New Administration’s Energy Priorities: Hydrogen Is Out, Coal Is In

Many who have followed fuel cell technology suspected that the Bush White House initiative for a hydrogen-powered, fuel cell car was a technical dead end from the day it kicked off over six years ago. But it was politically convenient among many Republicans, and the auto industry, who could argue that they were on the cutting edge of low-carbon technologies with hydrogen-powered fuel cell engines.

General Motors, for example, was publicly supportive of fuel cell cars, promoting a prototype vehicle with a price tag in the upper six figures. This, of course, was the same company that brought to market an unaffordable EV1 electric car, only to pull it off the market and set itself up for an inaccurate but damaging documentary film, Who Killed the Electric Car?

It was obvious to many analysts from the start that there was no way to produce large amounts of H2 economically. Electrolysis—splitting water into H and O—was an economic loser, requiring far more energy to split the water molecule than the energy yield in hydrogen. The Bush hydrogen initiative was, in a phrase common to political and Texan put-downs, “all hat and no cattle.”

In his budget presentation in early May, Steven Chu, U.S. energy secretary, made clear the Obama administration’s view that hopes for hydrogen as a vehicular fuel were limited. He said the DOE was “moving away from funding vehicular hydrogen fuel cells to technologies with more immediate promise” (PDF). Chu unveiled a $26.4 billion DOE budget, representing a modest 1% increase. (Some have suggested that the “Department of Energy” is a misnomer, because most of what the DOE does has little to do with energy. Most of the agency’s funds go to nuclear weapons and cleanup of the weapons production sites.)

President George W. Bush made a big splash in his 2003 “State of the Union” address, touting hydrogen as the automotive fuel of the future. He said that “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.” GM quickly endorsed the Bush vision and spent unknown research dollars on hydrogen fuel cell–powered cars, to no avail. In the meantime, the company was tottering toward bankruptcy.

Many veteran energy analysts at the time were highly skeptical of the Bush claim. There were, they said, simply too many economic and infrastructure hurdles to development of practical fuel cell cars and trucks. First among them was how to produce hydrogen that would be remotely competitive with gasoline. Then came the infrastructure issue: how to create a hydrogen fueling system that would begin to challenge the conventional gas station.

After killing the hydrogen vehicle program, Chu, speaking at the National Coal Council (PDF), renewed the Obama administration’s support for coal. Chu said that the DOE will spend $2.4 billion to fund carbon storage and capture technology research and will soon post a notice of intent for the funding. Chu said, “To prevent the worst effects of climate change, we must accelerate our efforts to capture and store carbon in a safe and cost-effective way.”

In mid-June, the White House announced “intent for funding” and the conditional revival of the FutureGen project—aimed at building a coal-fired prototype generating plant that will gasify coal, burn the synthetic natural gas to generate power, capture carbon dioxide, and inject the CO2 into underground storage. The 275-MW project, slated for Mattoon, Ill., was a Bush administration initiative but got zeroed-out at the end of the Bush administration, after Mattoon won out against two sites in Texas.

The government will put up more than $1 billion for the project, if it goes forward, with private sector contributors putting up another $400 million to $600 million. The project has scaled back its objectives of demonstrating 90% recovery of CO2 from the coal-fired plant to about 60%, leading some in the industry to observe that the objective is more realistic. But the price tag hasn’t changed, suggesting that carbon capture and sequestration is much more expensive than the Bush administration anticipated.

Some in Washington have said that the Bush administration killed the project in 2008—after proposing it in the early years of the administration—because the site selection process found that the Illinois location was superior to the locations in Texas. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, worked hard to restore funding for the project. It is not a coincidence that President Obama was the junior senator from Illinois during the fight over cancellation of the Illinois-based project.

Chu’s commitment to clean coal, which some in Washington believe is skin-deep, came shortly after new Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghof, an Obama designee, made a widely reported comment that the U.S. may not need new baseload generating capacity in the future and can rely on renewables. At about the same time, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that wind generation offshore of the East Coast could generate all of the electric power that the U.S. needs. Both Wellinghof’s and Salazar’s comments drew belly laughs from serious energy analysts.

Riposted one Washington energy veteran, “It doesn’t matter what these guys say, out of ignorance and ideology. What matters is what can be done. None of what needs to be done can come from wind or sun. Baseload generation—coal and nukes—is absolutely essential. As for offshore wind, that’s a joke. The Cape Wind project has been trying to develop offshore wind for a decade, with no real results.”
—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor.