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Global Heating: Why We Must Shift to Carbon-Free Fuel (Part I)

Posted: 07/18/08 05:12 PM ET

Even among the Merely Moderately Enlightened, Global Warming is no longer an issue. The Bali Roadmap of last December and the forceful reports earlier last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have, at long last, produced basic agreement that we have to get serious about fighting global warming.

The elephant in the room is, "How"?

The arguably best answer came from Europe's parliamentarians in Strasbourg in May 2007. The European Parliament overwhelmingly adopted a declaration calling for a green hydrogen economy and "a third industrial revolution."

The revolution has in fact started in different parts of the world but it's still puny and an iffy proposition. One revolutionary example that is most impressive right now in terms of funding and scope is in an, at first blush, unlikely place, Abu Dhabi. There, the government has launched the Masdar Initiative, a $15 billion undertaking that includes construction of Masdar City, a car- and waste-free city of 50,000 to be powered entirely by solar, wind and hydrogen energy, including a 420 Megawatt super-efficient power plant fueled by hydrogen derived from natural gas which so far has been reinjected into oil fields to enhance oil production. This is not some Fata Morgana shimmering in the desert: Ground was broken in mid-February, and participants and contractors include international heavyweights such as British architect Sir Norman Foster as master planner; the American construction management firm of CH2M HILL, and the UK's British Petroleum and Rio Tinto in a joint venture to design and build the hydrogen power plant. The Masdar organizers say it is the most ambitious government-funded sustainability program ever. The $15 billion are apparently only seed money; the Initiative expects to attract additional funding for other sustainable energy projects in other parts of the Middle East and elsewhere.

The basic issues are no longer in doubt then, despite what persistent naysayers such as Senator James Imhofe and Rush Limbaugh claim. We all know by now the principal culprit is man-made CO2, produced by burning fossil fuels in trains, planes, automobiles etc. Less well known is that CO2 stays in the atmosphere a lot longer than previously believed: hundreds, maybe thousands of years - for all practical purposes, "forever," according to eminent NASA climatologist Jim Hansen. Thus, stabilizing and reducing global CO2 levels in our atmosphere must become a global priority.

As IPCC chairman R. K. Pachauri explained in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions at 445 to 490 parts per million (ppm), essential to holding global temperature increases to around 2 deg. Celsius, CO2 emissions will have to peak between NOW and 2015 and then decline. THAT' SEVEN YEARS FROM NOW! Hansen sets the limit radically lower even at 350 ppm: In his view, another 2 degree Celsius is a recipe for global disaster, he told the House Select Committee on Energy in June (the current level is about 385 ppm, according to the most recent NOAA data)

But even if stabilization were achieved - unlikely given the glacially slow attempts at climate amelioration - global sea levels are likely to continue to rise above pre-industrial levels somewhere between 40 centimeters and 1.4 meters, according to Pachauri (Hansen says it's more like 2 meters, and we're getting dangerously close to the "tipping point.")

A solution that's been studied exhaustively all over the world at least since the 1970s is to substitute the quintessential carbon-free, by definition environmentally benign, chemical hydrogen for fossil fuels.

In the United States, however, hydrogen has in recent years largely slipped off the radar screen of public interest, elbowed aside by other suggestions such as a carbon tax and carbon trading, carbon sequestration, tougher energy conservation, higher energy-efficiency standards, alternatives such as plug-in hybrids, bio-fuels and bio-diesel, ethanol, clean coal, wind and wave power, solar and geothermal energy and nuclear power.

All are helpful and are to be applauded, but they won't be sufficient. We must stop putting carbon into the air in the first place--not take it out afterwards--and we must start moving towards a carbon-free chemical fuel--hydrogen - NOW to begin veering away from catastrophe. Both short-term and longer-term approaches are needed, especially given the rapidly growing economies of China and India. While the ultimate goal is renewable hydrogen, the magnitude of the energy challenge dictates the use of hydrogen produced for now from major energy sources such as coal (with carbon sequestration) and nuclear.

Hydrogen, an energy carrier and not an energy source, can serve to unite just about all other forms of energy. Today, it is produced most economically from natural gas - ultimately, a dead end. In the future, renewable hydrogen can be obtained by splitting water via electrolysis with solar electricity, for example; from biofuels and biomethane and many other sources like that other energy carrier, electricity, which is also generated from many sources.

There is a beautiful symmetry in the fact that hydrogen and electricity are complementary: hydrogen can be produced from water by running an electric current through it in an electrolyzer. When reversing the process in a fuel cell - an electrolyzer running backwards! - hydrogen recombines electrochemically with the air's oxygen to produce electricity, pure water and some heat. Geoffrey Ballard, founder of fuel cell maker Ballard Power Systems, has coined the term "hydricity" to describe this symbiosis. Hydrogen can replace fossil fuels in almost all applications. Claude Roulet, an executive with a company intimately linked to Big Oil, Schlumberger Carbon Services, has said that while electricity was the energy carrier of the last two centuries, "hydrogen is the energy carrier of the 21st century."

The big problem is that the United States is in danger of falling behind Europe and Japan in recognizing hydrogen's value and in providing the consistent, long-term investment necessary. Here, hydrogen is frequently undervalued even by many clean-energy advocates as still too far in the future, as too inefficient; biofuels or renewably-generated electricity as well as all the other market-manipulative suggestions are frequently touted as better, nearer-term solutions to the CO2 threat. It has created divisions and acrimonious fights among clean energy supporters. Last December, the "Los Angeles Times" reported what has been brewing underground for some time, namely, that the supporters of the two principal green transportation technologies, hydrogen fuel cells and plug-in hybrids, are "squared off in an increasingly bitter fight........vying for publicity, manufacturer acceptance, favorable regulation and, especially, funding for research and investment in infrastructure and marketing."

Recently, it has become clear that biofuels are problematical and probably not the total answer. Earlier this year two back-to-back studies in "Science," concluded that biofuels may be as much or more of a greenhouse gas menace as today's gasoline and diesel: In the words of one scientist, "most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gases substantially." Other media reports say that increasingly unpredictable weather and crop growing seasons, perhaps due in part to global warming, may make both food and fuel production even more of a crapshoot.

The flip side, the potential for producing much more carbon-free chemical fuel per acre via solar and wind energy converted to hydrogen, were explained last fall by a German think tank, LBST (Ludwig Boelkow Systemtechnik), that has done a great deal of work for the European Union and well-to-wheel studies for General Motors. The bottom line was that renewable electricity generated from photovoltaics and wind and used to split water can generate as much as ten times the amount of energy in form of hydrogen fuel than could be produced from the same acreage as biofuel. Photovoltaics were found to produce the most fuel per acre, but wind would still be better than biofuels, and it would have the added advantage of retaining much of the farm land - under some scenarios, as much as 99% - to grow crops.

Peter Hoffmann is editor and publisher of "The Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Letter,"