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Forgetting Someone, Mr. Secretary?

The DOE's new hydrogen car initiative won't get very far without electric utilities.

Fortnightly Magazine - February 1 2002

interesting to see how much the Bush administration allocates for this hydrogen initiative. Bear in mind that the entire 2001 budget for all DOE initiatives was $19.2 billion. That's a far cry from many of the estimates.

Yet, an electric transmission/hydrogen infrastructure is certainly not guaranteed, it would have competition from the gas/hydrogen pipelines. Once a specific length of pipeline is reached (around the 2,000-3,000 mile mark), it becomes cheaper to transport energy by hydrogen pipeline than by electrical cable. As many already know, this is because an electrical cable is subject to approximately 7.5 percent transmission losses along its length.

However, a hydrogen infrastructure could be cheaper than what we have now. A study conducted by Virginia-based Directed Technologies, as part of the 2001 DOE Hydrogen Program Review, analyzed the costs and other attributes of three fuel infrastructures systems to support fuel cell vehicles: hydrogen, methanol, and gasoline. The review found that the costs of maintaining the existing gasoline infrastructure per vehicle supported are up to two times more expensive than the estimated costs of building and maintaining either a methanol or hydrogen fuel infrastructure.

In fact, utilities are very familiar with the economics of hydrogen demand through electrolysis and the possibility of it being a growing source of load.

In the early 1980s, EPRI conducted a number of studies examining hydrogen demand for industrial purposes in three northeastern utilities-PSEG, Niagara Mohawk, and Northeast Utilities. EPRI found that, at the time, electrolytic hydrogen would have limited success competing with bottled hydrogen, a reversal on what the institute previously believed. It found electrolytic hydrogen was more expensive because of the high cost of the electrolyzers, the high regional cost of electricity, and poor plant utilization in the Northeast. Since then, electrolyzer costs have come down, as have regional costs, and there has been improved plant utilization. Will utilities be able to provide the infrastructure of the future?

The Environmental Question: Do Coal-Powered Fuel Cells Make Sense?

According to Directed Technologies-assuming that off-peak electricity could be purchased at 4 cents/kWh-electrolyzers could provide lower-cost hydrogen for small fuel cell automobile fleets or for public fueling stations during the early phases of fuel cell vehicle (FCV) penetration.

The problem, according to the report, is that electrolytic hydrogen has one major barrier in the U.S.: over 55 percent of all U.S. electricity is generated from coal.

Using electrolytic hydrogen would actually double greenhouse gas emissions compared with conventional gasoline operation, using the average marginal U.S. grid generation mix, the report says.

"[Yet], as the electrical generation grid moves to increased use of renewable electricity and/or nuclear power, the FCV powered by electrolytic hydrogen will eventually be superior to even an FCV running on hydrogen from natural gas," says the report. Directed Technologies actually analyzed the grid generation mix that would result in greenhouse gas parity for the FCV running on electrolytic hydrogen compared to conventional gasoline operation.

But achieving this parity may take a long time. Directed Technologies points out that the DOE's Energy Information Administration does not project significant growth in renewables and nuclear until