Thinking Tech

A hydrogen car is not a hydrogen economy

Posting in Energy

What's needed most for any hydrogen car is a hydrogen infrastructure. That is, we need a system for producing hydrogen with a minimum of hydrocarbons, and moving it efficiently to the equivalent of gas stations.

There was great media excitement recently over Hugo Spowers' unveiling of the Urban, a hydrogen-powered car.

There is even more excitement over the idea that plans from his company, called Riversimple, will make the plans be offered open source.

But the product is premature, and puts the cart before the horse.

What's needed most for any hydrogen car is a hydrogen infrastructure. That is, we need a system for producing hydrogen with a minimum of hydrocarbons, and moving it efficiently to the equivalent of gas stations.

Right now nearly all industrial hydrogen is made with natural gas as a feedstock. We have natural gas cars and buses. There's no environmental benefit, then, in using today's hydrogen as an auto fuel.

Second, the way we move hydrogen from production to market today is in cylinders on trucks. A hydrogen pipeline system, perhaps using natural gas lines that would otherwise be redundant, is necessary for hydrogen to make sense as an auto fuel.

As I discussed yesterday in my piece on the Enernet, hydrogen may be a good way to even out electricity production and consumption, in the process building the infrastructure a car would need.

But it's these same utilities who need to be the first customers of a hydrogen economy. Having fuel cells as standby power sources makes any grid more robust and less vulnerable. As fuel cells become cheaper to produce, they can be brought in closer to consumers.

So we're talking about a three-step process for hydrogen, with cars coming in at the end:

  1. Hydrogen production guarantees a market for alternative power sources, making that energy portable.
  2. Utilities can be the first customers for that hydrogen, for use in fuel cells as back-up for peak loads and blackouts.
  3. All this funds the creation of a real hydrogen infrastructure, one not tied to hydrocarbons, which then makes a hydrogen car make sense.

One more point. You know what you get from building these market incentives and hydrogen infrastructure?

Economic growth.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure