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What a week last week was. It has certainly been the most exciting week on the highway yet, for this editor.
The National Hydrogen Conference took place in our nation's capital and what a conference it was. Seventeen hydrogen fueled vehicles were on display and I was among the many attendees going for rides. I even got to drive the Toyota FCHV electric/fuel-cell hybrid. Very cool!
If you've been wondering whether the hydrogen revolution is really going to happen, you would have few doubts if you heard and saw what I did. What I witnessed was evidence of unprecedented cooperation between government and industry, unprecedented teamwork between energy and automotive companies, and I heard presentations from numerous entrepreneurial startups who, along with the academic community, are developing and commercializing enabling technologies.
On Tuesday morning, the new Secretary of Energy, Samuel W. Bodman, held a press conference and kicked off the national Learning Demonstration Event. (I must say it was exciting for this editor to watch it all from the press stand standing right next to the cameramen for the major networks.) This demonstration project was designed to support the President's "Hydrogen Initiative" and as Secretary Bodman said, "is a bargain for the US taxpayer." While the federal government is spending $190 million over the next 6 years, industry is providing a 50% cost share. Those companies who wish to work with the government on this exciting project, must themselves pay half the bill.
Four separate teams are working on creating different technologies in different climate and geographic conditions.
Never before have these companies worked together in this way on any project. The downstream effects of this kind of cooperation are likely to be felt for decades to come.
A key buzzword repeated again and again at the conference was "Optionality."
This is a fancy way of saying that running things on hydrogen gives you options because the hydrogen can be made from many different sources (called "feedstocks") using many different technologies. By having choices, we have energy security.
I'd like to add my own comments here. Most of us have as a very long-term goal to have the majority of our energy needs be served by sustainable feedstocks (wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, etc.). Over time as the technologies become more and more efficient that will hopefully become possible.
Many dismiss the idea of hydrogen which comes from a fossil source. How is that solving the problem you may ask? Well… for one thing, it can be a transitional source which allows us to convert to a hydrogen infrastructure before sustainable "green" hydrogen is available at an economic price in abudant quantities. Because of optionality we can switch to sources of hydrogen as technology and economics change. For another thing, local pollution matters.
Let's look at the most common way of producing hydrogen right now, steam reforming from natural gas. While natural gas is a fossil fuel, it produces very low emissions. So, in the production of the hydrogen we are already ahead vs. burning gasoline in the internal combustion engine of our cars. Now, let's look at what comes out of the tailpipe… water vapor. You can't tell me that if you are sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on a freeway in Los Angeles, that having nothing but water vapor coming out of the tailpipes all around you isn't going to make an immediate difference in the quality of life.
The question that I am sure you are asking yourself: "Is the hydrogen revolution really going to happen?"
Let me share with you a few things I heard from leaders in various industries so that you can answer this question for yourself: Carol Battershell, an executive with BP, said in an opening address, "Hydrogen is the only current option that addresses: local air quality, carbon emissions, and energy security. At BP, we don't see a plan B." She continued to explain that BP sees "truly economic rollout strategies" that will provide industry with the return on investment it needs while at the same time providing the consumer with hydrogen at the pump which is competitive with gasoline per mile driven.
I was speaking with one of the project leaders for the fuel-cell vehicles at Toyota. You all may know that Toyota is one of the industry leaders in gasoline/hybrid cars today. Well… this Toyota executive told me that Toyota is spending just as much in dollars and manpower on the fuel cell vehicles as they are on the gasoline hybrids. The gasoline hybrids may the nearterm technology but Toyota certainly seems committed to hydrogen fuel cell technology for the long term.
So, is it going to happen? You know my opinion. We need this to happen as a society. We need it to happen for environmental and health reasons. We need it to happen for economic reasons. We need it to happen for reasons of national security. We need it to happen for its world-wide democratizing impact.
The federal government, many state governments, the energy companies, the automotive companies, the academic and scientific institutions, and thousands of entrepreneurs are working to move this forward. The piece that is still missing … is you and me.
When we, the general public, collectively "get it", we will will it and the pace of innovation will increase dramatically.
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