IMAGE: Hydrogen Refueling Station In Los Angeles
David McNew  /  Getty Images
Just a handful of hydrogen refueling stations exist in the United States, including this one in Los Angeles that opened in June — the first for California.
updated 7/17/2008 2:35:23 PM ET 2008-07-17T18:35:23

A transition to vehicles that run on hydrogen — and independence from oil as well as a sharp drop in carbon emissions — is doable but that best-case scenario requires nearly $200 billion in funding and further breakthroughs, National Research Council experts said Thursday in a report requested by Congress.

While stressing the "best-case scenario" nature of their report, the experts concluded that hydrogen could be the key driver of a shift away from fossil fuels and emissions tied to global warming, with other clean technologies and biofuels helping in that transition.

"The benefits of hydrogen would be less in the early years but have a dominant effect" in the longer run, panel chairman Mike Ramage, a retired ExxonMobil executive, told reporters. "Hydrogen is a pathway to a sustainable energy future."

In their report, the experts concluded that "deep reductions in oil use, nearly 100 percent by 2050 for the light-duty vehicle fleet," are possible. "Achieving this goal, however, will require significant new energy security and environmental policy actions in addition to technological developments."

"CO2 emissions will decline almost as much if hydrogen is produced with carbon capture and sequestration or from nonfossil sources," they added.

Light-duty vehicles — cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks - account for 44 percent of the oil used in the United States and more than 20 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted.

$200 billion investment cited
The best-case scenario assumes industry invests $145 billion and the federal government spends $50 billion over the next 15 years to drive down the costs of hydrogen production and vehicles that run on hydrogen.

"The number is big, but in perspective" it is doable, Ramage said, noting that the federal ethanol subsidy is at a pace to cost $160 billion over that same period.

"We need durable, substantial and sustainable government help to make this happen, just as there is for ethanol," the retired oil industry executive added.

Ramage said that it is also "very important" to get more hydrogen vehicles on the road now so that improvements are made.

With subsidies, the panel noted, some 2 million hydrogen vehicles could be on U.S. roads by 2020.

By 2023, fuel cell vehicle costs, including the cost of hydrogen fuel over a vehicle's lifetime, could become competitive with conventional vehicles, the experts added.

After that, hydrogen vehicles could grow rapidly in this best-case scenario — to nearly 60 million in 2035 and 200 million by 2050.

Ramage emphasized that the panel felt the government should invest in a range of clean energy technologies, not just hydrogen. "Move them all forward," he said, it's best "not to pick and choose" just one.

Obstacles, assumptions
Ramage said the panel was "impressed by the progress that has been made" on hydrogen and fuel cells, a technology that could replace the internal combustion engine. Fuel cells are powered through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen and emit only water and heat as exhaust. Moreover, hydrogen is twice as efficient as gasoline.

Building affordable hydrogen vehicles "is a much bigger challenge" than hydrogen production, Ramage said, but he also noted recent advances in bringing down the costs of fuel cells.

Producing hydrogen has also been an issue. The most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen is not found alone and so has to be separated from other elements, such as water or even fossil fuels like natural gas and coal.

A key assumption by the panel is that burying carbon dioxide emissions underground will be feasible and that the nation has adopted a carbon tax to promote this sequestration. "There has to be a carbon policy for things to happen," Ramage said.

That sequestration, in turn, would allow hydrogen to be produced from coal, of which the United States has plentiful supplies. The experts assumed that process of coal gasification for hydrogen would be feasible by 2025.

By 2050, Ramage said, about half of hydrogen production could come from coal, with most of the rest from biomass and some from natural gas.

Using solar power to split water, and thus produce hydrogen, is "a very important long-term option," Ramage said, but the panel didn't know how to estimate realistic costs given the nascent nature of the idea.

"The other long-term option that is very important is nuclear," Ramage added, noting that new generation plants could use excess heat to split water.

"Those technologies are so far away that we did not include them," he added.

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