Public Utilities Reports

PUR Guide 2012 Fully Updated Version

Available NOW!
PUR Guide

This comprehensive self-study certification course is designed to teach the novice or pro everything they need to understand and succeed in every phase of the public utilities business.

Order Now

Will the Hydrogen Economy Take Off?

Hydrogen is hot, but whether it really will fly is another story.
Fortnightly Magazine - July 1 2003

While there is no fixed dividing line between fuel cell developers in the power and automotive industry-indeed, many of the manufacturers and players are the same entities-Scheer says that there has been a lot more effort in the transportation sector to make viable fuel cells. It's perhaps ironic, since automotive fuel cell targets are much tougher and stiffer for vehicles than for power plants.

To be viable in the marketplace, automotive fuel cells must be able to produce power at an equivalent of $25/kW to compete with the internal combustion engine. To be competitive in the power sector, Scheer says, fuel cells must produce power at a rate of $500 to $1,000/kW. The conclusion is obvious, Scheer says: "Fuel cells are going to be in the power production area much quicker than in transportation."

Indeed, most experts say that development of stationary hydrogen power is much further advanced than it is for vehicles. The real question, Rastler says, is whether fuel cell manufacturers can get their cost down. If they can, he predicts that fuel cells will blossom and transition to larger markets from their current niches. Rastler notes that Japan, in particular, has a fairly aggressive fuel cell program, and has invested a large amount in fuel cell development for both stationary and transportation markets.

But there's little realistic hope that a commercial scale, hydrogen-fueled fuel cell is on the horizon in the next decade. Walls flatly says "we won't see a commercial-scale [hydrogen power] plant in the next 10 years."

Coal Without the Carbon Is Hydrogen

While environmental benefits give the hydrogen economy some luster, the biggest reason for the president's push is energy security. If the United States is looking to reduce its dependence on imported fuel, then coal cannot be counted out. As Scheer notes, coal is our most abundant source of hydrogen, after water. Once the carbon is removed from coal, what is left is hydrogen. "We would be well advised to keep coal in the portfolio, and figure out how to make hydrogen from coal in an economic way," Scheer says.

Yet, the only way coal can really play in a hydrogen economy, Scheer says, is if the CO 2 produced by burning coal can be sequestered.

One way that might be accomplished is by pumping CO 2 into natural gas wells, to improve their production. Scheer says that is already happening in some North Sea wells. Part of the incentive to sequester carbon there is the Kyoto Protocol, which places increasingly stiff limits on CO 2 emission levels in countries that adhere to the treaty. The United States, of course, is not part of Kyoto, but that doesn't mean that CO 2 emissions levels will never be part of the regulatory landscape here. Even the most ardent opponents to limiting CO 2 levels concede that some form of CO 2 limits are a question of when, not if.

The environmental pressure to reduce carbon emissions may well prove helpful toward moving the country toward a hydrogen economy. As Scheer says, "It's a natural progression, to