Will Hydrogen Ever Be a Big Deal?

In 1960, John B. Moffett, then director of the South Dakota Irrigation Development Office, proposed setting aside a portion of the Black Hills for exploitation as a source of ethanol and hydrogen for aviation….

Will Hydrogen Ever Be a Big Deal?

In 1960, John B. Moffett, then director of the South Dakota Irrigation Development Office, proposed setting aside a portion of the Black Hills for exploitation as a source of ethanol and hydrogen for aviation. He and his co-conspirators—Mayor Norm Belter of Rapid City, South Dakota, and Lieutenant Governor George Bridgemohan—irrevocably tied the economic and political future of the state to an exploration that seemed far outside the power of the United States federal government.

Fast forward to the present. I could go on about how charismatic Cartwright and Moffett were, how useful it was to have a single leader, or how eager they were to find a source of fuel that would be cheap and easy to transport. But no: Hydrogen has caught our attention because it shows promise at a time when companies need more cheap fuel than ever before, but we are not generating it very cheaply or very efficiently. Only 10% of our domestic oil production is consumed domestically—drastically less than the 21% the Energy Information Administration projects for the United States by 2040. Today, vehicles burn roughly 19 million barrels of oil a day. It takes five times as much fuel to produce that gasoline as it does to produce hydrogen.

I have been covering the energy and transportation industries for years, and I can’t remember a time when I have ever heard such a sound solution to a common problem as this. Sure, we can pour more gasoline into our cars or trucks, but in the long run we can’t use it until we invent a new way to store it. Our cars will run out of gasoline sooner or later.

Acceleration must occur and accelerate to the point that the price of hydrogen goes down to about $0.02 per gallon of gasoline equivalent (GGE). And that’s going to take innovation and research and innovation and investment, because as it stands right now, we don’t have a plan to get there.

More importantly, we need people and groups who are going to invest in the research, development, testing, pilot testing, manufacture, distribution, and deployment. But it’s going to take massive investment and quite a bit of imagination. We must make critical and difficult choices: Are we going to make the leap to a hydrogen economy? Or are we going to accept market failure as the inevitable destiny of the energy system as we have seen it?

Hydrogen is the only fuel solution that will put fuel in our cars or trucks at the price of gasoline and diesel. Period. With that said, however, hydrogen is a good idea only if it’s going to be produced by a process that is cheap and efficient. Right now, that’s not the case. We are shooting at the wrong target with hydrogen because we’re aiming in the wrong direction.

Slim revenues from a renewable-energy-generating industrial complex like photovoltaic energy can’t pay for a transportation system built on hydrogen that needs an industrial base of hydrogen production like we need oil to keep the wheels of our engines turning. In fact, we can’t feed the investment that will be needed in hydrogen at this point.

To accomplish its transportation and industrial goals, we need a government that guarantees sufficient revenues from energy production at an intersection of supply and demand. In other words, a robust industrial base that needs all of the fuels that we produce, in all directions, to make fuel and other infrastructure (like roads, rail, pipelines, manufacturing facilities). That’s going to cost money. And it’s going to take serious political will.

I take no joy in stating that I hope hydrogen “just won’t work.” But to do so at this moment in history is to distract ourselves from real solutions, which we have. We have the potential, the resources, and the commitment to bring about a new energy system.

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