Author Joseph Romm outlines his objections to hydrogen-powered cars

In 2002, President Bush outlined a major $1.2 billion effort to help the Energy Department develop cars and trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells. But Joseph Romm, a former DOE official under President Clinton and author of "The Hype About Hydrogen," says the White House may be putting too much emphasis on the technology. Romm explains some of the major barriers to hydrogen vehicles, including high costs and a lack of refueling stations and hydrogen supplies. Plus, he argues that hybrid gasoline-electric cars and biofuels are a better option in the next 20 years, especially when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today as our guest is Joe Romm, author of the book "The Hype About Hydrogen," a former Energy Department official and also the executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions. Mr. Romm thanks a lot for being here

Joe Romm: Delighted.

Brian Stempeck: The main point of your book is not really that hydrogen cars are a bad idea or not worth research funding but basically that in the next 30 or 40 years they're not going to be a major part of our solution to global warming. Give us a sense some why that is.

Joe Romm: Well, there's just too many technological and infrastructure problems. I think right now your average fuel cell car costs about $1 million, and I think it's going to be quite some time before they're in the affordable range. Then you have the fact that hydrogen's a gas, it just doesn't store a lot of energy. So storing enough onboard is a major technological challenge. And then of course, where can you fuel up on hydrogen? Replacing the entire gasoline infrastructure, which is about $1 trillion, with a hydrogen fueling infrastructure, someone's going to have to pay for it, and I just don't think that the private sector is going to do it and I have doubts that the federal government has that kind of money.

Brian Stempeck: But at the same time, I mean this is obviously a gradual process, but already we're starting to see there's a hydrogen refueling station Washington, D.C. There's a commercial manufacturer now who's coming out with a motorcycle that average consumers can purchase for a fairly reasonable price, that runs on hydrogen, aren't we starting to get there? I mean couldn't there be small numbers of hydrogen cars on the road in say the next 10 years?

Joe Romm: Well we've tried to get people to drive alternative fuel vehicles for about three decades. It's kind of an all or nothing at all deal. It's kind of hard. There's 180,000 gasoline stations, I don't think -- I mean basically the basic view is if there isn't fueling infrastructure for at least 25 percent of those fueling stations, 40,000, 50,000 fueling stations, who's going to risk buying a car that's incredibly expensive and has limited range and limited fueling options? My concern on the environmental side though is that most hydrogen cars, for the foreseeable future, won't even be very good for the environment.

Brian Stempeck: Why is that? I mean basically -- the idea here is that when you run on hydrogen it is a clean burning fuel, but it's a fuel that has to come from somewhere else. It has to be produced by a coal plant for by some other form of energy. Where do you see as the likely places we're going to get hydrogen?

Joe Romm: Well today, 95 percent of hydrogen comes from natural gas. So natural gas prices are incredibly high so hydrogen is going to be expensive and it's going to come from fossil fuels and now people want to import natural gas. So we're going to be replacing gasoline with hydrogen from imported natural gas? It just doesn't seem worth the vast expenditures. So the National Academy of Sciences said the hydrogen would come from hydrocarbons, fossil fuels, for many decades to come. The problem is that the best fuel cell car today, running on hydrogen from natural gas, has higher greenhouse gas emissions than the Toyota Prius hybrid just running on gasoline. So the question is why would you want to spend tens and tens of billions of dollars on a car that won't even lower your emissions of greenhouse gases? So I say look, we need a major breakthrough in the fuel cell technology, a major breakthrough in storage and a major breakthrough in hydrogen from renewable sources. Plus someone's got to figure out the infrastructure problem. This is all, combined, about two or three decades away, minimum. So we should keep the basic research program, but if you're concerned about high oil prices, dependence on Persian Gulf oil or greenhouse gas emissions from cars we need a different solution now.

Brian Stempeck: Now you worked for the Energy Department under President Clinton, on the hydrogen program specifically. Do you think, as you outline all these problems and all these difficulties, as you try to get towards a hydrogen car for the mass market, do you think this is feasible at all with all the hurdles that you're talking about?

Joe Romm: It is possible that it will never happen. In fact, the head of research, the head of technical analysis in North America for Toyota was asked when hydrogen would replace hybrids or gasoline cars. And he said, "If I told you never would you be upset?" And MIT just came out with a study that said we might not see hydrogen cars displace 35 percent of vehicles today until the year 2060. So look, I think as a scientist you don't want to rule anything out. And during the Clinton administration we increased funding for hydrogen because it's clearly one of the plausible fuels of the future. But I think that the Department of Energy has now gotten way ahead of itself. We shouldn't be spending any money on deploying wholly inadequate grossly expensive cars and building infrastructure that's based on fossil fuels. Why should you subsidize a fossil fuel based hydrogen infrastructure? It makes no sense. Keep doing the basic research, but we need to push hard on fuel efficiency, on hybrid vehicles and then plug-in hybrids.

