What Do We Do While Waiting for Hydrogen?

Sustainability and Future Cars


  • The BMW Hydrogen 7

    The BMW Hydrogen 7

    The BMW Hydrogen 7, is powered by an internal-combustion engine that can run on either hydrogen or gasoline. Other experimental cars use hydrogen to generate electricity in fuel-cell vehicles. | March 18, 2010

3 Photos

"Arnold suggested I drive this car," I heard the journalist say as I rode in the backseat of a BMW Hydrogen 7. "Arnold" was clearly California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a proponent of building a "Hydrogen Highway" to solve our energy needs. The journalist was from Newsweek and she was busy asking all the basic questions about hydrogen-powered vehicles, penetrating questions like, "Will it blow up?"

Most experts agree that hydrogen is a very clean fuel, and they are quick to point out that it is abundant in nature. As BMW has proven with the Hydrogen 7, hydrogen is a versatile fuel that can power an internal-combustion engine and can be used to produce electricity in fuel-cell cars.

But when will these über cars be available to the general public? That answer, oddly enough, came from another expert on the "Sustainable Energy Solution" panel held at Stanford University recently. State Minister Erwin Huber, from the region of Bavaria, in Southern Germany, said the car won't be available for 15-20 years — 2022 at the earliest.

Bring Back the C-Word

So what happens in the meantime? Do we continue on our merry way despite dire threats of peak oil and climate change? Of course not. The answer came from different sources on the panel in the form of a word that has fallen out of favor — the C-word: conservation.

The last time conservation was in vogue was back in the Jimmy Carter days when he crammed a 55-mph speed limit down our throats. History hasn't been kind to Carter and yet, darn it, he was basically right. We need to conserve our natural resources until we can find some renewable resources that bail us out of this oil addiction predicament. Brazil took the hint and now they're dancing the samba and driving on ethanol made from sugar cane while we fight an oil war in the Middle East.

Conservation Steps

What can we do to conserve oil supplies? Here's what the panel suggested:

  • Increase the efficiency of existing vehicles
  • Change consumer behavior toward driving habits
  • Promote public transportation
  • Increase taxation of energy consumption
  • Provide subsidies for drivers and home owners to choose efficient solutions

All those steps are needed and much, much more if we want to avert the disaster that is headed our way. And yet, as California's Energy Commissioner John L. Geesman pointed out, it can be done. He said that California's energy consumption has remained level, thanks to conservation and technology, while the rest of the country's consumption has risen.

In the meantime, some 100 Hydrogen 7 cars will be built and distributed for testing among ordinary drivers; 25 of those cars will arrive in the U.S. Hopefully, the Hydrogen 7 provides a goal to aim for.

But the Hydrogen 7 isn't a solution so much as it is an indication that solutions exist. So, whenever you hear about a proposed energy source that will solve our needs, you have to quickly ask if an "infrastructure" exists to support it. (Note: Put "infrastructure" on the list of green buzzwords along with "sustainability.")

The Infrastructure Question

To better understand the importance of infrastructure, consider the infrastructure for gasoline and diesel. There is a filling station or two on thousands of street corners across America. Where is the infrastructure for the Hydrogen 7? One panelist quipped that the cars outnumbered the fueling stations. On the other end of the spectrum, consider the infrastructure for electric and plug-in hybrid cars (PHEV). There is electricity in virtually every house in the country. No more running off to the filling station to fill up on fuel — you can do it in your own garage while you sleep.

The mention of these gas-electric vehicles sparked a nice reaction from many experts on the panel. In fact, the high point of the discussion came when an audience member asked BMW Vice President Christoph Huss why the company went toward hydrogen and not electric cars. He scoffed that there was no battery that could power a car that would serve the needs of BMW's customers. Um, is he forgetting that there really isn't the infrastructure for hydrogen at this point? And the development of lithium-ion batteries to propel PHEVs is moving faster than the growth of a hydrogen infrastructure?

Others on the panel seemed to perk up at the mention of plug-in hybrids, since they could be an attractive "bridge technology" (another green buzzword) to the future technologies of hydrogen or fuel-cell cars.

Sustainable Sound Bites

Other sound bites from the panel:

Erwin Huber, Bavarian state minister of economy affairs, infrastructure, transportation and technology: Up to 60 percent of the power for Bavaria comes from nuclear energy, which will be phased out in 10-12 years. "No one knows what will come next."

Christoph Huss, senior VP, BMW: Hydrogen is the most flexible fuel because it can be used in internal-combustion engines and fuel-cell cars. That's why BMW began researching hydrogen in the late 1970s.

John L. Geesman, California energy commissioner: California's economy is the seventh or eighth largest in the country and yet we have an energy policy that is at odds with Washington, D.C. For more than 30 years we have stressed efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources.

Joachim Wolf, executive director, hydrogen solutions, Linde Gas: There is an infrastructure for hydrogen — an industrial infrastructure. It has been in existence for 100 years. "For the future, let's look to hydrogen."

Reinhold Achatz, VP, Siemens Corporate Technology: There is a big debate about what is the best solution. There is no best solution. Saving energy will gain time to find a renewable fuel. "We have to give back to nature what we take from nature."

Paul Bryan, Chevron: The demand for oil is outpacing supply. We need to conserve every molecule, every kilowatt and every BTU of energy we have. The development of biofuels is "tremendously promising."

Message for Arnold

After the conference, I looked for the Newsweek reporter to ask what she would say to Arnold about the Hydrogen 7. Apparently she had ducked out early. I wanted her to ask Arnold where the fueling stations are on the hydrogen highway. And if they aren't ready yet, how do we get from here to there?

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