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Hydrogen Hopes
A Hydrogen SpongeFire and IceSunshine Hydrogen
Web Feature
Hydrogen Myths

By Jacqueline S. Mitchell
4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Photo of hydrogen dispenser

A hydrogen dispenser maintained by the California Fuel Cell Partnership.
Credit: Leslie Eudy

Myth #3: Installing hydrogen infrastructure would be prohibitively expensive.

One reason the switch to hydrogen has been such a long time coming is most often described as a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Who would invest in building a hydrogen distribution infrastructure if there aren't vehicles, buildings and appliances powered by hydrogen? Why develop those vehicles, buildings and appliances if there is no way to power them?

To break through this gridlock, Lovins suggests piggybacking hydrogen distribution into the pre-existing energy infrastructure. While it's anathema to some purists, Lovins advocates harvesting hydrogen from fossil fuels to begin with. Hydrocarbons such as coal or natural gas are hydrogen-rich compounds, consisting of long chains of carbon atoms, each adorned with multiple hydrogen atoms, which can be harvested via a process called "reforming."

Photo of coal front loader
A front loader piles coal at a power station.
Credit: David Parsons
 

We already have the infrastructure to transport natural gas to where power is needed. Then on-site reformers could harvest the hydrogen from the natural gas. That would solve the costly problem of transporting hydrogen, without investing in new infrastructure. Lovins envisions this transition working best to supply fuel cell automobiles and provide buildings — which soak up an astounding two-thirds of all electricity — with the stable, reliable power they need.

This aspect of Lovins' strategy comes under fire from renewable energy advocates who call for a quick transition away from fossil fuels. But "insisting that...hydrogen be made solely from renewable energy sources, starting now...is making the perfect the enemy of the good," writes Lovins in "Twenty Hydrogen Myths."

Photo of wind turbines

Wind turbines provide renewable energy that could be used to create hydrogen fuel.
Credit: Eugene Water and Electric Board

But if switching to hydrogen wouldn't wean the economy off its fossil fuel habit, what's the point? First, hydrogen fuel cells still burn more cleanly than combustion engines, and the transition would halve carbon emissions from automobiles. But the Rocky Mountain Institute's strategy calls for producing hydrogen from natural gas only in the short run. According to Lovins, this strategy would build up both supply and demand for hydrogen simultaneously, until such time that it would be cost effective to switch exclusively to renewable sources of hydrogen, such as wind-powered electrolysis of water, reforming the methane from livestock manure or the other methods described in Hydrogen Hopes. Next page

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