Brian Stempeck: A lot of people would say the Energy Department's response would be, as we look out 40 or 50 years into the future, with a lot of people coming out and talking, most recently about peak oil. This idea that supply is going to peak in the next few years, possibly as early as that, and then decline from there on out. What are we going to use instead of oil if not hydrogen?

Joe Romm: Well, the first thing we've got to do is efficiency. We have done nothing on fuel economy in this country for two decades and our cars are less efficient today than they were two decades ago. So just eliminating the inefficiency in our vehicles is something we could literally spend two decades doing. We should, over the next 20 or 30 years, we should double the average fuel efficiency of the vehicles and press hard to push in hybrid gasoline electric cars. That's, I think, the first phase of a two phase transition. The second phase is once you've got all these hybrid cars, you've got a battery onboard the car, it makes sense to just charge up that battery on the electric grid and run the car all electric for 10, 20, 30 miles before reverting back to a regular hybrid. Most people only commute 10 to 20 miles a day. So if you could charge up your car at home, run 20 miles, charge up at work and come home and use the gas engine in the hybrid for longer trips, you could displace 50-60 percent of gasoline with the so called plug-in hybrid or E-hybrid. And this is a technology that I think is plausible over the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years.

Brian Stempeck: What about the argument though that as efficiency goes up people tend to use that car more? If they have a car that gets better mileage they're going to tend to drive at all the time when they don't have something like gas prices constraining them. And you still eventually face the same problem. A hybrid does run on gasoline. If you're looking out 30 or 40 years, and some of these predictions are true that we are in fact going to run out of oil maybe some time this century, then what is the alternative if it can't be hybrids?

Joe Romm: Well, it will be electricity and biofuels. Let me come back to biofuels, but just be clear, I'm talking about a two phase transition. First we go to hybrids. Hybrids could double the efficiency of vehicles, buy us a lot of time and put a battery onboard every car. Now we make the battery big enough to store an electric charge and now we can start running our car half on electricity and half on gasoline. So in this case we have a very smooth transition away from gasoline, rather than this kind of moon shot trillion dollar gamble on hydrogen, which again, it's not impossible, but it's just very unlikely. The other technology to push is biofuels. We now make ethanol from corn, a food crop. It makes a lot more sense to make ethanol from waste crop, waste agricultural material and dedicated feed stocks like cellulosic ethanol -- I mean make it from switch grass or hybrid poplar, that sort of thing. I think the long-term car of the future, and this is what I say in the book "The Hype about Hydrogen," is a car that is a flexible fuel vehicle plug-in hybrid. So that we can just, over time, incrementally replace gasoline, first with efficiency, then with electricity and biofuels. And I think by let's say 25 or 30 years from now, we could easily have a car that gets 300 to 500 miles per gallon of gasoline.

Brian Stempeck: Right now, as we see after the hurricane, gas prices have gone up by extremely large amounts. And a lot of lawmakers in Congress, Republicans even, are coming out and saying that it might be actually time to raise CAFE standards to do a more significant push like what you're talking about. Do you think that as oil prices continue to go up that we will see more of a push from Capitol Hill to actually do something about CAFE?

Joe Romm: Well I hope so, because that is the single most important strategy. Research and development, I ran the research and development office at DOE, that's a great thing, but nothing takes the place of government regulations. Fundamentally if you want the country to use less oil the average fuel efficiency of the fleet has to increase. And if that's going to happen the government's going to have to mandate it. We do nothing for two decades. We absolutely need to increase fuel efficiency standards, although the first thing the federal government should do before increasing fuel efficiency standards, is merely do the correct testing on the vehicles. Because right now the average fuel economy of a new car on the road is supposed to be 27.5 miles per gallon, but Consumer Reports found that in fact it's much closer to about 21 miles per gallon. So we need to get the test right. If we just tested the vehicles correctly and required manufacturers to deliver a 27.5 mile per gallon car, rather than a 21 mile per gallon car that in the EPA test looks like 27.5, that would increase fuel efficiency 20 percent right there. So the first thing we should do is get the test right, because right now basically Americans are being sold a fraudulent product. Secondly, we should increase fuel economy standards and they could be increased substantially.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think that's something the White House might be willing to sign off on? When President Bush first came out with his hydrogen plan in 2002 in the State of the Union, a lot of environmental groups and critics of the president said that this was basically a way for him to provide cover for himself for not raising fuel economy, for not doing anything else on global warming, by having this kind of far off initiative on hydrogen cars. Do you think now that there's more pressure and gas prices have gone up that we'll see a more substantial push from the White House?

