from 25 june 2006
blue volV, #8
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The Hype about Hydrogen:
Fact & Fiction in the Race to Save the Planet
by Joseph Romm
from Island Press, Washington
2005, 256pp

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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 frame.

Romm has 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, but would! 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 geological formations 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 ( 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 (

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.


About Island Press

Island Press was established in 1984 to meet the need for reliable, peer reviewed information to help solve environmental problems. We identify innovative thinkers and emerging trends in the environmental field. We work with world-renowned experts and aspiring authors to develop cross-disciplinary solutions to environmental challenges. Then we make sure this information is communicated effectively to the widest possible audience – via our books, electronic media, and outreach to scientists, policymakers, the news media, and the general public.

Island Press publishes approximately 40 new titles per year on topics ranging from biodiversity and land use to forest management, agriculture, marine science, climate change, and energy. In addition, Island Press is engaged in several collaborative partnerships designed to help facilitate the stimulation of new ideas, new information products, and targeted outreach to specific audiences. Our Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea COMPASS is one such example.

Island Press has led the way in shaping and advancing acceptance of several new, interdisciplinary fields of endeavor. For example:

* In the late 1980s, Island Press played a major role in defining the then-emerging field of conservation biology. One of our first titles in this area, Building an Ark: Tools for the Preservation of Natural Diversity Through Land Protection by Phillip Hoose of The Nature Conservancy, laid out the guiding argument for preserving entire ecosystems rather than merely protecting arbitrarily selected pieces of land.

* In 1989, with Research Priorities for Conservation Biology by Michael Soulé and Kathryn Kohm, Island Press provided the first book ever to establish multidisciplinary research priorities for the conservation of biodiversity. In 2002, Conservation Biology: Research Priorities for the Next Decade by Michael Soulé and Gordon Orians assessed the field’s progress and laid out the latest research priorities in this rapidly growing field.

* Island Press’s 1997 publication Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems by Gretchen Daily was the first-ever comprehensive volume to describe the concept of “ecosystem services” – the true economic and ecological value of natural processes such as water filtration, flood control, and pollination. In 2002, with the publication of The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable by Gretchen Daily and Katherine Ellison, Island Press offered examples of people around the world who are undertaking financially profitable projects to preserve ecosystem services.

Island Press has 30 employees and a 16-member Board of Directors. Our main editorial office is located in Washington, D.C. Incorporated as the Center for Resource Economics, we do business as Island Press and are a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization under the Internal Revenue Code.


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