Should Hydrogen (vs. Electricity) Be the Dominant Energy in the US?



PRO (yes)

The National Hydrogen Association stated the following in its fact sheet "Renewable Hydrogen Production Using Electrolysis," available at its website (accessed Jan. 7, 2009):

"Hydrogen provides a promising method to help the U.S. achieve energy independence, make strides in environmental stewardship, and develop a thriving economy. Hydrogen produced through renewable energy sources, most commonly with a device which uses electricity to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen called an electrolyzer, is an emissions-free way to carry energy...

Hydrogen provides the connecting point between renewable electricity production and transportation, stationary and portable energy needs. When the electricity from solar photovoltaics, wind, geothermal, ocean and hydro technologies is used to produce and store hydrogen, the renewable source becomes more valuable and can meet a variety of needs. In transportation applications, hydrogen provides a way to convert renewable resources to fuel for vehicles. Renewably produced hydrogen for transportation fuel is one of the most popular hydrogen economy goals, as it can be domestically produced and emissions free. Renewables often produce power intermittently (e.g., only when the sun is out or the wind is blowing), so hydrogen can also increase stationary power reliability when used as an electricity storage medium. Hydrogen, renewably produced during off-peak periods and stored, can provide constant power using fuel cells or engines when the renewable source isn't available...

There are few other options today for electricity storage at a large scale. Batteries are not practical and too costly, and pumped water systems and compressed air energy storage systems are only implementable in limited geographical areas...

[T]he future conjunction of hydrogen and renewable energy technology is a promising one."

Jan. 7, 2009 - National Hydrogen Association (NHA) 



Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Foundation on Economic Trends, stated the following in his Jan. – Feb. 2003 article "The Hydrogen Economy: After Oil, Clean Energy from a Fuel-Cell-Driven Global Hydrogen Web," published by E magazine:

"While the fossil-fuel era is entering its sunset years, a new energy regime is being born that has the potential to remake civilization along radical new lines. Hydrogen is the most basic and ubiquitous element in the universe. It is the stuff of stars and, when properly harnessed and made from renewable sources...it produces no harmful CO2 emissions when burned; the only byproducts are heat and pure water. We are at the dawn of a new economy, using hydrogen as the energy carrier, which will fundamentally change the nature of our financial markets, political and social institutions, just as coal and steam power did at the beginning of the Industrial Age...

People often ask: Why generate electricity twice, first to produce electricity for the process of electrolytic hydrogen and then again to produce electricity and heat in a fuel cell? The reason is that electricity can be stored only in batteries, which are cumbersome to transport and slow to recharge, while hydrogen can be stored at much lower cost. Internal-combustion engines capture only 15 to 20 percent of the energy in gasoline, and the conventional electric power grid is only 33 percent efficient...

The hydrogen economy makes possible a vast redistribution of electricity, with far-reaching consequences for society. Today's centralized, top-down flow of energy, controlled by global oil companies and utilities, can become obsolete. In the new era, every human being with access to renewable energy sources could become a producer as well as a consumer—using so-called 'distributed generation.' When millions of end-users connect their fuel cells powered by renewables into local, regional and national publicly owned hydrogen energy webs (HEWs), they can begin to share energy—peer-to-peer—creating a new decentralized form of energy generation and use... The hydrogen economy is within sight. How fast we get there will depend on how committed we are to weaning ourselves off of oil and the other fossil fuels. What are we waiting for?"

Feb. 2003 - Jeremy Rifkin 



The US Department of Energy stated the following in its Feb. 2002 document "A National Vision of America's Transition To A Hydrogen Economy – To 2030 And Beyond," available at its website:

"Hydrogen is America's clean energy choice. It is flexible, affordable, safe, domestically produced, used in all sectors of the economy, and in all regions of the country...

In the hydrogen economy... America will enjoy a secure, clean, and prosperous energy sector that will continue for generations to come. American consumers will have access to hydrogen energy to the same extent that they have access to gasoline, natural gas, and electricity today. It will be produced cleanly, with near-zero net carbon emissions, and it will be transported and used safely. It will be the 'fuel of choice' for American businesses and consumers...

Hydrogen will be available for every end-use energy need in the economy, including transportation, power generation, and portable power systems. Hydrogen will be the dominant fuel for government and commercial vehicle fleets. It will be used in a large number of personal vehicles and light duty trucks. It will be combusted directly and mixed with natural gas in turbines and reciprocating engines for electricity and thermal energy in homes, offices, and factories. It will be used in fuel cells for both mobile and stationary applications. And it will be used in portable devices such as computers, mobile phones, Internet hook-ups, and other electronic equipment."

Feb. 2002 - United States Department of Energy (DOE) 



Warren D. Reynolds, PhD, environmental consultant, stated the following in his Mar. 29, 2006 article "Why We Need the Solar-Hydrogen Economy Now," available at the EV World website:

"The key to a reliable, diversified solar energy system based on renewable resources will be the use of hydrogen as a major energy carrier and storage medium...

