Can Hydrogen Save Us? - Katharine Mieszkowski

Can Hydrogen Save Us? - Katharine Mieszkowski

Fall 2004 Issue: Can We Live Without Oil?
Can Hydrogen Save Us?
by Katharine Mieszkowski

Hydrogen is the universe’s most abundant element, and a car running on it emits only water. Many think hydrogen is the answer to our energy crisis. Some have doubts ...

A few days after I got my new 2004 Toyota Priushybrid car, I was stopped at a light in San Francisco, when a couple in the next car started waving wildly at me. I lowered the passenger window, and the man and the woman yelled in unison: “How do you like your new car?”

While I sputtered something about how it’s great, the woman gushed: “Thanks for driving it!”

When’s the last time a stranger thanked you for driving? Never mind the fact that when I didn’t own a car, no one ever thanked me for walking; the curiosity and excitement about cleaner car technology is palpable to anyone who’s been behind the wheel of a hybrid, even for an afternoon.

Hybrid gas-electric cars make drivers feel they can do something to reduce their contribution to air-pollution and global warming and even over-dependence on foreign oil without giving up the perks of four wheels. “The bottom line is we can’t change America’s love affair with the automobile, but we can change the automobile,” says Dan Becker, the Washington, DC, director of Sierra Club’s Global Warming program, which is currently promoting hybrid cars with a cross-country road trip tour called: “I will evolve” (www.iwillevolve.org).

But it’s hydrogen fuel-cell cars, not hybrids, that American auto manufacturers, the federal government, and the governor of California are betting on as the cars of the future. They promise this new technology will take drivers beyond the internal-combustion engine altogether, emitting nothing but water from the tailpipe.

President Bush predicted in his January 2003 State of the Union address that the first car of a child born today would be a hydrogen fuel cell car, and he pledged federal funds for hydrogen fuel research and development. And in April 2004, California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—a Hummer driver himself—pledged to create the nation’s first “hydrogen highway” by developing a network of some 200 hydrogen fueling stations on the state’s major roads by 2010.

The most ardent advocates of hydrogen fuel cells, such as Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Hydrogen Economy: the Creation of the World-wide Energy Web and the Re-distribution of Power on Earth, foresee the cars revolutionizing not just the way that we get around, but how power is created and distributed for homes and businesses. The fuel cell uses hydrogen to generate electricity on board the car to power the vehicle. What else could that electricity be used for? When parked, cars could be plugged into outlets to become mobile mini-power plants, thwarting both terrorist threats to centralized plants and monopolistic power-companies’ greed.

But the transition from the internal-combustion engine to a fuel-cell future is littered with obstacles that cast doubt on just how green a fuel-cell car will ever be.


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