover, whilst Joseph Romm doesn't seek to undermine the
value of the technology in the
long term, he is very realistic about its application over a 30-50 year time
worked for the American Department of Energy (DOE) in R&D in the area of
hydrogen, is currently the
executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, and his
written other books on
energy usage and climate change. This book is a second edition.
Hype is rather technical, so it isn't a book for the casual reader. In
order to understand why it
is going to be so difficult, and why ultimately it is a worthwhile but
long-term project, one
needs detail, and detail there is.
In theory, the idea is quite simple. Hydrogen and oxygen can be created
from water by a process
known as electrolysis. Then, they can be recombined in what is known as a
fuel cell to create
energy. There are a number of different types of fuel cells, each using a
different electrolyte to
which separates the anode (negative terminal) and cathode (positive
terminal). There are a number
of different electrolytes used, which determine the properties of the fuel
cell, including the
temperature at which it operates. This is of critical importance if fuel
cells are to be used to
power cars, how long do you want to wait before your car is ready to start?
There is quite a bit of
R&D occurring in the US, experimenting with the different sorts of fuel
cells. None of them is
particularly economical at this point, especially for power automobiles.
Part of the problem is a chicken and egg one. There would be huge costs
involved in starting a
hydrogen economy. Once the infrastructure is in place, then there will be a
demand. However, if
there is no demand, who will pay for the infrastructure? There are many
problems to face according
to Romm. Hydrogen is currently expensive to generate, it is difficult to
store and unless it is
compressed into a liquid, it is very bulky for the energy it delivers. He
contends that unless our
energy network is largely greenhouse free, it is not economical to use it to
make hydrogen. Using
current renewable energy to make hydrogen is a waste given the energy used
in transport and
storage. These costs would be reduced if refuelling stations made their own
hydrogen, but then there
are still issues of efficiency, storage and so on. Of course, there are
also issues of safety and
the costs involved in storage tanks for vehicles. Natural gas can be a good
source of hydrogen,
there be enough to meet the increase in demand? In the longer term, Romm
sees natural gas
produced at local fuelling station as the likely way forward.
In the mid-term, he sees hybrid cars such as the Prius as the necessary
stopgap, being light years
ahead of fuel cell cars in delivering greenhouse gas emissions. These cars
run on electricity
when at stopped at the lights. Likewise, natural gas is far cleaner and
more efficient that coal,
and this is another a way forward. Sequestration of greenhouse gases into
such as old oil fields is a good idea in theory, but there remains
scepticism at how successful this
might be. Likewise, storing carbon dioxide in the oceans could go very
wrong indeed. Some
possibilities exist with biomass from trees and crops.
What is needed is big leadership from governments and a raft of policies
that will mean a shift
away from high greenhouse emissions. Romm sees little result from years of
voluntary agreements in
the US. I'd agree, and see regulation is the only way forward.
At the end of the book, he highlights two positive examples, perhaps to give
us some hope. In
Iceland, they are blessed with much renewable energy in the form of
geothermal heating. So long as
it is not overexploited, geothermal steam will be continually renewed. This
huge source of
greenhouse neutral energy means there is plenty to spare to generate
hydrogen. The people are highly
literate and in high support of moving to hydrogen, and the population is so
urbanised and relatively
small that it is possible to provide the infrastructure (fuelling stations)
at relatively little
cost. The other example is the California Fuel Cell Partnership in
Sacramento. Its members
include petroleum and automobile companies. They are exploring the
possibilities of hydrogen and
methanol, paths to commercialisation and public education.
Romm paints a grim picture of the impacts of the irreversible climate change
we now face
regardless of the changes we make, including the loss of our beloved Great
Barrier Reef. He also paints a
realistic picture of hydrogen technology, and shows that it will not be our
saviour in the short
term, but is part of a longer-term vision. Let's hope when the time comes,
it will be there when
we need it.
Review: Mike Pope
About the Author
Dr. Joseph Romm is a leading expert on hydrogen, fuel cells, and advanced transportation technologies. He is author of the forthcoming primer, The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate. Romm is the principal investigator for the National Science Foundation project, "Future Directions for Hydrogen Energy Research and Education".
Romm was Acting Assistant Secretary at DOE's billion-dollar Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy during 1997 and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary from 1995 though 1998. In that capacity, he helped manage the largest program in the world for helping businesses develop and use advanced energy technologies and to begin the transition to a hydrogen economy.
The Office is the lead federal agency for developing technologies for hydrogen production and storage, PEM fuel cells, hybrid vehicles and other advanced transportation technologies, cogeneration, wind, photovoltaics, and other renewables. The Office is also the lead federal agency for accelerating the deployment of alternative fuel vehicles. Romm was in charge of technology and market analysis for the office. Romm helped lead formulation of the Administration's climate change technology strategy. Romm helped launch the program’s multi-million dollar efforts on stationary PEM fuel cell applications.
Romm is a principal with Capital E, a premier provider of strategic consulting, technology assessment, and sustainable design services for fuel cells and other clean energy technologies (www.cap-e.com). Romm is also executive director and founder of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions—a one-stop shop helping businesses and states adopt high-leverage strategies for saving energy and cutting pollution (www.cool-companies.org).
Romm has co-authored some of the first energy and environmental analyses of fuel cells in buildings. He oversaw the first DOE analysis of the role PEM fuel cells could play in saving energy and reducing emissions in buildings. He co-authored one of the first peer-reviewed articles to compare fuel cells with other micro-cogeneration technologies in commercial buildings and one of the first articles to examine the energy savings from co-generating fuel cells in residential buildings. Romm performed the first environmental analysis of a system integrating cogenerating fuel cells, fly wheels, and power electronics aimed at achieving very high-availability power.
Romm consults with businesses such as IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Collins Pine, Nike, Timberland, Texaco, and Lockheed-Martin on energy technology and environmental strategy. He is author of the first book to benchmark corporate best practices for using advanced energy technologies including fuel cells to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: Cool Companies: How the Best Businesses Boost Profits and Productivity By Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
Romm holds a Ph.D. in physics from M.I.T. He has written and lectured widely on advanced transportation technologies, hydrogen, fuel cells, distributed energy, business and environment issues, including articles in Technology Review, Forbes, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, Washington Post, Science magazine, and The Industry Standard. He is co-author with Charles Curtis of "MidEast Oil Forever," the cover story of the April 1996 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which predicted that the major oil-exporting nations would regain pricing control of oil within the decade and discussed alternative energy strategies. Romm is widely quoted in the media on energy technology matters, including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune magazine, Time, Newsweek, Business Week, NBC Evening News, and NPR.
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