The technology that will transform and drive the solar-hydrogen energy system is the fuel cell. Fuel cells use an electrochemical process that combines hydrogen and oxygen producing water and electricity. Avoiding the inefficiency of combustion, current fuel cells are theoretically twice as efficient as conventional heat engines (83% vs. 32-40%), have no moving parts, require little maintenance, and emit only water vapor... Fuel cells can be used in factories, offices and homes to generate electricity...

It is less expensive to move hydrogen up to 1,000 miles by pipeline than an equivalent amount of electricity...

Technologies and hydrogen infrastructure, such as discussed above as well as others are already in place, can pave the way for an energy transition during the next 10-15 years that is as profound as the last major energy transition which occurred over a century ago. Although the details of the Solar-Hydrogen economy are not mapped out, the broad outlines are clear. They suggest that the new energy economy will be highly efficient and decentralized. Over time, hydrogen will become the main fuel for the 21st century, derived first from natural gas but later produced from water using solar energy. The use of natural gas as a 'bridge' to hydrogen will allow a relatively seamless sequence to a renewable energy based system."

Mar. 29, 2006 - Warren D. Reynolds, PhD 



Amory B. Lovins, MA, Chairman and Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) stated the following in his Feb. 25, 2005 article "Twenty Hydrogen Myths," available at www.rmi.org:

"[T]he rapidly growing engagement of business, civil society, and government in devising and achieving a transition to a hydrogen economy is warranted and, if properly done, could yield important national and global benefits...

Hydrogen technologies are maturing. The world's existing hydrogen industry is starting to be recognized as big — producing one-fourth as much volume of gas each year as the global natural-gas industry. Industry, government, and civil society are becoming seriously engaged in designing a transition from refined petroleum products, natural gas, and electricity to hydrogen as the dominant way to carry, store, and deliver useful energy...

Hydrogen makes up about 75% of the known universe, but is not an energy source like oil, coal, wind, or sun. Rather, it is an energy carrier like electricity or gasoline — a way of transporting useful energy to users. Hydrogen is an especially versatile carrier because like oil and gas, but unlike electricity, it can be stored in large amounts (albeit often at higher storage cost than hydrocarbons), and can be made from almost any energy source and used to provide almost any energy service...

RMI's insights into the full economic value of distributed power suggest that hydrogen fuel cells today can economically displace less efficient central resources for delivering electricity, paving the way for hydrogen use to spread rapidly, financed by its own revenues...

The industrial infrastructure for centralized hydrogen production already exists. Throughout industry, most hydrogen is currently made at large plants and is used at the industrial site or nearby. There are ~1,500 km (~930 miles) of special hydrogen pipelines (720 km or 446 miles in North America) operating at up to 100 bar. Moving hydrogen gas through pipelines takes about half as much of its energy as is currently lost when transporting electricity."

Feb. 25, 2005 - Amory Lovins, MA 



CON (no)

David Morris, PhD, Co-founder and Vice President of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, wrote in his Dec. 2003 article "The Hydrogen Economy and a Proposal for an Alternative Strategy," published at www.ilsr.org:

"The idea of a hydrogen economy has burst like a supernova over the energy policy landscape, mesmerizing us with its possibilities while blinding us to its weaknesses. Such a fierce spotlight on hydrogen is pushing more promising strategies into the shadows...

The focus on building a national hydrogen distribution and fueling network to supply fuel cell powered cars ignores shorter term, less expensive and more rewarding strategies encouraged by recent technological developments. The most important of these is the successful commercialization of the hybrid electric vehicle (HEV)...

[H]ydrogen's high cost, poor energetics and scant environmental benefits for the near and medium term future must be taken into account when evaluating it against alternative fuels and strategies...

For a hydrogen economy to have any impact the nation must change virtually every aspect of its energy system, from production to distribution...

The electricity network is already in place. Why not focus on expanding the portion of this delivery system that relies on renewable energy rather than spend the next generation creating a new delivery infrastructure [for hydrogen]...

This is the time to make a major effort to move solar energy from the margins of energy production to its center rather than to shift our intellectual and scientific and capital resources toward constructing the infrastructure demanded for a hydrogen economy and end up 25 years from now where we are, in essence today: having 2 percent of the hydrogen market and hoping to increase that fraction."

Dec. 2003 - David Morris, PhD 



Ulf Bossel, PhD, freelance fuel cell consultant, stated the following in his Oct. 2006 article "Does a Hydrogen Economy Make Sense?," available at www.efcf.com:

"Hydrogen is not a new energy, but only an artificial synthetic energy carrier. It has to be made from high grade energy like electricity or natural gas...

Today's energy system is dominated by chemical carriers like coal, oil and gas. Electrical and transportation energy are derived from chemical energy by thermal power plants, heat engines, or fuel cells...

Renewable electricity will gradually replace fossil fuels. Electricity will become the base of our energy system. It does not make sense to continue with chemical energy technologies by converting good electricity into hydrogen...

Hydrogen can never compete with its own energy source, with electricity...

Therefore, the answer to the question: 'Does a Hydrogen Economy make Sense?' is an unconditional 'NEVER'. A global hydrogen economy has no past, present or future!"

