Forgetting Someone, Mr. Secretary?


The DOE's new hydrogen car initiative won't get very far without electric utilities.

The DOE's new hydrogen car initiative won't get very far without electric utilities.

Fortnightly Magazine - February 1 2002

It was a "classic" publicity event-long on vision, but short on substance. There he was, the Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), Spencer Abraham, standing toe-to-toe with each of the heads of the "Motown Three." The big announcement, on Jan. 9, was that the DOE and the nation's carmakers would create a public-private partnership to promote hydrogen as a primary fuel for cars and trucks, as part of America's effort to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. 

Beyond announcing this vision, he failed to mention how much his program would cost; he failed to say exactly how long it would take (except to say several decades); and, more importantly, he failed to define what infrastructure the government would develop to support hydrogen transportation. 

Of course, when we think infrastructure, we think electric transmission, and many fuel cell experts feel that our transmission infrastructure could serve as the backbone for hydrogen supply. To my knowledge no utility CEOs were present at the event, pledging their support to make available their transmission infrastructure to this initiative, nor were they invited. Notwithstanding, many utility execs are dreaming of the possibilities. 

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Published in early November in a paper called, "National Energy Planning for the Century," Chauncey Starr, president emeritus at the Electrical Power Research Institute, calls for the creation of a Continental SuperGrid, which some have called the all-time "Holy Grail" of transmission. He envisions this grid delivering the much-needed hydrogen for stationary, as well as vehicular, fuel cells. 

"If terrorism remains a risk, all major parts of the system could be underground. If one adds the vision of electrified transportation (maglev) and fuel cell electric autos, a picture of a futuristic all-electric energy system takes shape," he writes. 

Like many of his contemporaries, Starr recognizes that hydrogen fuel stations that are connected to the grid could produce hydrogen and oxygen from water through the old art of electrolysis. "It fits well with our hydrogen-cooled energy corridor, which might support the environmental objective of hydrogen end-use systems," he says.

Yet, a Continental SuperGrid would be quite expensive, say $1 trillion at an average rate of $10 billion/year, including R&D, superconductor cables, and power plants. Of course, Starr points out that the super grid would be developed over the next century. 

Furthermore, if just hydrogen pipelines were developed, the DOE's Argonne National Laboratory has estimated that the cost for building production facilities and pipelines sufficient to meet U.S. energy needs could run as high as $300 billion, with distribution costing another $175 billion, coming to roughly $3 per gallon of gasoline equivalent. And that price doesn't account for operating the infrastructure, the cost of the feedstock itself (such as natural gas), or the cost of transporting and storing the hydrogen.

But, using the existing electric transmission network to connect gas stations with electrolytic hydrogen dispensers, assuming that the electric transmission network could manage the new loads, might cost as little as $20 billion, according to the World Watch Institute.

Certainly, it