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Fueling the Hydrogen Economy: Energy Independence Now

Environmentally benign technologies can meet the president's hydrogen plan.
Fortnightly Magazine - July 1 2003

in achieving this is, of course, that these largely or fully depreciated coal plants and the low price of coal (about $1.20/million Btu) make them a very low-cost source of power. The high efficiency of natural gas-fired, combined-cycle power plants cannot overcome this advantage at a total investment cost of roughly $500/kilowatt and current natural gas prices in the $5 million to $6 million Btu range. However, further increases in utilization efficiency are expected, both for natural gas and for petroleum products used as transportation fuels. Natural gas prices are also expected to drop to competitive levels as soon as the traditional delayed producer response to high prices increases exploration and production investments.

Unfortunately, even under the best of circumstances, it is already apparent that reliance on natural gas and petroleum liquids will not provide the several decades of lead-time necessary to convert the global energy system to high-tech renewable energy sources (such as wind, solar-thermal, and photovoltaic power) to provide a sustainable and carbon-emission-free source of electricity for all stationary energy requirements, and electrolytic hydrogen produced with this power as the dominant transportation fuel. This is why it is so important to further develop and commercialize coal-fired power generation in which the coal is first converted to hydrogen and CO 2, the CO 2 separated and sequestered, and the hydrogen used for highly efficient combined-cycle power generation and, possibly, as a source of transportation fuel [11]. Such a shift in central power generation to a modification of the already fully developed Integrated Coal Gasification Combined-Cycle process could give us as much as a century of lead-time (thanks to large global coal and lignite reserves) before we must rely on emission-free and sustainable energy sources.

An additional consideration is what role nuclear breeder reactors of the inherently safe and proliferation-proof Integral Fast Reactor design could play in providing a very long-term source of emission-free power and of electrolytic hydrogen. It certainly seems prudent for the United States to resume nuclear breeder reactor research, development, and demonstration in concert with other industrial countries to assess this alternative or supplemental option for extending the lead-time to complete conversion of the global energy system to truly sustainable technologies.

  1. Marilyn Radler, "Worldwide reserves increase as production holds steady," , Vol. 100, No. 51, pp. 113-115 (Dec. 23, 2002).
  2. , 2001 Annual Report, Energy Information Administration, Office of Oil and Gas, U.S. Department of Energy, November 2002, Document No. DOE/EIA-0216(2001) (Not yet available to the general public.)
  3. Henry R. Linden, "Bridging the Carbon Gap: Fossil Fuel Use in the 21st Century," , Vol. 140, No. 21, pp. 32-41 (Nov. 15, 2002).
  4. , Vol. 19, No. 17 (April 28, 2003).
  5. "Monthly Energy Review, December 2002," Energy Information Administration, Office of Energy Markets and End Use, U.S. Department of Energy, Document No. DOE/EIA-0035(2002/12).
  6. Henry R. Linden, "How to Rationalize the Natural Gas Spot Market," Natural Gas, Vol. 14, No.1, pp. 14-18 (August 1997).
  7. "Annual Energy Outlook 2003 With Projections to 2025," Energy Information Administration, Office of Integrated Analysis and Forecasting, U.S. Department of Energy, January 2003, Document No.