Is Hydrogen the Gasoline of the Future?

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"The key message," says Keith, "is the following: Start with problems, don't start with technological solutions."

Escaping the Grid

The problem that hydrogen may be most fit to solve in the near future has nothing to do with cars. Instead, it could be a viable solution to the nation's overburdened power grid.

While New York City was in the dark during the largest blackout in U.S. history last month, a police station in Central Park kept its electrical power flowing with the fuel-cell stack it uses to operate, even when the power's on. And in Ontario, Canada, Stuart Energy weathered the power outage with the air conditioning running, creating buzz for hydrogen power in the process. The Canadian company makes electrolytic stations, or generators that extract hydrogen from water. Naturally, it had a backup supply of hydrogen power—but never had a real life application for it until the blackout.

CEO Jon Slangerup says he was in a meeting when the lights blinked off, then came back on. He mistook the outage for a power surge, but when his meeting ended an hour later, Slangerup says, "I came out to find…that entire Eastern region was out. And this system we'd built conceptually popped on in eight seconds. We didn't lose any time in our business."

Stuart Energy plans to capitalize on the notion of "distributed generation" that's gained currency since the blackout. The idea loosely entails a dispersed system of individual, small-scale power stations that could operate in conjunction with the grid. In Stuart Energy's model, solar energy panels would fuel the electrolyzing process. The resulting hydrogen would then generate enough electricity to power a home and fuel the cars in the garage.

The initial cost for such a system to individual homeowners would approach U.S. $25,000, an relatively exorbitant sum. But once running, solar-powered hydrogen systems would eliminate home and car owners' monthly electric bill and gas charges.

Not to mention personal contributions to the greenhouse effect. Hydrogen takes energy to produce. But once created, hydrogen can store energy for future use, making it the perfect partner to capture intermittent power generated by wind and solar energy.

Such a future is a long way off, but William Hoagland, former hydrogen program manager for the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory agrees that weaknesses in the power grid may be the catalyst to kick-start the hydrogen economy. Even if we use fossil fuels for the next century to create it, ultimately, says Hoagland, "A growing hydrogen market can do nothing but help renewable energy."

"Our big problem is not making the fuel cell cars or the hydrogen. It's the infrastructure," he says. "If there were a market today for large amounts of hydrogen, you would see infrastructure problems change. It's a chicken and egg problem."

With the country's energy anxieties heightened, it may seem that stationary fuel cell power will be first to drive the hydrogen market. But cars have a history of predating the systems that support them—namely gas stations and a network of paved roads. One hundred years ago, early automobile owners waited nearly a decade before either appeared to make driving easier and cars cheaper. Once that infrastructure took shape, cars, initially called playthings of the rich, lost their derisive nickname as well.

Editor's note: To mark the centennial of the first cross-U.S. car trip, New York-based freelance writer Nicole Davis and photographer Kristen McClarty drove an ultra low emission vehicle loaned by the Ford Motor Company.

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