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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

years away. But many metropolitan areas are in severe non-attainment status for meeting their 2005 clean air goals, and they are using reductions in power plant emissions, rather than curbs on vehicle emissions, to meet those goals.

For example, the Washington, D.C., area, which has some of the nation's dirtiest air and is a severe non-attainment area, recently submitted a plan to the Environmental Protection Agency to achieve compliance with the Clean Air Act. 2 Despite the fact that diesel trucks and increased numbers of sport-utility vehicles in the region are belching out more exhaust than predicted, and that all types of vehicles in the area are being driven longer distances, the area's improvement plan did not propose any incentives or penalties to get polluting vehicles off the road. Instead, the region's planners relied in part on changes in federal rules that will ratchet down power plant emissions in the area.

So it's not inconceivable that utilities in the future could be forced to adopt cleaner hydrogen technology, because its development is further along than hydrogen-fueled vehicles-and because it's relatively easier to force a few hundred power producers into a course of action than it is to force more than 200 million consumers into one.

But will environmental pressures be enough to move the industry toward the hydrogen economy? Even though a move to a hydrogen economy promises to remove at least some of the environmental burden under which most utilities operate, that promise appears pretty distant at the moment.

And without more research money from somewhere, there's little chance that hydrogen will overtake fossil fuels as the primary power source in the United States.

The $1.7 billion in federal research money over five years proposed by President Bush, plus the couple billion in private research money, pales when compared with the $6 billion in subsidies that the Congressional Research Service says the fossil fuel and nuclear industries got in 2002. Six billion a year on existing fuels versus maybe $380 million annually for hydrogen R&D? With numbers like that, it may be a long while before the hydrogen economy threatens to alter much decision-making on the part of utilities.

  1. Jeffrey Ball, "Green Dream: Hydrogen Fuel May Be Clean, but Getting it Here Looks Messy," , March 7, 2003, A1.
  2. Katherine Shaver, "Area Clean Air Plan Skirts Traffic Issue," , May 29, 2003, A10.

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