Problems of Hydrogen Distribution

Here is an interesting study of the German auto industry R&D with regard to hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. The study is called “R&D focus of German Hydrogen Innovation System” and seems to be based on a theory that testing and subsequent implementation can not happen until a suitable “innovation system” comes about. They study the hydrogen research from 1974 to 2000 in Germany because they call it a “frontrunner” in the EU.

Not surprisingly, and as I have suggested before, the risk and uncertainties of a hydrogen infrastructure remain a major obstacle to its use in a distributed network for automobiles:

What is the logical way out of this visible trend in the German R&D sector? As argued earlier, the R&D behaviour of the car manufacturing industry can be explained by the uncertainties they perceive in terms of infrastructure development and these uncertainties are very difficult to manage. A way out therefore, depends strongly on reducing the uncertainties regarding infrastructure. This requires a strong party that acts as a system intermediary. The role of this intermediary is to bring together the parties involved in a future hydrogen economy (like is done in the Californian Fuel Cell Partnership) but is also capable of arranging strong commitments in terms of infrastructure development. Hereby reducing the uncertainty for all actors involved. Since the stakes are so high and the process so capital intensive this is a role that most likely only a strong government can play. This is in line with history that shows that the majority of our current infrastructures (roads, electricity, natural gas) are controlled and coordinated by governments. When the transition to hydrogen is really taken seriously by governments, just funding of R&D is likely not to be sufficient. A strong coordination effort should accompany these financial initiatives

And yet we see some in the US government discussing hydrogen fuel-cell as though the infrastructure will magically appear. Will the oil companies build it? Not likely, unless the government subsidizes them and pays for the risks, which just begs the next question; Will the government build it? Why would they when there are other more stable and certain existing sources of fuel distribution? Well, the motive is not clear (false hope? pride? machiavellianism?) but the consequences are clear:

On July 21, 2005, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 76 (SB 76) that provided the necessary funding and legislative guidelines to implement recommendations of the CA H2 Net Blueprint Plan. SB 76 is a budget trailer bill that provides $6.5 million in funding for state-sponsored hydrogen demonstration projects until January 1, 2007. The funds may be used for co-funding the establishment of up to three hydrogen fueling station demonstration projects and the State lease and purchase of a variety of hydrogen fueled vehicles.

Close to $7 million dollars to build three stations and buy a few cars. Since funding runs out in 2007, that leaves three years to achieve the Governor’s vision:

To expedite the transition of our transportation system away from petroleum fuels, towards hydrogen fuel and vehicles, experts point to the crucial need for a hydrogen fueling infrastructure and the necessary leadership to make it a reality. An early network of only 150 to 200 hydrogen fueling stations throughout the State (approximately one station every 20 miles on the State’s major highways) would make hydrogen fuel available to the vast majority of Californians. This early vision for California’s Hydrogen Highway Network is achievable by 2010 and will help demonstrate the economic and technical viability of hydrogen technologies. Studies by the California Fuel Cell Partnership and others estimate that this initial low-volume fueling network will cost $75 – $200 million, the majority of this investment coming from private investment by energy companies, automakers, high-tech firms, and other companies.

One station every twenty miles? How does that compare to the number of existing gas and diesel stations? $75 – $200 million is a big spread. The numbers factor out to $375K to $1.3 million per station. The cost of blending biofuels into existing gas and diesel stations would be a tiny fraction of those numbers. Speaking of numbers:

200 stations x every 20 miles = 4000 miles

That is double the number of “Interstate” miles in California, according to the California Highways site:

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991 brought the total authorized milage to 43,000. Of these miles, California has been allocated 2,311 miles.

That sounds great, until you take into account that Interstate miles are a tiny fraction of commonly traveled roads:

The Interstate system (formally “The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways”) serves the 48 contiguous states, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. It carries more than 21 percent of the nation’s traffic on only 1% of the nation’s total road and street mileage.

The other 80 percent of people on 99% of the roads will have no hydrogen until someone, something, somehow figures out a sustainable distribution system. The CA governor clearly thinks it will be private industry subsidized by taxpayers. The report above thinks it will be the government. Neither has demonstrated a suitable “innovation system” that can bring a solution by 2010.

When you look at a cost/benefit analysis of energy distribution, hydrogen has serious problems of security (e.g. gas/liquid pressure and loss), while biofuels and hybrids are standing by as proven safe and reliable. Could the same level of investment in biofuels result in same or greater emissions changes by 2010 than combined hydrogen use for the five years afterwards?

Don’t get me wrong, research on hydrogen is great but I wish elected officials could be realistic about the need for a secure (e.g. sustainable) and clean source of energy that people can use on the road today. Progress today does not mean stump speeches about the great big hydrogen companies that will run our energy system ten years from ten years from now.

Go ahead, send Arnold a note and ask him how he gets around in his hydrogen Hummer.

The H2H puts lipstick on the pig by turning a vehicle whose urban fuel economy is about 10 miles per gallon (filling the tank routinely costs over $50) into a futuristic, alternatively-fueled car whose main tailpipe emission is water vapor.

So there you have the typical marketing pitch. Did you know that with hydrogen you can turn water into wine, rocks to pearls…tomorrow? The story concludes:

GM does not allow Schwarzenegger to use the “Self-Serve” lane at the hydrogen station. The company fills the tank itself, keeps the vehicle in Lake Forest, Calif. (near its engineering facilities and Quantum’s offices) and requires that a GM engineer ride in the car at all times. Is Hummer’s tentative embrace of green technology sparked by conscience or sales? Noting that Hummer’s North American sales in the first 11 months of 2004 declined 19% compared to the same period in 2003, the refashioning of Hummer starts to make sense–even if selling Hummers on their fuel economy still sounds like a desperate move.

Desperate and, quite frankly, not innovative enough.

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