Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. Cutting Carbon Emissions in Half: Building the Hydrogen Economy

The evolution of the fuel cella device that is powered by hydrogen and uses an electro-chemical process to convert hydrogen into electricity, water vapor, and heat—is setting the stage for the evolution of a hydrogen-based economy. The fuel cell is twice as efficient as the internal combustion engine and it is clean, emitting only water vapor.43

The great attraction of the fuel cell is that it facilitates the shift to a single fuel, hydrogen, that neither pollutes the air nor disrupts the earth's climate. Stationary fuel cells can be installed in the basements of buildings, for example, to generate electricity and heat that can be used both for heating and cooling. Mobile fuel cells can be used to power cars and portable electronic devices, such as cell phones and laptop computers.

Hydrogen can come from many sources, including the electrolysis of water or the reformulation of natural gas or gasoline, a process that extracts the hydrogen from these hydrocarbons. If the hydrogen comes from water, then electricity from any source can be used to electrolyze the water. If the electricity comes from a wind farm, hydropower station, geothermal power station, or solar cells, the hydrogen will be cleanproduced without carbon emissions or air pollutants.

One country, Iceland, already has a plan to convert from fossil fuels to hydrogen. The government, working with a consortium of companies led by Shell and DaimlerChrysler, is taking the first step in 2003 as DaimlerChrysler begins converting Reykjavik's fleet of 80 buses from internal combustion to fuel cell engines. Shell has built a hydrogen station to service the buses, using cheap hydroelectricity to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen. This is clean hydrogen. In the next stage, Iceland's automobiles will be converted to fuel cell engines. And in the final stage, the Icelandic fishing fleetthe centerpiece of its economy—will also convert to fuel cells. Already heating most of its homes and buildings with geothermal energy and getting most of its electricity from hydropower and geothermal power, Iceland plans to be the first modern economy to declare its independence from fossil fuels.44

On the other side of the world, in Japan, retired corporate executive Masatsugu Tanaguichi is also planning to create a hydrogen economy. He is working on 875-square-kilometer Yakushima Island off the southern tip of Japan whose principal defining characteristic is 8 meters of rainfall a year. Much of the island is part of a huge nature preserve. Tanaguichi plans to build a series of small dams on the island to convert its abundant hydropower into electricity to power hydrogen generators, electrolyzing water to produce hydrogen. The first goal will be to meet the needs of the 14,000 residents of the island. Once that is done, he plans to ship the excess hydrogen to mainland Japan, transporting it in liquefied form aboard tankers, much as natural gas is transported. He believes the island can export enough hydrogen to run 500,000 automobiles.45

Elsewhere, some 30 hydrogen stations have opened. In the Munich airport, for example, a hydrogen station fuels 15 airport buses that have hydrogen-burning internal combustion engines. California now has at least two hydrogen stationsone, built by Honda, uses solar cell electricity to electrolyze water. This station was built to service the five fuel cell cars Honda has sold to the city of Los Angeles. The other hydrogen station in California uses wind-generated electricity to produce the hydrogen. Both are clean-hydrogen stations.46

One of the challenges for fuel cell vehicles is how to store the hydrogen. It can be stored in compressed form, liquefied form, or chemically with metal hydrides. It is also possible to store natural gas or gasoline on board and then use reformers to extract the hydrogen. The pros and cons of these various approaches are numerous. In the end, the central question is whether the hydrogen that is used in fuel cell vehicles is clean hydrogen made using renewable energy to electrolyze water or climate-disrupting hydrogen made using fossil fuels.47

Fuel cells are initially being used more widely in buildings simply because hydrogen storage is much simpler with stationary fuel cells than with those used in vehicles. Fuel cells will probably proliferate rapidly in larger structures, such as office and apartment buildings, and then, as the technology matures, be installed in private homes. These fuel cells will provide buildings with electricity, heating, and cooling.

Natural gas will likely be the main source of hydrogen in the near term, but, given its abundance, wind is likely to become the principal source in the new energy economy, as mentioned earlier. The hydrogen storage and distribution system, most likely an adaptation of existing natural gas systems, provides a way of both storing wind energy and transporting it efficiently. It is a natural marriage.

One of the big questions today is which of the companies involved in today's multidimensional energy economy will be the principal players in the hydrogen economy? Will it be the oil companies, the natural gas companies, and gas utilities? Will wind companies invest in hydrogen generators and become major hydrogen suppliers? Will companies that control today's natural gas pipelines be the dominant players, delivering hydrogen both to individual buildings and to fueling stations for vehicles?

These are but a few of the questions emerging as the world faces the need to move quickly into the new economy, one in which wind farms replace coal mines and where hydrogen generators replace oil refineries. In making technological choices, there will be winners and there will be losers. A century ago, some automobile companies opted for steam engines and others opted for the newer, less well understood internal combustion engine. Today steam-powered vehicles are found only in museums.

The stakes in this competition are high. The aircraft industry faced a similar situation in the late 1960s as the world appeared to be moving toward supersonic air transport (SST). There were three entries in the race: Russian, Anglo-French, and American. The United States withdrew under pressure from the environmental community, which cited an economic analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund that concluded the technology was too fuel-inefficient to be economically viable. The Russians dropped out of the competition, leaving Europe alone to build the first SST, the Concorde. In the United States, Boeing decided to go with size rather than speed and built the 747. Today, 35 years later, not a single Concorde has been sold commercially. Only the national airlines of the two countries that developed the SSTAir France and British Airways—have bought them. And in April 2003, these companies announced they would ground the Concorde by the end of October 2003. Boeing, meanwhile, has sold more than 1,300 of its 747s.48

Today's corporations also will be choosing among various energy sources and technologies as they move into this new energy era. Some companies will underestimate the political pressures to phase out fossil fuels that will likely develop as the costs of climate change become more apparent. Some will choose wisely; others will not. Some will prosper; others will disappear.


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