Oct. 2006 - Ulf Bossel, PhD 



Dominic Crea, Co-founder of the Institute of Sustainable Energy Education, stated the following in his June – July 2004 article "Hydrogen: Solution or Distraction? A Debate on the 'Hydrogen Economy,'" published by Home Power:

"Superficially, these [hydrogen economy] ideas seem palatable, and could in theory reduce or even eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels. But let's examine these claims in greater detail, starting with the [hydrogen] pipeline. It doesn't exist. Nor for that matter does the rest of the hydrogen infrastructure... Moreover, we already have a proven system that can, and does, deliver energy to us with great efficiency – the utility grid...

[T]he two pathways – the hydrogen pipeline vs. the electricity grid... assume the use of photovoltaic electricity. Remarkably the hydrogen route wastes twice as much energy as the utility grid pathway...

Okay, let's say we skip the hydrogen pipeline entirely and consider... a totally off-grid home. True, we can generate electricity for our homes and fuel our cars with hydrogen, but we must remember that our photovoltaics ultimately provide the electricity – hydrogen acts simply as a storage medium for that energy. A battery will do the same...

At the very least, a renewably based hydrogen economy will require the installation of US$40 trillion worth of photovoltaic pannels, of which US$20 trillion is wasted in overcoming the inefficiency of the system – minimum!

In simple terms, the decision to go with a renewably fueled utility grid system, as opposed to the hydrogen system, would save enough money in photovoltaic panels alone to provide every American family with an electric car and the photovoltaic panels to run it."

June - July, 2004 - Dominic Crea 



Gary Kendall, PhD, Director of the Energy Sector and Climate Change Program at Sustainability, stated the following in his Mar. 2008 report for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) titled "Plugged In: The End of the Oil Age," published on the WWF website:

"The tantalising term 'hydrogen economy' becomes meaningful only when the energy system is based around hydrogen derived from sustainable renewable resources, such as wind, solar, or geothermal power. Producing hydrogen from fossil fuels, by definition, perpetuates the 'fossil fuel economy' in which we find ourselves today. In this respect, hydrogen is really no different from electricity: there are clean sources, and there are dirty sources...

[T]he short- to medium-term outlook for commercial hydrogen production revolves around natural gas reforming and coal gasification. Thus we find ourselves standing once again at the doorstep of Big Oil, where we begin to understand the broader strategic context in which BP and Shell recently announced their respective joint-ventures with giant coal companies Rio Tinto and Anglo-American...

[T]he production of hydrogen gas by electrolysis of water can be relatively efficient; literature surveys reveal a wide range of values from as low as forty percent to over eighty percent. Though most analysts use fifty percent as a working assumption, even if we are optimistic and project electrolyser efficiencies at the upper end of the range, unless we have at our disposal a surplus of sustainable renewable electricity, can we ever justify throwing some of it away in order to produce hydrogen? Perhaps we can, but only in very specific circumstances such as off-grid renewable electricity generation with no access to energy storage facilities.

From the outset, therefore, in the competition between potential carriers of sustainable renewable energy, hydrogen lags behind electrons in terms of existing generating capacity and energy efficiency...

Assuming future generations – in a more populous world, barring unprecedented natural disasters or armed conflicts – will be keen to use their energy resources wisely, we can only imagine how they would judge their forebears for blindly pursuing the inefficient hydrogen economy...

Electricity will always hold the potential to be a more efficient carrier of energy than hydrogen molecules, on a life-cycle basis."

Mar. 2008 - Gary Kendall, PhD 



David B. Barber, MS, Nuclear Engineer at the Idaho National Laboratory, wrote the following in his Mar. 24, 2005 article "Nuclear Energy and the Future: The Hydrogen Economy or the Electricity Economy?," available at www.iags.org:

"Nearly all hydrogen in use today is, itself, being 'produced' by stripping hydrogen from natural gas through steam reformation of methane. There is no technical advantage to reforming methane in preference to electrolysis of water, there is only a price advantage of about a factor of two...

Any serious attempt at a hydrogen economy would promptly overwhelm methane resources and necessarily have to be supplied with electricity-derived hydrogen. And, of course, hydrogen use ends with electricity coming out of a fuel cell. So, hydrogen use is really a loop that starts and ends with electricity. Unfortunately, the efficiency of that electricity to hydrogen to electricity loop is only twenty-five percent... The result is that for every four power plants making electricity, only one plant's electrical output actually ends up being productively used. Three power plants' output is lost simply because hydrogen was part of the process...

There are significant challenges to a hydrogen energy-carrying scheme including materials development, tremendous cost barriers, infrastructure inadequacies and the very low conversion efficiency. While many of hydrogen's problems could presumably be reduced with enough time and effort, the fact remains that the twenty five percent efficiency problem of the electricity to hydrogen to electricity loop is unsolvable. That kind of waste is simply unworkable in a world that is facing the energy-related challenges our's is facing. Societies around this planet will be struggling this century and beyond just to afford to replace their existing GHG-belching stationary sources with clean, non-GHG sources like nuclear, wind, low-head hydro and solar. There certainly will not be an overabundance of clean energy to squander on an inefficient hydrogen loop, particularly when the same tasks can be accomplished directly with the original electricity."

Mar. 24, 2005 - David B. Barber, MS