Hydrogen now

Why wait years or decades for fuel-cell vehicles, California energy czar S. David Freeman asks, when we can start kicking our oil habit today?

Power czar S. David Freeman preaches the hydrogen gospel in his spare time. Given the political and environmental costs of oil dependence, he says it’s time we made the switch to a hydrogen-based economy.

Power czar S. David Freeman preaches the hydrogen gospel in his spare time. Given the political and environmental costs of oil dependence, he says it’s time we made the switch to a hydrogen-based economy.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“You ever been to the dog races?” S. David Freeman asks with a mild Tennessee drawl, his bushy eyebrows arching. Like many Southerners, he’ll spin a story to make a point, in this case about the American auto industry.

“You know how they have that mechanical rabbit there on the track? And they just manipulate it and keep moving it, so the dogs can’t ever catch up with it,” he continues, evoking the image of a pack of greyhounds chasing frantically after a fake bunny. The dogs, of course, never catch the rabbit, but that doesn’t stop them from racing and racing to near exhaustion.

“Well, Detroit has a new rabbit,” Freeman says with a mischievous grin. “It’s called the fuel-cell car.”

The point is obvious: Despite the recent hype surrounding fuel-cell vehicles, the auto industry is in no hurry to build them. And the promise of fuel-cell cars sometime in the future allows the industry to pump out millions of gas-guzzling cars, trucks and SUVs for years to come.

But that’s not the only illusion many in the industry are foisting on the public, Freeman charges. They also want us to believe that, without fuel-cell engines, there is no way to take advantage of hydrogen—the simplest, most elegant fuel ever conceived and the most ubiquitous element in the universe—to power our motor vehicles. That, he insists, is simply not true.

We don’t have to wait the 10 or 20 or more years it will take until Detroit develops an affordable fuel-cell engine in order to enjoy the benefits of hydrogen fuel. We can do that almost immediately and at relatively little cost, and the results—in decreased pollution and global warming—could change life on Earth forever.

S. David Freeman is a heavyweight in the energy business. He was an adviser to two presidents (Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter) on energy matters. He was the architect of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s green-energy strategy in the early 1990s, and he’s currently energy czar of the California Power Authority. His high-powered r#&233;sum#&233; goes on and on, including stints as head of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

He has built a reputation as a problem solver and a bit of a radical at times, but he’s certainly no crackpot. And he’s no stranger to the corridors of power.

He’s also incongruously folksy in the bulky-knit sweater, jeans and glaringly white tennis shoes he wears as he shuffles, stooping, about his office just a few blocks from the State Capitol in Sacramento. But when he talks about fuel-cell cars, his knowledge and insight are immediately apparent.

The fuel-cell car—the ultimate in a pollution-free vehicle—is getting a lot of attention from the media and government lately. George W. Bush, the oil president himself, recently threw a couple billion dollars at fuel-cell research and development as part of his “Freedom Fuel” plan, announced last January. The car has captured the American imagination because it runs off of hydrogen and leaves behind nothing more harmful than water vapor.

Freeman says that for the last 10 years or so the fuel cell has been a tantalizing proposition, promising to end our dependence on oil and gasoline and the century-old internal-combustion engine. But the arrival of mass numbers of fuel-cell cars has remained somewhere vaguely in the future: 10, 20, 30 years from today.

Meanwhile, evidence of global warming is mounting. Asthma rates, believed to be linked to auto exhaust, are on the rise. And the nation celebrated Earth Day, as it did last year, at war in a part of the world where many believe we wouldn’t be if not for our dependence on oil.

“We wouldn’t be going to war right now if it weren’t for oil,” says Freeman, slapping his hand on a table. “That’s not conspiracy theory. There is no question that our dependence on oil has forced us into some decisions we would not otherwise have made. We wouldn’t have to have the crown prince of Saudi Arabia out to the [president’s] ranch so we could suck up to him. We wouldn’t have to prop up that dictatorship.”

And that’s just one reason Freeman is tired of waiting for the fuel cell.

“We can’t wait any longer,” he says. “We’ve got a serious oil problem today. And what we need is hydrogen now.”

In the American mind, hydrogen power and the fuel cell are the same thing. The misconception, says Freeman, is that we cannot use hydrogen gas as a clean energy source without perfecting the fuel cell. What most people don’t know, and what he is telling anyone who will listen, is that hydrogen can be the fuel of today, not the future. It can be done without the fuel cell.

In fact, hydrogen, being a highly combustible gas, powers the internal-combustion engine quite well and without all the pollution that comes from burning gasoline. “The American people need to be told the simple facts: that the internal-combustion engine runs beautifully on hydrogen.”

