SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today issue 75

Hydrogen cells – a green energy breakthrough?

JUST BEFORE THE war against Iraq began, George Bush announced a new initiative to develop hydrogen fuel cells as a new form of power for motor vehicles and other applications. At the launch ceremony Bush said that ‘if you’re interested in our environment and if you’re interested in doing what’s right for the American people… let us promote fuel cells as a way to advance into the 21st century’. This was met however by a barrage of criticism from environmental activists, who labelled it a sham and a smokescreen for doing nothing to tackle global warming.

A fuel cell is a device that uses hydrogen, or hydrogen rich fuel, and oxygen to create electricity by an electro-chemical process, and if pure hydrogen is used as a fuel, only water is produced as a by-product, theoretically making it environmentally friendly. Fuel cells are currently being developed to power passenger vehicles, homes, commercial buildings, mobile phones and lap-top computers. They are more efficient than the combustion engines used to power cars and in themselves do not produce the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Furthermore, Bush claimed that using hydrogen power would cut US oil consumption by 11 million barrels a day by 2040, a reduction of over 50% from present levels.

Readers of Socialism Today will understandably be sceptical of anything the US president says, so it is worth looking in some detail of the criticisms made of his initiative.

Firstly, hydrogen does not occur in a usable form naturally, it has to be manufactured and stored and to do this requires energy. It would only be a green energy source if the energy used to process it was itself renewable. Bush however says that coal or nuclear power could be the primary energy source, both of which create major environmental hazards. As Daniel Becker, director of the global warming and energy programme at the Sierra Club, an environmental pressure group, commented, ‘that’s like trying to lose weight by running to McDonalds’. A report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that producing the fuel itself would involve substantial carbon dioxide emissions and concluded that these, coupled with the extra ‘green’ costs of fuel distribution would cancel out any potential environmental advantages of hydrogen cells. It is also necessary to include in the equation the (non-renewable) energy expended in manufacturing new vehicles every few years, as a result of their limited life due to planned obsolescence.

Even according to Bush, it will take 20 years to produce a viable device and another 20 before there was a significant reduction in US oil consumption. In the meantime the on-going hydrogen cell development programme would provide a useful excuse for not developing renewable energy and continuing the production of vast quantities of greenhouse gases by burning oil. During the 40-year period envisaged by Bush before significant benefits emerge, there will be further massive, and possibly irreversible, damage done to the environment.

The scale of the proposed programme is relatively small with only $720 million of new money committed, although part of it is to investigate the production of hydrogen from petrol – making sure that Bush’s friends in the oil industry have a place at the trough. An idea of the small scale of the initiative can be grasped by comparing the $720 million available, to the $2bn Ford spent to develop one new model in the US, its (non-green) Taurus. The limited ambition of the programme was further emphasised by Dr Peter Wells from the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University, quoted by BBC News, who pointed out that even if one million fuel cell vehicles were on the road by 2020, their numbers would still be dwarfed by 200 million conventionally powered cars.

The most telling criticism of the US government proposals is that they are completely voluntary, where no companies are obliged to implement hydrogen cell technology in their products. An earlier voluntary government programme to produce hybrid electrical/diesel cars, which would have significantly reduced pollution, has resulted in no new production vehicles from the US auto industry. This is despite the fact that many experts think this approach has the most potential in the short-term to cut greenhouse gas emissions from cars. The US auto industry is also lukewarm about fuel cells, because they will only invest in the new technology if it is profitable to do so and there is no prospect of that being the case without huge government subsidies. Present neo-liberal thinking on the environment insists that all initiatives should be voluntary, but companies will never ‘voluntarily’ agree to adopt a policy that would reduce their profits significantly, as any policy would have to do to have a real green impact.

If the hydrogen that drives them is produced with renewable energy, fuel cells could be a useful green alternative to the present combustion methods used in motor vehicles or electricity generation. However, a priority should not be to spend resources on making cars greener, but rather on increasing investment in public transport and in renewable energy sources such as wind, wave and solar power. Private transportation is not wrong in principle, but a voluntary switch to more use of public transport, encouraged by massively greater investment, will be an essential component of a sustainable society.

Bush’s real motives in launching a programme to promote hydrogen cell technology when he did, were to deflect criticism of his links to the polluting big oil companies in the run up to the Iraq war, and to build some environmental credibility in a pre-election period with minimum commitment and cost. Bush’s focus on the pollution produced by individuals in their cars was also a way of diverting attention from the real environmental culprits – the corporations that produce the majority of greenhouse gas emissions.

There is also a longer-term geo-political strategic factor involved, as hinted at in Bush’s comments that hydrogen is a good way to bolster US ‘energy independence’. "Greenery is not the only attraction of fuel cells", commented The Economist. His real intentions on the environment were shown by the refusal of his government to sign the Kyoto treaty to reduce global warming, in order to protect the profits of his friends in Big Oil and in other multi-national companies.

Pete Dickinson

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