In his April 13 commentary "Fill 'er Up With Hydrogen," James Pinkerton calls for support of Assemblywoman Fran Pavley's (D-Agoura Hills) Clean Air, Clean Water and Coastal Protection Act of 2004. He argues that by priming the pump for hydrogen-fueled cars with $500 million in subsidies for fueling stations we would ultimately cut dangerous air pollution and our national dependency on imported oil.
In so doing, he ignores two facts regarding hydrogen automobile fueling: It does not eliminate pollution; it merely moves the source of pollution from the tailpipe to the hydrogen production facility. And by itself, it would not reduce our need for oil; to reduce our dependency on foreign oil we must either do a better job of conservation or develop alternative energy sources. Hydrogen-fueled vehicles are not a panacea when you look at the whole energy cycle.
If we were on the sun, hydrogen would indeed be a fuel. On Earth it is not a fuel, because almost all hydrogen is tied up in water, which is the combustion product of hydrogen. While water can be converted back to hydrogen, a great deal of energy and processing are needed. The energy required for this conversion has to be greater than the energy content of the fuel produced; there is no free lunch in the world of thermodynamics.
A small amount of Earth's hydrogen is tied up in what is already our main source of transport fuel. It's called petroleum. If the tax incentives proposed by Pavley succeed in establishing a hydrogen infrastructure, the hydrogen would be supplied by reforming natural gas or petroleum, as virtually all hydrogen is produced nowadays. The net result would be more, not less, emissions of greenhouse gases and increased consumption of imported fuels. While it's possible to use renewable energy to electrolyze water to make hydrogen, the capital costs would be truly enormous. In an era of spiraling government deficits, where would Pavley suggest cutting government spending to cover these costs?
It is no mystery that present-day autos can be modified to perform on hydrogen. The bottom line is a matter of economics. Gasoline at $2 a gallon is a bargain compared with what motorists would have to pay for an equivalent amount of hydrogen to operate their cars.