Joe Romm: I don't think we're going to see any leadership from the White House. I mean after all we had, in the energy bill that just passed, we had record high oil prices, record high gasoline prices and we're at war in the Persian Gulf. And we were attacked on 9/11 by terrorists who got some of their money from Persian Gulf oil. If that wasn't enough to get the White House in the energy bill to insist on fuel economy standards, I'm not certain what is. So I think this is going to have to come from the American people pushing for this and for some legislators pushing for it, because I don't think that the White House could veto this bill. I mean look, we have gasoline that's over $3 a gallon. It's just absurd that they were doing absolutely nothing. The trade deficit in oil alone this year may be $200 billion. I mean it's absolutely stunning. We're importing almost 60 percent of our oil, money that is going to Iran, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, Russia. These are not models of stability. One more price shock, I just took part in an oil crisis scenario called Shockwave, Oil Shockwave, that was run by SAFE, a Securing America's Future Energy group that I'm on the board of, which found that if we took just 4 percent of oil off the world market because of a terrorist attack or instability or yet another hurricane, oil prices from current levels would double and send the economy into a recession. We are totally vulnerable to another price shock and, it's just insane. The purpose of the government is to ensure the security of this country and we are vulnerable.

Brian Stempeck: Well can't the market respond to this though? I mean as we see gas prices going over $3 per gallon and some of the manufacturers like Toyota and Honda that have the hybrid cars, aren't they going to win out? I mean aren't they going to be rewarded for having those cars, automakers going towards more efficient vehicles on their own? I mean why the need for CAFE at all?

Joe Romm: Well fundamentally the auto companies, and mainly the U.S. auto companies, have just been dragging their feet. I mean don't forget, during the Clinton administration we launched the partnership for the next generation of vehicles, a billion dollar program, to develop hybrid vehicles. At the end of the day what happened? The minute that the Clinton administration left and the Bush administration came in, the U.S. automakers walked away from hybrids. The main effect of that program was to motivate the Japanese, who didn't want to fall behind, to develop hybrids. But unlike the U.S. car companies the Japanese car companies, particularly Toyota and Honda, introduced hybrids. So if you're telling me we should rely on the wisdom, marketplace wisdom of Ford and GM, I'd just have to say that they opposed seatbelts, air bags. They've been fighting hybrids. They've been hiding fuel economy standards. I think the American people are going to wait a very long time before the auto companies become intelligent and proactive, at least in the U.S.

Brian Stempeck: All right, I want to change the subject a little bit. Another thing you address in the book is talking about stationary fuel cells. This is basically the idea that you can have some power generation from a fuel cell that might work a little bit better than it would actually in a car. Talk about that a little bit and maybe how that could have helped, as we look at Hurricane Katrina and like the massive loss of power throughout the Southeast. Could that have been averted in part by fuel cells as power generation?

Joe Romm: Well I think stationary fuel cells are very attractive. And I think particularly the high temperature fuel cells, the solid oxide fuel cells, because they're very efficient and they have very low emissions. But a couple things need to be clear, currently they're are still quite expensive and of course they run on natural gas and natural gas prices are at record levels. So I think that over the next 10 or 20 years stationary fuel cells look like a very attractive prospect. But I do think that using things like mobile power plants, including a plug-in hybrid. By the way if your hybrid could store an electric charge it could be used as a generator in a crisis, so I do think that there are very intelligent things that regions can do as they prepare for these types of shocks. But I want to be clear on another key point which is that Hurricane Katrina is the shape of things to come. We are faced with clear scientific consensus now on global warming. And what we know from global warming is two clear things, sea levels are going to rise and that means that as we have hurricanes they're going to be having deeper and worse storm surges for every coastal city. And I think there's increasing scientific consensus that global warming makes hurricanes more intense, puts more water vapor in the air and makes the oceans warmer that they can feed off of. So if the country wants to avoid Miami and Houston and even New York City becoming New Orleans over the next few decades, as sea levels rise and hurricanes become more intense, we simply have to adopt a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Brian Stempeck: All right, Joe, we're out of time. We're going to stop there. I'd like to thank our guest today, that was Joe Romm, the author of the book "The Hype About Hydrogen." I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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