With a few modifications, most of the cars on the road today could burn hydrogen and create only 1 percent of the pollution that comes from a gasoline engine. The new cars wouldn’t be hard to make, says Freeman, because they would simply build on the well-understood internal-combustion engine. And they wouldn’t have to be any more expensive than a normal gas-powered car. It’s a technology that only a few of the major automakers are working on, and it mostly has been ignored in the hype around fuel cells.

“The public and the press are being fooled by continuing to talk about hydrogen and fuel cells in the same breath,” he adds. The problem is not that we don’t have hydrogen fuel cells. It’s that we don’t have hydrogen. Build cars with internal-combustion engines that can run on hydrogen today, and the infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations needed to support them, and there will be no need to wait for the fuel cell, promising though it may be. Freeman’s strategy can be summed up as: hydrogen now, fuel cells later.

California has been pursuing the fuel cell—chasing the rabbit, you might say—for years, ever since it killed the chances of the battery-powered car.

In 1990, before “fuel cell” entered the popular vocabulary, the state Air Resources Board (ARB) launched an ambitious experiment. At the time, there were high hopes for a new generation of battery-powered vehicles that would supplant the internal-combustion engine. California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) mandate required that, by 2003, 10 percent of all new vehicles sold in the state would be pollution free, presumably powered by batteries.

But progress on the battery-powered car remained elusive: Its mileage range never got long enough, and its cost was never low enough to catch fire with consumers. The automakers complained that they were losing money on the vehicles. Supporters of the cars still say there was far more demand for electric vehicles than automakers would admit and complain about long waiting lists to get the cars. But the companies declared battery cars a failure and put increasing pressure on the ARB to abandon the mandate.

In place of the battery car, they offered an array of nearly zero-emission vehicles, such as the gas-electric hybrid Toyota Prius, which has sold reasonably well in the past few years (100,000 nationwide since its introduction in 1997).

BMW’s hydrogen cars use a modified internal-combustion engine with nearly zero emissions. The company plans to sell these cars within the next five years.

Courtesy Of BMW

For a true ZEV, automakers pleaded with people to be patient. The real car of the future would be the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle. It was hundreds of millions of dollars and years of research and development away, but it held such great promise that government regulators had to agree that further work on battery cars would be a waste of time and money.

Throughout the years, the California ZEV mandate has been modified again and again, each time reducing the burden on automakers to produce and sell pollution-free cars. The companies have put pressure on the ARB by dangling the promise of the fuel-cell car. Fuel cells are coming, they’d promise: Just a little longer. Just a little longer.

Meanwhile, the ZEV mandate has become an increasingly complex formula of partial credits for partially clean cars. And the few electric cars on the road—all of them leased, not sold—are beginning to disappear. Companies such as GM are beginning to pull the handful of electric vehicles they built out of the hands of people who adore them and donating them to museums or just using them for scrap.

Then, last week, the ARB modified the mandate once more, largely abandoning zero emissions for the time being and instead requiring more hybrid and natural-gas-fueled vehicles, in addition to only 250 enormously costly (the most common estimate is $1 million each) fuel-cell vehicles that would be sprinkled around the state at universities and air districts and in local-government fleets by the year 2008.

The rabbit is still way out in front. “It’s obvious that the auto industry views the fuel cell as their excuse,” Freeman says.

And that’s not only in California; the fuel cell has been dangled in front of Congress to stall stricter fuel-economy standards on the federal level, as well.

“There’s a saying in the fuel-cell fraternity: ‘The fuel cell is the power plant of the future, and it always will be,'” Freeman says, laughing.

The conventional wisdom today is that the fuel cell is the key to unlocking what is being called the “hydrogen economy.”

In his book The Hydrogen Economy, Jeremy Rifkin explains that, since humans began using fire, humanity slowly has been working toward a purely hydrogen energy base. All of our energy technologies ultimately have been a way to get at the power of hydrogen, which, although it is the most common element on the Earth and in the universe, often is locked up with less-desirable elements. Fuel wood, he explains, contains about 10 carbon atoms for every atom of hydrogen and puts off an awful lot of carbon dioxide for the energy it produces when it burns.

By the 19th century, coal had supplanted wood in the industrial world, and it was a giant leap forward because coal contains about one or two carbon atoms for each hydrogen atom. Through the years, we increasingly have “decarbonized” our energy supply. Oil has one carbon atom per two hydrogen atoms. Natural gas has only one carbon atom for every four hydrogen atoms.

At each stage, we have used cleaner and cleaner fuels, moving closer to hydrogen and releasing less carbon dioxide and other pollutants for each unit of energy we produce. The problem, of course, is that our energy use has soared steadily upward with increasing population and industrialization. Our fuels may be cleaner, but we use so much more of them that pollution continues to climb. Now that carbon dioxide is threatening to change the very climate of the Earth, it seems only natural that humanity would take the last step, eschewing carbon altogether and using just the good stuff.

People like Freeman think it’s time we got on with it.

He has what he calls a “complicated” attitude toward the fuel cell. He does believe that fuel cells ultimately will—must—supplant the internal-combustion engine and most stationary power generators. The fuel cell has no moving parts and uses a simple chemical reaction to generate an electrical current. It is vastly more efficient than any mechanical engine.

But the fuel cell isn’t ready for mass production yet and remains very costly. On the other hand, Freeman claims an internal-combustion engine that runs on hydrogen gas would be relatively easy to build, wouldn’t have to be very expensive and could be mass produced today. In fact, BMW has been demonstrating its version of the hydrogen-powered internal-combustion engine for years, the most recent version being the 745 H. These full-sized cars are based on the luxury sedan 700 models but have two fuel tanks. One is a liquid-hydrogen tank that gives the car about a 200-mile range, and the other is a gasoline tank that provides an additional 300 miles.

BMW has decided not to pursue fuel cells, unlike most other automakers. “The internal-combustion engine is a proven technology. They operate on the road every day and have for 100 years,” says Elizabeth Pfeiffer, BMW’s head of environmental compliance. The luxury-car maker also is keen on the hydrogen internal-combustion engine because it “preserves the driving experience.” That means it makes noise and vibrates like a regular car, unlike battery-powered or fuel-cell cars, which run almost silently. Jerry Martin, spokesman for California’s ARB, says he rode in a BMW hydrogen car and couldn’t perceive any difference between it and a powerful gasoline engine.

Company officials say BMW will sell cars with hydrogen internal-combustion engines within the next five years but won’t say how many or at what cost. Of course, most BMWs are going to be out of reach cost-wise for many people.

But the Ford Motor Co. also is working on a hydrogen internal-combustion engine and recently unveiled its Model U concept car. Bob Natkin, head engineer for the program, says the hydrogen internal-combustion engine isn’t rocket science, and it can be mass produced today for just $2,000 to $5,000 more than a regular car. “The mechanical part of it is really straightforward,” he says. Just change the pistons and the fuel injectors and tweak the ignition system, and you can run an internal-combustion engine on hydrogen. The modifications really aren’t out of reach for your backyard car enthusiast.

One of the big problems with any hydrogen-powered car is the question of hydrogen storage. One kilogram of hydrogen contains about the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline but can take up nearly 12 times as much space.

Hydrogen fuel has some advantages that help to offset the volume problem. An engine fueled by hydrogen runs much more efficiently than gasoline, for one thing. And engineers are working on ways to compress the gas into smaller volumes and build lighter cars. Without giving up too much space, a hydrogen internal-combustion engine today has a range of about 200 miles, which is approaching the range of a gasoline-powered sedan with decent fuel economy. Adding an electrical hybrid system can make that range even longer.

Dan Sperling, who heads the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, says the hydrogen internal-combustion engine could be a bridging technology to the day when fuel-cell cars are ready for mass production, which is at least a decade away. But he says automakers, with so many resources tied up in the fuel cell, may be reluctant to wander off the slow course they have charted for themselves. “The question is: Is any company really interested in making [hydrogen internal-combustion engines]? Clearly, the industry sees the fuel cell as the future,” Sperling says.

Dave Barthmuss, spokesman for General Motors Corp., says his company is not interested in making them and will stick to its business plan of developing the fuel-cell car. “We want to be the first company to profitably, and I emphasize profitably, sell 1 million fuel-cell vehicles.” When asked when that 1 million mark might reached, Barthmuss said GM officials don’t know but that they believe fuel-cell cars could be “commercially viable by the end of this decade.”

The more immediate problem is this: Even if you could buy a hydrogen internal-combustion engine, Natkin asks, “Where are you going to go to get your fuel?” There are, after all, no hydrogen filling stations in your neighborhood.

This is a chicken-and-egg problem: You can’t sell hydrogen-powered cars if there is no place to fill up, but there’s no reason to build a hydrogen filling station if there are no hydrogen-powered cars.

Natkin and Freeman argue that the hydrogen infrastructure won’t be built for decades if we continue to wait for the fuel cell. The hydrogen internal-combustion engine could be the technology that jump-starts the building of a hydrogen infrastructure now, in a way that the fuel cell cannot.

Sperling agrees, in principle at least: “I think it is certainly a faster road to hydrogen. But it won’t be taken without serious incentives and aggressive policy support.” And that means a lot of money.

How much money is anyone’s guess. But futurists Doug Randall and Peter Schwartz, at the Global Business Network think tank in Emeryville, have come up with a nice round number that they believe could spur a significant shift toward hydrogen technology in the coming decade.

In the April issue of Wired magazine, they write that for $100 billion, fully one-third of the new cars sold in the United States could be hydrogen-powered, and 15 percent of filling stations could dispense hydrogen.

