Fuel Cell Vehicles 15 Years Away, Research Council Says

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicleHydrogen fuel cells may be the best energy-saving alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles, and the technology could be economically competitive by 2023, a U.S. National Research Council report announced Thursday.

The study, which did not include electric vehicles, concluded that hydrogen is the preferred alternative to conventional vehicles to wean the United States off oil and to reduce U.S. automotive emissions. Producing the hydrogen, however, will require increased fossil fuel consumption and worsen the nation's impact on climate change unless a federal policy switches the country to alternative energy sources, the study's authors said.

The researchers analyzed a variety of alternative vehicle technologies - including more-efficient gasoline-powered engines, electric hybrid engines, and biofuels - and concluded that hydrogen fuel cells are the most likely option, unless fuel economy standards rise significantly or a breakthrough in cellulosic ethanol is made. An analysis of electric vehicles was beyond the scope of the study, the authors said.

"The best thing for the U.S. to do is move forward and make sure all these technologies are progressed because they all have technological risks," said Michael Ramage, a former ExxonMobil researcher who chaired the report committee. "But the benefits of hydrogen, while less in the early years, would have a dominant effect."

If the U.S. government and the automobile industry followed the framework envisioned in the research scenario, which assumes government policies that place a price on carbon and create large subsides for fuel cell vehicles, significant economic and environmental benefits could result. U.S. gasoline consumption could be reduced by about 24 percent by 2035, and net annual greenhouse gas emission from transportation could fall 20 percent by the same year, according to the committee's analysis. 

The study was authorized by Congress following longstanding support from President George W. Bush for fuel cell vehicles. Yet consumers are not likely to purchase large numbers of these vehicles in the timeframe the government has envisioned, due to high costs for the vehicles and for the hydrogen, the report said.

The maximum practical number of fuel cell vehicles that the automobile industry could produce would be 2 million in 2020, 60 million in 2035, and more than 200 million in 2050, which would equate to 60 percent of the U.S. automobile fleet that year, according to the report.

A transition to hydrogen-powered cars would require roughly $16 billion in research spending over the next 16 years, 30 percent of which, the report says, the U.S. government should pay. In addition, "a technology-push approach" through government incentives, such as federal tax credits, vehicle subsidies, or a minimum sales quota, is "crucial" to establish a wide-scale fuel cell vehicle fleet.

To meet the vehicles' emissions-reduction timeline for 2035, carbon capture and sequestration or biomass gasification would have to become economically competitive with existing fossil energy sources. Otherwise, natural gas or coal-burning power plants would be relied upon for hydrogen production, and greenhouse gas emissions would continue to rise.

Technologically, the most difficult challenge for fuel cell vehicles is onboard hydrogen storage. The U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal for vehicles to store enough hydrogen for a 300-mile (483-kilometer) drive, but the only options to meet this goal require more expensive storage tanks that lower vehicle fuel efficiency.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles are popular with the petroleum industry because the hydrogen market could replace oil sales. Environmentalists often prefer electric vehicles, which could result in less net greenhouse gas emissions if the electrical grid is powered by renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power.

For the United States to end its "addiction to oil" before oil sources dwindle, a comprehensive approach would be needed, the study concluded. "If you combine [fuel cell vehicles] with biofuel and continuing evolution in combustion engines and plug-in hybrids, you could potentially eliminate all oil from the transport sector," Ramage said. 

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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