The Great Hydrogen Hope: Clean Burning Hydrogen Has a Great Deal of Potential to Help Reduce U.S. Reliance on Fossil Fuels. but There Are Significant Barriers to Surmount-Cost, Technology and Safety

By Boulard, Garry | State Legislatures, February 2004 | Go to article overview

The Great Hydrogen Hope: Clean Burning Hydrogen Has a Great Deal of Potential to Help Reduce U.S. Reliance on Fossil Fuels. but There Are Significant Barriers to Surmount-Cost, Technology and Safety


Boulard, Garry, State Legislatures


When Connecticut Representative Terry Backer heard President Bush call for up to $1.2 billion in funding for research and development of hydrogen as an affordable and safe alternative to fossil fuel for the nation's drivers, his response was tempered by his years as one of the most vocal advocates of what is called the hydrogen economy.

"I thought the president's proposal was great," remarks Backer, "but not enough and somewhat late."

Backer, instead, wants to see Connecticut, as well as the 49 other states, embrace a more activist approach to the hydrogen economy. He calls for tax credits both for the companies in his state that might someday produce hydrogen fuel and the drivers who will use it.

But more than that, Backer wants to help build a "working infrastructure that will make it possible to actually deliver hydrogen to the vehicles," a series of pumps located at a variety of gas stations that will supply the fuel to cars.

"I am not talking about every station," Backer continues, "only a percentage of them. Diesel is sold by only about 20 percent of all stations here, but that 20 percent is enough to fuel a vast fleet of trucks and other vehicles. That is what I would like to see happen in Connecticut."

Five time zones to the west, Hawaii Representative Mina Morita says hydrogen is the key to making her state energy-independent in the next generation.

"Almost everyone here is still focused on oil and gas, more than 90 percent of which we have to import," says Morita, who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection. She says it is her goal to change that equation.

"It just makes sense, for our state even more than others, to move away from this traditional dependence on fossil fuels as the answer to all of our needs, and move more in the direction of the hydrogen economy."

To that end, Morita has sponsored a series of bills that will make the use of alternative fuel sources more economically feasible. She also has participated in a number of prominent seminars devoted to advancing what she defines as the beckoning era of hydrogen. "I don't know how much I can do in terms of making new laws, Morita adds. "But I think I can do a lot as a public advocate, trying to get us to think more and more about where we are and where we should be going."

EMBRACING THE POTENTIAL

Although Backer and Morita are separated by more than 4,000 miles, they represent a growing movement among state lawmakers to do what some critics say Washington has not: embrace the potential of the coming hydrogen economy.

"The states are taking the lead on these issues," maintains Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth.

"And the things that the states can do are really rather endless," he says. "In fact, the only thing that might be slowing them down now is a lack of knowledge on how exactly to proceed. But the will, I think, is already there."

Officially the hydrogen economy is defined as what will happen after the world--in particular the United States--abandons reliance on fossil fuels in favor of alternative sources of energy, primarily hydrogen.

Hydrogen, its proponents say, is cleaner, more abundant than fossil fuels--and not dependent on large reserves that are primarily housed in volatile Middle Eastern countries.

The first thing to understand about hydrogen, these same proponents say, is its potential availability. It can come from the electrolysis of water, which is the process of splitting water molecules using electricity to create hydrogen and oxygen. Or it can come from reforming fossil fuels. Because oil and natural gas contain hydrocarbons--molecules that are partly composed of hydrogen and carbon--a device called a reformer, which is essentially a fuel processor, can be used to split the hydrogen away from the carbon. …

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