Hydrogen: The Future of Energy or a Shiny Diversion

Hydrogen has been heralded as the future of our energy systems and the savior of the environment by many. Yet, is it appropriate for us to sit on our hands and wait for the technology to develop further, making hydrogen a feasible energy source or is this simply a stall tactic by the fossil fuel industry to maximize the amount of time they can remain atop the energy market. Some people seem to have a blind faith in hydrogen and pass off all of our current environmental concerns about energy as moot because hydrogen will come in and save the day eventually.

Regardless of the future promise of hydrogen it seems arrogant to do nothing about our energy problems right now when we are faced with a mountain of information concerning the harm being done to our environment. Hydrogen is far enough off that energy companies can point to it and say ‘this is where we are headed and we will get there when the technology gets better’, meanwhile they can go about business as usual.

The trouble with hydrogen is that it is always bonded to another element and these bonds must be broken for it to be usable. Breaking the bonds of water to isolate the hydrogen is done through a process of electrolysis which is very energy-intensive. There is not a clear consensus whether the production of hydrogen would require more energy that it would produce, according to a professor at Stanford, “the advantage of hydrogen, if you have to burn carbon fuels to manufacture it, would be negligible” (Easton 164).

Other energy sources must be looked to for the creation of hydrogen, specifically, nuclear power. Several respected researchers have concluded that “the only way to produce liquid hydrogen in the mass quantities needed for transportation is with a major investment in nuclear power” (164). As we all know nuclear power is not a popular energy source in public opinion and has many drawbacks, in addition to the creation of plants being hugely expensive. The move to hydrogen cars is not particularly feasible due to these factors. Great potential also exists to make gasoline-powered engines much more efficient.

On the other side of the hydrogen question is Jeremy Rifkin who touts hydrogen’s cleanliness among other things. Hydrogen energy would fit into a decentralized power grid thereby minimizing black-outs and targets for terrorist attacks. However, the creation of nuclear power plants to produce hydrogen would add new terrorist targets. Rifkin argues that the use of renewable sources of energy should be used in hydrogen production. It seems counter-productive to use energy to make energy, but hydrogen has the advantage of being storable which insures a continuous supply. A hydrogen economy would remove our dependence on foreign oil and save us many future political battles.

A war to secure our oil interests ala Iraq would not be required. This would save the country billions of dollars and many lives. Unfortunately, not everyone sees the Iraq war as a war over energy, in fact, the majority of Americans believed Saddam was responsible for 9/11 before we went to war. If the hydrogen economy were to come about in a sustainable way it would mean the creation of huge amounts of new solar and wind farms. The decentralized power grid that Rifkin writes about would also put many companies out of business and would mean the loss of many jobs which is never popular for politicians. The picture that Rifkin creates of every village creating their own renewable energy is an attractive one but it is also an unrealistic one in the short term. I cannot see these monumental changes happening anytime soon as the energy and automobile industry exert massive amounts of political pressure upon the government. I really do not see anything overly progressive happening in this country due to the power of corporations. It is disturbing to see how much power corporations have amassed in this country and unfortunately as long as prices are low Joe American isn’t likely to stand up and speak for the need of more government regulations on industry.

Perhaps I am overly cynical but I seriously doubt the environmental consciousness of the energy industry and I can’t help but look at hydrogen as a convenient distraction from making any real changes. This is not to say I don’t see promise in the hydrogen economy I just don’t think it is in our best interest to do nothing until it is a reality. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “in the best case scenario, the transition to a hydrogen economy would take many decades, and any reductions in oil imports and carbon dioxide emissions are likely to be minor during the next 25 years” (www.nationalacademies.org 2/4/04). We should not be so foolish as to sit on our hands and wait for the false miracle of hydrogen power when there are a multitudes of steps we can take right now to cut down on energy use and increase efficiency.

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