Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My rant about Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars

USA Today covered hydrogen fuel cell cars and speculates why are they not available. Then they settle on price as the reason. This in turn spurs the rant you see below.

To put it bluntly. Fuel cell technology bores me. It bores me on so many levels. Primarily though its because at my fundamental core I feel like I'm being manipulated every time someone rattles a new fuel cell development in front of me. Like a shiny set of keys dangled in front of a drooling new born the expect me to ooooh. I've yet to be shown a reason to fall in love with hydrogen. Let alone a hydrogen car.

In short; I don't believe in the fuel cell car. I don't believe in the Loch Ness Monster. I don't believe in the existence of Sasquatch. And again - I don't believe the hydrogen automobile making it into Ford or GM showrooms. I'm not in argument that any of the above could exist. I just don't believe they do.

Here is why. Hydrogen has a business model in existence today. It would work exactly the same with the an identical distribution system, the same real estate (only larger tanks) and probably the same regulatory/safety concerns. This business model is propane.

Propane is readily available, reasonably priced, and readily usable by cars on the road. Why hasn't it taken off? It's clean right.

All the problems with propane supplanting gasoline as a motor fuel exist for hydrogen. In fact, any gasoline vehicle can easily be converted back and forth from gasoline, to propane, to gasoline so there are fewer barriers to entry. Though not a true flexible fuel, propane and natural gas will run in any gasoline engine with slight modification. So for hydrogen to be a true fuel paradigm shift it takes something other than emissions to be the motivator. It takes superior technology.

I ask all readers to think critically about what a fuel cell is and does. Think about what it would lend itself best to. It surely isn't a 500 mile round trip on one fill up. Its power generation.
The true value of fuel cell technology isn't in four wheel vehicles. Its in buildings.
For a sedan or pick-up truck to work the big breakthrough for hydrogen isn't actually getting the fuel cell to work well. Hydrogen fuel cells aren't the break through technology that we are waiting for. Its mass produced battery technology, improvements in information technology married to a vehicle, and improvements in what boils down to is essentially a hybrid power train.

I'll say it again. When you look at the hydrogen car the break through technologies have nothing to do with hydrogen. They have to do with a hybrid electric power train.

Contrast vehicle technology with commercial real estate (which doesn't need even close to as much to field this technology). Over 50% of the energy used in the US is in buildings and facilities. Large commercial structures are immense energy users with complex systems, budgets to invest for longterm payback, onsite trained facility personnel, and a complex group of systems all benefiting from combined heat, power, steam, and water.

Fuel cells, as an emerging technology, make sense for buildings and not for mobile vehicles. If for anything the cost of compressing hydrogen into a vehicles tank for a short trip doesn't make sense. The concept of putting gasoline, ethanol, diesel, or biodiesel into a vehicles tank as a source for hydrogen also doesn't make any technical sense . Especially when thousands of commercial facilities already have systems and talented people familiar with reclaiming waste streams for energy and handling emission reduction technology.

To me the only reason hydrogen car research exists is that the US DOE and EPA fund research for hydrogen cars. You also have some extensive large R and D divisions in the auto manufacturers who can throw off a whole host of valuable technologies under the same research framework though without actually delivering a sub $30K hydrogen car. If anything what hydrogen really offers is a black-ops cover for next generation hybrid vehicle technologies.

To me the hydrogen car is a monument to misdirected policy choices. Every time I read about a hydrogen car I get the same feeling I do when seeing Britney Spears motherhood status discussed. I feel like its inconsequential information put forward just for the hope it draws the right number of eye-balls to a television screen or newspaper. Its advertising disguised as news.

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