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No Free Lunch--or Hydrogen

September 07, 2002

Strange as it is to see Jeremy Rifkin in favor of any new technology, there really is something to be said for widespread use of hydrogen (Commentary, Sept. 2).

On the other hand, there are some problems that Rifkin did not say much about. He points out that hydrogen is plentiful. It is indeed--but not in the useful free state. It's tied up tightly in compounds such as water. He says, "All that needs to be done is to extract hydrogen from various elements so that it is useful in fuel cells." Similarly, all you need to get very rich is to extract the gold in a few square miles of California soil or a few cubic miles of sea water.

It's possible to generate hydrogen from petroleum, but that doesn't reduce the need for petroleum at all, and I doubt that it would really help much, if any, with carbon dioxide emissions. The other potential source is electrolysis of sea water. That requires a lot of electric current, in addition to what we already use, and I question whether Rifkin or environmentalists in general are willing to accept more power plants. Lots more electrical power means either burning lots more coal or petroleum, or more nuclear power.

There is perhaps one alternative: solar cells. At 100% efficiency, you could get about 600 watts per square yard at high noon on a clear summer day. For average conditions, and attainable efficiency, this means covering a lot of the Southwestern states with solar panels to replace gasoline.

Rifkin holds out the prospect of your car generating electricity (which you would be paid for) when it is parked in the garage. Remember that you would need a hydrogen pipeline into your garage, and you would have to pay for the hydrogen--probably significantly more than you would get for the electricity that you would generate.

Hydrogen just may be the wave of the future, but getting it will not be cheap or easy.

Denzel L. Dyer

Rancho Palos Verdes

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Rifkin's article glosses over the amount of energy required to extract hydrogen from various elements. He states that in the future renewable sources of energy will "be used to electrolyze water and separate out hydrogen that can be used to power fuel cells." Since only about 10% of the power in this country comes from renewable sources (only a few percent without hydropower), it is unrealistic to discount the need for fossil fuels and/or nuclear energy in the future.

No doubt, fuel cells will have an important place, but they are not a panacea that allows us to ignore the balance of production and use of power. A successful energy policy must be based on sound scientific principles, not unsupportable assertions.

Donald Jortner

Rancho Palos Verdes

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Back around 1974, a hydrogen-powered car visited my high school. It was a modified AMC Gremlin; it had a canister of hydrogen, and the man adapted the car's engine to use it as a fuel. A bit of water even dripped out the exhaust pipe. This was not any kind of fuel cell, just an internal combustion engine running on a clean fuel. The main problem, I imagine, would be trying to find a gas station that had hydrogen. That and images of the Hindenburg to overcome.

Mike Kirwan

Venice

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Rifkin is definitely on to something here. A hydrogen-based economy is on the horizon, or the auto industry would not be investing so heavily in hydrogen technology. With respect to the energy network Rifkin envisions, there is a glaring inconsistency. He states that "since the average car is parked most of the time, it could be plugged in ... providing premium electricity back to the network." For the foreseeable future, a hydrogen-powered vehicle will have a maximum driving range, without refueling, at less than half of the current range. Few, if any, vehicle owners would want to deplete their on-board fuel to provide energy.

But a decentralized system of solar panels on rooftops could provide considerable energy to the network: enough to do the electrolyzing of H2O to provide the needed hydrogen. It is estimated that 10,000 square miles of solar panels could provide the nation's energy needs.

John Ferguson

North Hollywood

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