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DOE Comments on CATO Institute Briefing Paper

The CATO Institute published Briefing Paper No. 90, "Hydrogen's Empty Environmental Promise," by Donald Anthrop December 7, 2004. In the executive summary, Anthrop states,

"Politicians on both the Left and the Right have increasingly embraced subsidies for hydrogen powered fuel cells as a promising way to move America away from reliance on petroleum. Although advocates concede that such technologies are at least several decades away from penetrating the market in any significant manner because of cost considerations, less attention has been paid to the environmental implications of such a transition. Given current technology, switching from gasoline to hydrogen-powered fuel cells would greatly increase energy consumption even if the hydrogen were extracted from water rather than from fossil fuels. That's because it takes a tremendous amount of electricity to harvest hydrogen and to deliver it to consumers. Moreover, a transition from gasoline to hydrogen would nearly double net greenhouse gas emissions attributable to passenger vehicles, given the current fuel mix in the electricity sector."

DOE's comments on this paper are as follows:

General Conclusion:
Mr. Anthrop's hydrogen article is not relevant to the hydrogen production pathways being pursued by the Department of Energy (DOE). Since he refers to the national initiative in the first sentence of the executive summary and the second sentence of the paper (where he incorrectly identifies the name of the initiative and its funding and timeframe), DOE is responding to his assertions and clarifying the facts about its hydrogen program in the paragraphs below. DOE believes Mr. Anthrop should have been consistent and analyzed the strategies that are being pursued by the national program.

DOE Environmental Strategy:
DOE is not pursuing any long-term hydrogen pathway (on a well-to-wheels basis) that emits more greenhouse gas (GHG) or criteria emissions than advanced gasoline hybrid-electric vehicles.

NAS Conclusion:
"A transition to hydrogen as a major fuel in the next 50 years could fundamentally transform the U.S. energy system, creating opportunities to increase energy security through the use of a variety of domestic energy sources for hydrogen production while reducing environmental impacts, including atmospheric CO2 emissions and criteria pollutants."

CATO Assertion:
Producing hydrogen using water electrolysis will double GHG emissions (coal-based electricity)

Is This a DOE Strategy? No

  • DOE's strategy is to produce hydrogen directly by coal gasification (and not use electricity as an intermediate). Since the DOE strategy includes coal with sequestration (never without), GHG emissions are virtually zero. Coal-based H2 fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) use much less energy than conventional gasoline vehicles and about the same energy per mile as gasoline hybrid-electric vehicles.
  • Electrolysis is being pursued for renewable (wind) and nuclear options. These pathways result in virtually zero GHG emissions and criteria pollutants.
  • Distributed electrolysis could be used as a transitional strategy but the added GHG would be small (1%) during the initial market penetration phase (<2 million new vehicle sales/yr)

CATO Assertion:
Producing hydrogen from renewables: Hydropower and PV can't supply energy required.

Is This a DOE Strategy? No

  • Hydrogen via PV electrolysis is not a current DOE strategy, because of high electricity cost.
  • Solar routes to hydrogen (not commercially viable now but research is ongoing) include photoelectochemical, photobiological, and thermochemical. Other renewable approaches involve the use of biomass or bio-based fuels. Electrolysis units are not required any for these options.
  • DOE has no near-term strategy for hydropower production of hydrogen because there is no distributed hydrogen infrastructure to move hydrogen from the power plant (future use requires more study).

CATO Assertion:
Fueling the vehicle fleet with natural gas-based hydrogen IS NOT energy efficient (no CO2 discussion)

Is This a DOE Strategy? No

  • DOE is not pursuing long-term centralized production of hydrogen from natural gas because it would trade dependence on foreign oil for dependence on natural gas.
  • A natural gas-based hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is 50% more efficient than gasoline internal combustion engine vehicle, and up to 25% more efficient than a gasoline hybrid-electric vehicle.
  • The DOE "transition" strategy is "DISTRIBUTED" natural gas, which would increase natural gas demand by < 3% (EIA) in 2025. On a well to wheels basis, natural gas-based hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would result in 25% less CO2 than gasoline-hybrid electric vehicles (the author didn't mention this).

Example of Biased Statements: "Once again, however, the chemical reactions that produce hydrogen require the input of energy"

DOE Response: Because every process is less than 100% efficient, this statement is true for production of any fuel, including gasoline, diesel, etc.