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Summer 2007               Fueling Our Future

Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Ranking: Red

Verdict:
There’s no way an energy-intensive hydrogen infrastructure can be scaled up in time to stop a global warming crisis.  Other alternatives exist that can be ramped up much more quickly.

What is it?:
Fuel-cell vehicles are powered by a chemical reaction of compressed hydrogen gas with oxygen from the atmosphere.  This reaction creates an electric charge that is stored by the fuel-cells and then used to run an electric motor. Hydrogen does not occur naturally and must be manufactured, usually by a process run on natural gas or electricity.

Pros:
  • Fuel-cell vehicles produce zero emissions from the tailpipe. The only thing coming out of the back of a fuel-cell vehicle is water vapor. 
  • If hydrogen is made with renewable power, it can be a low-carbon way to fuel vehicles (although the technology to create hydrogen with renewables is still under development), and hydrogen is inert in the atmosphere if released.
Cons:
  • With today’s technology, the greenhouse gas emissions that come from creating hydrogen result in greater lifecycle emissions for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles than those for conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles.
  • While car manufacturers are setting their sights on having fuel-cell vehicles in showrooms by 2015, a 2004 study by the National Academy of Sciences predicted that fossil fuels would be the main source of hydrogen generation for “several decades,” meaning that hydrogen fuel-cell cars on the market would be worse than gasoline vehicles when it comes to lifetime emissions now and well into the future.
  • Fuel-cell technology is prohibitively expensive—experimental fuel cell cars cost about $3 million, according to the Sierra Club—and we currently lack the massive infrastructure needed to provide drivers with hydrogen to fill up their tanks. Creating that infrastructure would be extremely costly and energy-intensive, emitting tons of carbon when we have other, better technologies available.
Current status:
Hydrogen fuel-cell cars are still in the research and development phase, and they and the infrastructure to support them simply can’t be scaled up in time to help mitigate the impending climate crisis.

Before fuel-cell vehicles can be seen as part of a solution to global warming, we must develop better technologies to create hydrogen through renewable energy. Scientists are working to develop ways to create hydrogen using wind, solar, or geothermal power; however, these solutions won’t be realized for several decades, and scientists agree that we have to start bringing low-emissions solutions to market in a big way within the next ten years. 

Should You Make the Switch?:

You couldn’t even if you wanted to. While some cities have acquired fuel-cell vehicles for their fleets, fuel-cell technology is not yet affordable or sustainable enough for the consumer market. And with the likelihood that fossil fuels will be used to make hydrogen for the next several decades, truly zero-emission fuel cells can’t be ramped up quickly enough to mitigate the global warming crisis.

Because they can’t be brought online quickly, and because of the carbon cost of building the infrastructure, Green America recommends that we put vehicles propelled by hydrogen fuel cells on the back burner and move forward with better low-emissions technologies that can be scaled up at the fast pace we need.

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plug-in electric hybridbiodieselgas-electric hybridcellulosic ethanolnatural gasultra-low-sulfur dieselhydrogen fuel cellsE85 corn ethanol

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