Hydrogen highway is a non-starter

The hydrogen highway is a dead-end street

Illustration By robert armstrong

Glance northward on Highway 50 right around the 59th Street overpass, and you’ll glimpse the future. At least that’s what the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Ford Motor Company, Daimler AG, BP and the U.S. Department of Energy would like us to believe. Unfortunately, the shiny new solar-powered hydrogen vehicle fueling station that recently spread its gossamer wings just east of the SMUD yard is anything but the future. It’s the desperate waking fantasy of a casino culture that can’t shake the feeling that the next jackpot is one pull of the lever away.

That’s not to say the $3.2 million the aforementioned entities paid for the project is a waste of money. As a research test bed, it will undoubtedly help demonstrate the utter unfeasibility of the so-called “hydrogen highway” touted by President George W. Bush, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and for all I know, the Dalai Lama. However, its primary value is as a propaganda device. SMUD & Co. want us to know that they’re busily preparing for the climate-impaired, energy-depleted future, even though as far as hydrogen is concerned, they know better.

Consider the glowing assessment of hydrogen as a fuel source offered on the utility district’s Web site. “Hydrogen could offer a sustainable approach to energy development that meets the needs of the customers and the environment in the future. It is considered the ultimate clean motor fuel since hydrogen-fueled vehicles produce no harmful tailpipe emissions, just water.”

Furthermore, we’re instructed that hydrogen has “the highest energy content per unit weight of any known fuel.” It’s the most abundant element in the universe and can be extracted from water via electrolysis or through a process called steam reforming that separates hydrogen from natural gas. BP uses the latter process. “For more than 40 years,” we’re told, somewhat breathlessly, “BP has been producing enormous amounts of hydrogen—routinely and safely—at its refineries around the world.”

Fair enough, as long as we’re talking about a galaxy far, far away, where the second law of thermodynamics no longer holds. The one inescapable fact not mentioned by SMUD, or for that matter the West Sacramento-based California Fuel Cell Partnership, is that no matter what method is used for producing hydrogen, it always takes more energy to produce the hydrogen than is actually provides. To be blunt, it offers a poor energy return on energy invested, or what engineers refer to as EROEI.

For example, when oil was first discovered in the 19th century, its EROEI was 100, meaning it took one barrel of oil to produce 100 barrels of oil. That ratio has steadily dropped, because we’ve used up most of the “easy oil,” and the majority of what’s left is more difficult to extract. Today, it takes one barrel of oil to produce three barrels of oil.

On the other hand, as author James Kunstler notes in The Long Emergency, a grim portrayal of the energy-depleted future he and many other observers are predicting, the average EROEI for all the methods of producing hydrogen is less than 1, since it takes 1.4 units of energy to produce 1 unit of energy.

Unless there’s some totally unforeseen technological development in the future, there’s simply no getting around the second law. As energy expert and Post Carbon Institute fellow Richard Heinberg puts it, “The second law of thermodynamics insures that hydrogen will be a net loser every time since some usable energy is lost whenever it is transformed.

“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the hydrogen economy touted by well-meaning visionaries will by necessity be a much lower-energy economy than we are accustomed to,” Heinberg continues. “In the low-energy social environment toward which we are inevitably headed, it will be possible for only a tiny wealthy minority to navigate over disintegrating streets and highways in sophisticated, highly efficient Hypercars.”

Yet according to California Fuel Cell Partnership spokesman Roy Kim, the very existence of this amalgam of automobile manufacturers, energy conglomerates and government agencies is predicated on the idea that one day in the near future, most if not all of us will be driving hydrogen-powered cars. Kim said that currently there are 250 hydrogen-powered test vehicles and 25 fuel stations in the state, mostly located near large urban areas.

SMUD spokesman Bill Boyce was considerably less exuberant about hydrogen’s potential and stressed that the district’s new solar-powered hydrogen fuel station is strictly experimental and “a good way to marry up a lot of different alternatives in one test bed.” He noted that using solar energy to produce hydrogen “is one of the least efficient ways to do it.” The station currently makes 12 kilograms of hydrogen per day, roughly equivalent to 12 gallons of gasoline.

Heinberg doesn’t object to such research and in fact encourages it, since he believes hydrogen will play at least a limited role in the future.

Kunstler will have none of it.

“The widespread belief that hydrogen is going to save technological societies from the fast-approaching oil and gas reckoning is probably a good index of how delusional our oil-addicted society has become,” he writes.

Ladies and gentleman, the Hindenburg has left the station.