Planners Network

The Organization of Progressive Planning

Progressive Planning Magazine

Fuel Cell Futility

January 22, 2003 by Administrator in Winter 2003

By Chip Haynes

Hey, big news: the federal government has stopped trying to get the American auto industry to build fuel-efficient gas cars and instead has hung its hat onto hydrogen fuel cells (HFCs). Yeah, well, it’s not like that fuel efficiency thing was going to work out anyway, right? OK, you can stop laughing now.

Both the government and General Motors (GM) have come out swinging from the fuel cell corner at the recent Detroit Auto Show. GM introduced the “Autonomy,” a fuel cell-powered car that looks like the Batmobile, and I don’t mean that in a good way. The Republican administration took the opportunity of a major car show in Motor City to announce that it was abandoning the Democrat’s original initiative for super efficient gasoline-powered cars in favor of pushing for HFC-powered machines as the wave of the future in personal transportation in America.

Oh, brother. Here we don’t go again.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars use hydrogen to produce electricity to move a vehicle. What’s wrong with that? Plenty. Every time you convert energy from one form to another, you lose a little energy in the process. With oil (as gasoline), there’s not much conversion–it just gets refined and then goes right into the engine, via your gas tank. The route of energy in an HFC machine is a bit more complex. First, you have to find the hydrogen.

Big shock here: there are no vast, untapped pools of hydrogen just waiting to be pumped out of the ground. Not even little teenie ones. Not even in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The hydrogen has to be extracted from other more complex substances, such as natural gas or water. And that takes energy. Energy you could have been using to power your car in the first place. (Not to mention that natural gas production is busy falling off a cliff here in North America. I won’t go into that right now. Let’s just say that you need to get as far away from depending on natural gas for anything as you possibly can. You’ll thank me later for this bit of sage advice and probably sooner than you think.)

OK, so now you’ve got your hydrogen. It took some doing, and more than a little oil, but you filled the hydrogen tank in your car with the gas that made Lakehurst famous. Now the energy in that hydrogen has to be converted yet again, this time into electricity to spin the motors that drive the car–and again, with a loss of energy in the transition, because nothing comes without a price. The Second Law of Thermodynamics? Something like that.

Why all the bother for a little energy? Energy in America is big business. Very Big Business. From the electricity and gas in our homes to the fuel in our many, many cars, we use far more power per person than any other country on earth. (Is that really what “Power to the people!” was all about? Man, was I misinformed.) We almost all have cars and trucks and SUVs and motorcycles and lawn mowers and snow blowers and, well, you get the idea. We use energy like it’s going out of style. And the funny thing is, it is.

From the impending peak of global oil production to the high depletion rate of natural gas wells in North America, we’re headed pedal-to-the-metal into The Last Energy Crunch. But you knew that, didn’t you? Then again, you also know that you might have to buy a new car in the next few years. So what are you going to do? Well, here’s a tip: Don’t be the first one on your block to roll into that driveway with an HFC-powered car. Trust me.

If you really have to have a car–more on that in a moment–your energy options boil down to these: gasoline, diesel, hybrid, electric and HFC. Right now, only HFC lacks the real world infrastructure to support it. That might change, but neither you nor I want to be the one betting on it.

So what do you want your next car to be? Whatever it is, it needs to be the most energy efficient machine you can buy that fits your needs. Yes, if you own an 8,000 acre cattle ranch in Montana, you probably do need a big truck. Such is your life. But if you don’t…well then, maybe you need to downsize your expectations somewhat in view of the coming energy crisis. If you live in the vast suburban miasma, as many of us do, you’re going to have to ask yourself one hard question: what is the least I can get by with? How small a vehicle can I use? How low can I go? Time for a little transportation limbo!

Let’s assume (i.e. lie to ourselves) that you have done everything else you could to reduce your energy footprint on planet earth. You moved close to work, bought a bicycle and have a house full of humming fluorescent lights. You recycle, you compost and you have a whale saved in your freezer. You exchange Christmas cards with Julia Butterfly Hill. You are truly one with the earth. Whatever. You still need a new car. Below is your current list of personal transport energy choices.

Small Displacement Gas
Too bad Mercedes can’t be bothered with importing their “SMART” mini car to the US. Failing that, the smallest new car is probably the Suzuki Swift. Great economy with an economy of technology–just what you’re looking for, right? If you want something completely different, however, you might want to check out the used rebuilt microcars Still, whatever you do, look for the very smallest displacement gas engine available that still meets your needs. That’s today’s best bet, even though we Americans are on quite the power binge with our personal vehicles.

Funny thing about diesels: to make up for their lower power-to-weight ratio, most manufacturers make them big. There was a short spurt of small displacement diesel cars back in the 1970s, but they’re all quite forgotten now. For the ultimate in small displacement diesels, there’s Royal Enfield’s Taurus diesel motorcycle–six horsepower (trying to) push 350 pounds of motorcycle. Jack Paar said it best: I kid you not. The big plus for diesels is this: they’ll run on vegetable oil, and run quite well, apparently. Something to think about when petroleum runs out.