That amount is today’s equivalent of what it cost to launch the Apollo space program. Compare that with the $300 billion President Dwight Eisenhower requested to build the interstate highway system. Both of these huge public-works projects had a massive effect on America and the world. And both were spurred by national-security concerns.

Petroleum dependence clearly is a national-security issue, as well, says Randall. In the Wired article, he and Schwartz write, “The price of the nation’s reliance on crude oil has included ‘70s-style economic shocks, Desert Storm-like military adventures, strained relationships with less-energy-hungry allies, and now terror on our shores.”

Unlike Freeman, Randall and Schwartz think the fuel cell is the way to go in the immediate future and that the money ought to be spent to “nail the fuel cell now” and take advantage of the tremendous efficiency it offers over the internal-combustion engine. But they share Freeman’s sense of urgency and believe that we must begin building the hydrogen infrastructure today.

“Hydrogen has always been interesting. But I think now it’s really tied to national security. And national security is what hits the president’s desk pretty quickly,” Randall says.

Freeman thinks the national-security issue is the one that finally will unite the greens and the SUV drivers behind the clean fuel. He’s fond of saying, “Let the SOBs have their SUVs,” and he often refers to the hydrogen car as the “Patriot” or the “Sheik Kicker.”

But even a massive groundswell of support for hydrogen power wouldn’t mean that our addiction to fossil fuels would be cured anytime soon. That’s because the vast majority of hydrogen used in the United States is derived from natural gas, commonly found near petroleum deposits. So far, it is the cheapest way to manufacture hydrogen, and it also means harmful greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere from hydrogen-production plants.

There is a much cleaner, albeit more expensive, way to get hydrogen: by splitting the molecules of water. It’s fairly simple to do through electrolysis, or running an electrical current through water.

The electrolysis process is being developed and marketed on a large scale by a Canadian company called Stuart Energy, among others. In California, Stuart Energy has teamed up with the California Fuel Cell Partnership to build a hydrogen filling station in Richmond that uses electricity from the city grid to split water and create hydrogen. And the company already markets an appliance, about the size of a washing machine, that you can plug into your wall outlet to generate hydrogen while you sleep.

Of course, mass production of hydrogen via electrolysis isn’t going to be pollution-free, either, as long as fossil fuels, especially coal and natural gas, remain the main fuels of electrical generation.

A true hydrogen economy means using renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, to produce the electricity that makes our hydrogen. In the Palm Desert area of Southern California, SunLine Transit Agency already is demonstrating a fleet of hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered buses. The fleet fills up at a station that uses solar power to generate hydrogen right on the site. This combination of renewable energy and electrolysis raises the fascinating possibility of a clean, decentralized energy system, largely protected from the shocks and manipulation of the oil and natural-gas markets.

It’s not difficult to imagine, in a town like Chico, a day when new housing subdivisions are built with solar panels on the roofs and hydrogen-generating appliances in the garages.

Freeman envisions massive wind and solar farms throughout the Midwest and Southwest.

“That’s where the Bush plan completely fails,” says Freeman. “The president has been very helpful in uttering the word hydrogen. But he’s also sent us on a wild goose chase.”

Given that most of the world’s hydrogen is produced by oil companies, perhaps it is not surprising that Bush would support it. The Bush plan does focus on fuel-cell vehicles and the development of a hydrogen infrastructure, but it does nothing to boost renewable energy resources, and it even cuts spending on wind energy. “The hydrogen industry today is a part of the fossil-fuel industry,” says Freeman. “And the Bush approach is taking fossil fuels and converting them to hydrogen, and that’s simply prolonging the problem.”

Worse, from many environmentalists’ standpoint, the Bush plan gives money to researching hydrogen production using nuclear power and coal.

The Bush plan has many advocates of clean fuels worried that the big energy companies will hijack the hydrogen economy before it even gets off the ground. The nuclear industry, for example, is already promoting new nuclear power plants as an emission-free path to hydrogen, and the Bush administration clearly has been receptive.

“That’s the danger of an Apollo-style push for hydrogen,” explains the Sierra Club’s Dan Becker, who once described nuclear hydrogen as “a nicotine patch that causes cancer.”

“We could start with the goal of a carbon-free economy and end up with a nuclear economy,” he adds.

That surely would distress Freeman, who has tried to shut down nuclear power plants throughout his career, including the Rancho Seco plant near Sacramento.

The route we take to the hydrogen economy likely will be fought over at every step. To Freeman, it’s important to start now, and the hydrogen-powered car is the most practical way to begin. “We need to get this under way before the oil wars and global warming kill us, literally,” he says.

“I think what we’re talking about is really more important than going to the moon, more important that the Manhattan Project. We could go down in history as the generation that really did something good. Or, we could be the generation that burned it all up and left nothing."