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Will the Hydrogen Economy Take Off?

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

of electricity are fairly cheap, since the capital investment in the power plants was made 20 years ago, and obviously there are no fuel costs.

In April, Iceland saw the opening of a Shell-branded fuel cell station in Reykjavik. The Icelandic government says it hopes the opening of the station, which is expected to fuel about 4 percent of the bus fleet operating in Reykjavik once the fleet is converted to fuel cell power, will mark the start of Iceland's move to a purely hydrogen economy.

But here in the United States, renewable electricity sources are not as economic as fossil-fueled power. At least, not yet. ICF Consulting, among others, predicts that renewable energy may soon become competitive with fossil-fueled electricity in some U.S. markets.

If the goal of implementing a hydrogen economy is to reduce emissions, Taub says hydrogen might lose out. "It's much cheaper and faster to just put up wind turbines, turn off the coal plants, and skip the hydrogen part."

Walls concurs. "You wouldn't use a wind farm to make hydrogen, then ship it to a power plant [as feedstock]. It is much more economical to put wind electricity directly onto the grid." And, he points out, "We need a lot of different bridging technologies to get to a hydrogen economy."

Yet even if the economics of moving to the hydrogen economy can be solved, there is still the major issue of consumer acceptance. Consumers will not buy into a product they perceive as fundamentally and unacceptably risky.

Since at least the Hindenburg, hydrogen has had a bad rap as a dangerous fuel. What gets lost in the mists of history is the fact that 35 of the 37 Hindenburg deaths resulted from passengers jumping to the ground to flee the fire. The hydrogen that filled the zeppelin burned above and away from the passengers; those who rode the aircraft down to the ground survived. Interestingly, the two passengers who did not jump but who did perish in the Hindenburg disaster died of burns from diesel-a fuel used today worldwide without much concern about its safety by millions of truck and car drivers.

Over 65 years later, the association between the ill-fated Hindenburg and too-risky hydrogen flammability remains, despite the fact that most Americans spend time every day in close proximity to potentially explosive gasoline as they drive to work, their children's school, or the grocery.

Need proof? A recent article 1 points out that hydrogen-fueling stations in California used by major automakers experimenting with hydrogen vehicles are behind chain-link fences and/or cement walls. Indeed, the reports that one station is "in the back corner of a city-bus yard where the air is heavy with diesel fumes. One reason for the location: No one was eager to put it in a public place, given concerns about hydrogen's flammability."

Just because most of the research money and media focus is on developing hydrogen for vehicles doesn't mean that utilities won't feel the pressure to get on the hydrogen bandwagon. The most optimistic prediction for hydrogen vehicles puts them seven