Book Review: "The Hype About Hydrogen - Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate"
By Joseph J. Romm. Island Press, 2004, Washington, DC. 199 pages plus 29 pages of notes. Index. $18.75.
Reviewed by Robert Rose
Heart of Darkness
Joe Romms slim but pungent new book, The Hype About Hydrogen, carries an echo of Heart of Darkness, with hydrogen in the role of Kurz and the oil industry in the role of the natives. Each chapter is more fraught than the next, suggesting (as Romm himself has said elsewhere) that the book set out to be rather more positive than it ended up. Romm concludes we must wheel hydrogen back into the laboratory for a couple more decades.
Romm argues passionately for action now, motivated by his belief that global warming is a clear and present danger. Yet most of the actions he prescribes have been debated for 30 years without achieving political consensus. Scuttling the nascent momentum toward consensus on hydrogen will do harm, not good.
Romms argues that hydrogen optimists are peddling hype, General Motors investment in fuel cell vehicles is a strategic mistake. Hydrogen is seen as an excuse for avoiding interim measures such as vehicle efficiency standards. Policy makers should focus on what is achievable today, Romm argues. Hydrogen needs more research; for most applications, fuel cells are far from market ready and will face stiff competition when they are.
Romm is not opposed to the hydrogen economy. To the contrary, he believes such a shift may well save the world. His concerns are that the uncertainties and risks technical, economic, social present such daunting barriers it is unrealistic to expect a hydrogen economy any time soon.
He argues that a significant shift to hydrogen will begin after the decade of the 2030s, in response to technological progress coupled with a significant decline in oil production and undeniable climate instability. He calls hydrogen the fuel of the second half of the current century. And he apparently believes that not much can be done directly to accelerate the transition.
In the short term, Romm proposes a modest list of climate-change driven energy policy mechanisms such as a Renewable Portfolio Standard, CO2 cap, increased use of combined heat and power and other conservation and efficiency measures, while educating the public about the hard task ahead (Romm is executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, which promotes energy conservation. He was deputy assistant secretary of energy during the Clinton administration).
One could debate many of Romms conclusions. He mines hydrogen literature for worst-case projections, then makes summary judgments that the worst will happen. Emerging technologies like hybrids and biomass, on the other hand, are given the benefit of the doubt. Analyses that run counter to his thinking he tends to dismiss. He calls Shells 2001 [hydrogen] Scenario Two quite flawed and not up to Shells usual standards, while enthusiastically quoting Shells bloated hydrogen infrastructure cost estimates. Entrenched technologies are measured against projections based on research vehicles, even though the research is designed to improve upon the currently possible. The economic cost of the status quo, such as expanding the petroleum infrastructure to meet demand, is ignored even though there is a good argument that it will exceed the likely cost of a distributed hydrogen infrastructure.
The Energy Foundation financed the book, as a way of informing the nations energy policy dialogue. I believe it has had the opposite effect. The real risk is not that the book is too pessimistic, but that it is too political.
The environmental and energy policy communities have embraced Romms conclusions with a sigh of relief. Many in the community believe, wrongly, that hydrogen has diverted resources from their favored technologies, and worry the trend might accelerate. Others believe, wrongly, hydrogen is an effective excuse to avoid strengthening vehicle efficiency mandates. (CAFE has faced legislative gridlock since 1978!) Still others believe, wrongly, that an expansion of nuclear power will be justified on the basis of hydrogen production. Would that hydrogen advocates were so powerful.
There is no national consensus yet on hydrogen. Hydrogen, sadly, cannot even escape crippling earmarks in Congress. Romms book will make consensus all the harder to achieve, while doing nothing to advance the policy agenda Romm advocates.
Romms time table is more pessimistic than some, but not so wildly pessimistic as to move him out of the mainstream, given the lead-times involved in such a fundamental shift. President Bushs vehicle initiative calls for commercial sales of fuel cell vehicles to begin about 2020, with perhaps a 25 to 30 year phase-in. Nevertheless, Mr. Bush is seen as the Hyper-in-Chief. It is a rare day when our leaders are criticized for their long-term thinking.
Our polarized energy policy dialogue mirrors a fundamentally polarized electorate, and it is genuinely hard for alternative energy advocates to see any good coming from a Bush energy initiative. Hydrogen is becoming enmeshed between the poles.
Romm has done his part to help this along; his recent presentations and short pieces are much more sharp-edged than the book itself. For example, the books balanced discussion of hydrogen safety concludes hydrogen has its own major safety issues, but Romms presentations conclude hydrogen is an unusually dangerous fuel. The media also tend to focus on the negatives, which appears to be reinforcing Romms own shift in emphasis.
Romm is also dismissive of the effort under way to accelerate commercialization, criticizing General Motors for spending too much of its own money on hydrogen. It is not beyond imagining that the U.S. Congress will scale back the relatively small hydrogen research program in the face of analyses like Romms. Will that cause the auto industry to throw in the towel, faced with a challenge that everyone (even Romm) agrees can be overcome only with government support? Time will tell. But the absence of a hydrogen program will bring consensus on energy policy no closer. Killing enthusiasm for hydrogen will not break our national energy policy deadlock.
Hydrogen is a big idea. It carries big risks. If it were easy, we would have done it already.
Robert Rose is executive director of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute and the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, Washington, DC.