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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

go from syngas production to the next step [of producing pure hydrogen]."

The Nuclear Phoenix

The driving force in President Bush's push toward a U.S. hydrogen economy is fuel security. Environmental considerations could make nuclear plant production of hydrogen attractive, says Scheer. "There's a lot of interest in nuclear, because of global warming issues," he explains.

Although some environmentalists are on the fence, or flatly opposed, to using nuclear energy to produce hydrogen, the fact is that most currently available power sources for electrolysis-coal-, oil-, and gas-fired generation, or biomass-produce CO 2. Renewables like wind and photovoltaics, of course, do not, but they cannot produce baseload power economically in most markets, let alone be inexpensive enough to compete with reformed natural gas as a primary means to produce hydrogen.

Nuclear is a proven electricity technology, and more than one nuclear utility-Entergy and Exelon, for example-are said to be looking into the role of nuclear to produce hydrogen fuel. And, the DOE is expanding its research efforts regarding nuclear power's use in manufacturing hydrogen. As Walls points out, hydrogen production "could become a big opportunity for nuclear."

But don't get too giddy about nuclear's future in the hydrogen economy just yet. For one thing, the technology to produce hydrogen using nuclear power is still highly experimental, and largely still to be developed. Indeed, Taub says that most of the proposals that contemplate using nuclear power to manufacture hydrogen would require new, high-temperature nuclear plants-none of which have been proposed, let alone approved and licensed, in this country so far.

And, despite the DOE's initial win on using Yucca mountain as the nation's nuclear waste repository, there are many hurdles left to clear. As Scheer observes, "We still don't have the back end of the fuel cycle fixed."

Rastler says the most plausible scenario for the utility industry to manufacture hydrogen is to use natural gas reformation and electrolysis using off-peak power initially, with an eventual move to coal gasification, and then to nuclear. "Nuclear will come back as part of the supply mix," he predicts.

Getting to Green

You might think that a push by the Bush administration toward a hydrogen economy, with its no-emissions benefits, would make environmentalists happy-finally-with the energy industry.

But if you think so, you would be mistaken.

A big part of the reason is that the environmentalists' vision of a hydrogen economy-one that uses only renewable sources of electricity to manufacture hydrogen-isn't exactly top of the funding list of hydrogen research.

It's not that renewable-fueled electricity cannot be used to produce hydrogen. Obviously, it can. The problem is that renewables are largely not economically viable for producing baseload generation, let alone as a feedstock for converting water to hydrogen fuel. "Biomass and wind are proven technologies," Scheer points out, "but they're not cost-effective for making hydrogen."

The one place right now that might be able to make a go of a true renewable hydrogen economy is Iceland. The country already uses geothermal and hydroelectric power as the primary electricity sources-72 percent-for the island nation. Those renewable sources