Hydrogen dreams

Honda is charging a family in California $500 a month to drive the world’s first hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle.


A recent New York Times article profiled the Northern California family that is paying to test-drive the FCX, Honda’s hydrogen fuel-cell hybrid. To the article’s credit, it was not particularly bullish on the technology, with the featured inset quote “Big hurdles lie ahead of fuel cell cars before they arrive at dealers. They may not make it.”


Many view hydrogen as the most promising “green” technology in development right now, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.


Hydrogen, the most abundant and least dense element in the universe, is found scattered throughout empty space, and nowhere on earth in elemental form and therefore must be produced, either from water using an electrolytic process or by solar or nuclear power.


Hydrogen can also be produced using fossil fuel sources such as oil and coal, but hydrogen produced this way is known as “black” hydrogen as a result of the emissions that result from the production methods. “Green” hydrogen, by contrast, is that produced from solar or wind power. Hydrogen, in sum, is a carrier of energy, not an energy source. It is also notoriously hard to compress and transport. Most compression schemes waste as much as one-third of the energy contained in the hydrogen, and the resulting product still only contains about one-fourth the amount of energy as a similar quantity of refined gasoline.


These, and other, characteristics make hydrogen uniquely ill suited to power cars, which were designed with the idea of a high-density, easily transportable un-pressurized liquid fuel in mind. Maybe the appeal of a hydrogen fuel cell car is that the main emission, from the car at least, is water vapor. I can’t keep track of how many people I’ve heard excited by the idea of drinking a cool glass of water they just collected from the tailpipe of their car.


In reality, the emissions that resulted from producing the hydrogen in the first place, the emissions that you wouldn’t want to drink, are mostly hidden from consumers, and therefore not considered in a buy decision.


This is to say nothing of the cost of challenges of designing and constructing a hydrogen infrastructure to serve cars.


The Spallino family, which is testing the Honda FCX, happens to live right next door to the Honda America’s headquarters in Torrance, Calif., so refueling is a snap. Despite this, Honda has gone to the trouble of building a hydrogen distribution station near their house, although the local fire department has yet to allow it to open over concerns of the gas’s flammability. “I assume Honda’s not going to give me a car that’s going to blow up,” said Jon Spallino, one of the drivers of the fuel-cell car. 


Well, duh, Jon. That would be bad publicity.


On the other hand, Firestone and Ford seemed to have no problem giving consumers vehicles and vehicle parts that would explode or catch fire.


The point of this all is just that the concept of the “hydrogen economy” is still a huge public relations bonanza, promising uninformed consumers glasses of water from their tailpipes and hydrogen hummers while disguising the true costs of hydrogen and turning a blind eye to the economical “alternative” fuels, alternatives that most native Portlanders are already well acquainted with. Many students who commute to Portland State University take the bus, ride the MAX and streetcar, and bike or walk in the rain.


There’s no question the age of fossil fuels is almost over, but it seems premature to imagine that a new and alternative technology is already upon us. A technology as kludgy and costly as using fossil fuels or electricity to make hydrogen to make more electricity appears now to be inefficient technology.


More likely, the next best new technology has not yet emerged, and in fact may never emerge. We should all be getting used to doing the little things that reduce our energy dependence in the short run – such as walking, biking, taking the stairs, carpooling, irrigating less, buying local food and getting to know our neighbors.


Many Californians, especially those lulled into a false sense of security by the promise of a high-tech utopian future, could take some pointers from people in Oregon, and they had better start soon because they are already taking our jobs and our coffee.