Hijacking Hydrogen: Will Big Oil, Coal Interests and the Nuclear Industry Control the Next Energy Revolution?

By Motavalli, Jim | E Magazine, January-February 2003 | Go to article overview

Hijacking Hydrogen: Will Big Oil, Coal Interests and the Nuclear Industry Control the Next Energy Revolution?


Motavalli, Jim, E Magazine


Whether or not hydrogen becomes "the people's energy" depends to a large extent on how it is generated and transported in the current, early stages of development. This sustainable gas can be generated locally via renewables like wind, biomass or solar power, but it could also be a new product for our large-scale, centralized oil and nuclear power industries. Mike Nicklas, chairperson of the American Solar Energy Society (ACES), warns that even though the Bush administration is publicly supporting hydrogen development through its new FreedomCAR program, its vision does not support clean energy technologies for hydrogen production.

"`Clean' in this case means coal, nuclear and natural gas," says Nicklas, who attended the federal National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap Workshop last April. Fossil fuel and nuclear industry representatives dominated the session on hydrogen production, Nicklas observes. "We're now at the point of making a transition to an entirely new energy paradigm, and we don't need to be continuing the carbon era by other means? Nicklas says that ACES is working with other groups, including Worldwatch and the World Resources Institute, to promote truly renewable hydrogen generation.

In what could be a parallel to its purchase of many solar companies, the oil industry is buying in to hydrogen: Shell established Shell Renewables in 1997 and Shell Hydrogen in 2000, BP/Amoco is investing $500 million in renewables over three years, and ChevronTexaco has purchased a 20 percent stake in Energy Conversion Devices, a Detroit-based photovoltaic, battery and fuel-cell company.

Large utilities are also interested in generating hydrogen from what they call "clean coal," coupled with a scheme to "sequester" or isolate the resulting carbon dioxide emissions to prevent them from entering the atmosphere. According to one scenario, coal would react with steam and oxygen before combustion to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide, with the carbon dioxide liquefied and stored underground in deep aquifers or other geological formations.

GOING NUCLEAR

At the annual meeting of the World Nuclear Association in London last September, the group's director general, John Pitch, touted what he called the "hydrogen-nuclear economy." He envisions "an entirely clean energy global economy, with nuclear power supplying not only electricity and clean water, but also energizing transport of all kinds."

There are 400 conventional nuclear plants in the world, generating a sixth of global electricity. While these plants produce no emissions of carbon dioxide, the major global warming gas, they have created an intractable radioactive waste crisis and an ongoing safety debate that has made it extremely difficult to license any new facilities.

Some scientists see the need for large-scale hydrogen production as a way to jumpstart the moribund nuclear industry. Speaking at the International Youth Nuclear Congress in South Korea last April, Dr. Leon Walters, former director of engineering at Argonne National Laboratory, estimated that nuclear power--now just seven percent of U.S. power production--could leap to 50 percent if it were harnessed to produce hydrogen for transportation. He estimates that a transition to a hydrogen-nuclear economy would take 30 years.

General Atomics held a workshop last May on producing hydrogen from both conventional nuclear fission and as-yet unproven nuclear fusion. L.M. Wagner of Boeing said at the forum that hydrogen could be profitably produced in off-peak hours from fusion reactors. Nuclear fusion, if it were feasible, would produce no radioactive waste or bomb-grade materials, but no practical process for a fusion reactor has yet been demonstrated, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in funding over the past 50 years.

Joan Ogden, a Princeton research scientist, says that the frontrunner for nuclear hydrogen production is a thermochemical heat process. …

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