Ah, the motorized comfort food of the auto industry, a sort of four-wheeled chicken pot pie. Want to feel positively green? Buy one of these twin-engined techno overkills. Now you’ve got twice the maintenance with half the cargo capacity. (My Vespa is rated to carry more weight than the Honda Insight!) Sure it gets good gas mileage, but ask the dealer how much it’s going to cost to replace that massive battery pack. And if I were you, I’d ask before I bought the thing. And while you’re at it, ask what happens to the old batteries when you buy new ones. (And did he mention cost?) Just because you aren’t spending the money on gas doesn’t mean you aren’t spending the money on energy. Ask questions.

Please don’t think of electric cars as “pollution free.” They aren’t. Even if you ignore, for a time, the battery discard issue mentioned above, all they really do is transfer where the pollution is exhausted into the atmosphere. In the case of the electric vehicle, it goes from out the tailpipe at the back of the car to out the smokestack at the back of the power plant. Not much difference, really. Then there’s that issue of the discarded batteries. Still, if you buy an electric vehicle and can charge it up off the grid with your own photovoltaic cells or a wind turbine, now you’re talking almost pollution-free–or at least as close as we’re likely to get for quite some time. (And yes, I know, I’ve conveniently ignored the issue of pollution from tire rubber, dust from the brake linings and those ozone-producing electric motors–not to mention the pollution associated with the car’s manufacture in the first place. Geez.) All of which brings us right back to the federal government’s latest Golden Boy of the Open Road: The HFC-powered electric vehicle. Whew.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells
OK, assuming, for the moment, that these things become a common reality on American roads, with the refueling stations and repair shops necessary to keep them on the road, what’s really wrong with them? From an energy cost point of view, maybe plenty. If it takes more energy to make the hydrogen (and put it in your tank) than the energy inherent in that tank full of hydrogen, there’s no reason to do it. Sure, government subsidies to the hydrogen industry could maintain an artificially low price for quite some time, just as it does with ethanol and gasohol, but eventually the piper must be paid. Especially in a world where conventional non-renewable energy resources will be dwindling. (And that will be our world in just a few short years, in case you’ve forgotten.) Then there’s that pesky battery replacement thing again, since these beasts do require batteries to store energy to some degree–just as you car does now. It’s tough to recycle any vehicle, but what about an HFC? Here’s hoping anything really dangerous in this new technology can simply be recycled. Repeatedly and safely.

The biggest issue with HFC is where the H (the hydrogen) comes from. If it’s going to be produced from natural gas, we’re fast running out of natural gas. Natural gas wells in the United States are depleting at a rate of about 50 percent per well per year. That means we have to drill half as many wells as we have this year just to keep production steady next year. Want more gas? You’ll have to drill more wells. And don’t look for much help from our neighbors to the north or south. Mexico has pretty much stopped exporting natural gas to the Untied States as their domestic demand has risen to meet production in that country. To the north, Canada’s natural gas wells, slightly newer than our own, are already facing 40 percent annual depletion rates, not to mention their own increased demand from a growing population and a devalued Canadian dollar that forces more Canadians to winter in Canada (and heat their homes to do so). Add to that lack of supply the projected demand of over 250 natural gas-fired electric power plants scheduled to be built and brought on line in the United States over the next decade or so to counter the projected energy crunch in electrical generation and it looks like someone’s going to have to do without. And that someone is us.

If, instead, the hydrogen for all of these new “freedom machines” is going to come from water, we need to be aware of what effect that might have on that resource, especially considering how much we’re going to need if this really catches on. Want to play Silly Math Games? Try these numbers. Americans use twenty million barrels of oil a day. Each barrel contains forty-four gallons of oil, making our daily oil use 880 million gallons a day. So, if we assume (and it’s a great big assumption, I admit), that hydrogen and oil have the same energy content per gallon, and that water is only one-third hydrogen (the other two-thirds being oxygen), and that we don’t lose anything in the process of production to isolate and contain that hydrogen (whew), then all we would need to run America on hydrogen instead of oil is a measly 2.64 billion gallons of water a day. Every day. And again tomorrow. That’s a lot of water, even when you figure in that not everything powered by oil can be powered by hydrogen fuel cells (e.g. all airplanes). That’s still a lot of water–almost nine gallons per person per day in the US. Can we really commit that precious resource to such a frivolous use? I’d like to think not, but I’ve been wrong before. Americans will give up their handguns before they give up their cars.

So where’s all that hydrogen going to come from? How can we use natural gas we don’t have? Or how will we replace the vital water resources it takes, if it takes them? And what sort of new and as yet unseen environmental pollution might arise from this new technology being used on such a large scale? Stay tuned–I’m sure we’ll find out when it’s all too late.

Is it all too confusing? Too many bad choices for an environmentally conscious person like yourself? Here, let me make it easy for you–make your next car a bicycle.

There, that was easy enough–and the best choice to boot. You’re welcome.

Chip Haynes is a planning technician with the planning department in Pinellas County, Florida and full-time bicycle commuter. This article was printed

Share this post.

Social Media
Planners Network
Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.