Friday, March 18, 2005


In presidential campaign of 2004, Bush and Kerry managed to find one piece of common ground: Both spoke glowingly of a future powered by fuel cells. Hydrogen would free us from our dependence on fossil fuels and would dramatically curb emissions of air pollutants, including carbon dioxide, the gas chiefly blamed for global warming. The entire worldwide energy market would evolve into a "hydrogen economy" based on clean, abundant power. Auto manufacturers and environmentalists alike happily rode the bandwagon, pointing to hydrogen as the next big thing in U.S. energy policy. Yet the truth is that we aren't much closer to a commercially viable hydrogen-powered car than we are to cold fusion or a cure for cancer. This hardly surprises engineers, fuel cell manufacturers and policymakers, who have known all along that the technology has been hyped, perhaps to its detriment, and that the public has been misled about what Howard Coffman, editor of, describes as the "undeniable realities of the hydrogen economy." These experts are confident that the hydrogen economy will arrive-someday. But first, they say, we have to overcome daunting technological, financial and political roadblocks. Herewith, our checklist of misconceptions and doubts about hydrogen and the exalted fuel cell.

True, hydrogen is the most common element in the universe; it's so plentiful that the sun consumes 600 million tons of it every second. But unlike oil, vast reservoirs of hydrogen don't exist here on Earth. Instead, hydrogen atoms are bound up in molecules with other elements, and we must expend energy to extract the hydrogen so it can be used in fuel cells. We'll never get more energy out of hydrogen than we put into it.

"Hydrogen is a currency, not a primary energy source," explains Geoffrey Ballard, the father of the modern-day fuel cell and co-founder of Ballard Power Systems, the world's leading fuel-cell developer. "It's a means of getting energy from where you created it to where you need it."

Unlike internal combustion engines, hydrogen fuel cells do not emit carbon dioxide. But extracting hydrogen from natural gas, today's primary source, does. And wresting hydrogen from water through electrolysis takes tremendous amounts of energy. If that energy comes from power plants burning fossil fuels, the end product may be clean hydrogen, but the process used to obtain it is still dirty.

Once hydrogen is extracted, it must be compressed and transported, presumably by machinery and vehicles that in the early stages of a hydrogen economy will be running on fossil fuels. The result: even more C02. In fact, driving a fuel cell car with hydrogen extracted from natural gas or water could produce a net increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. "People say that hydrogen cars would be pollution-free," observes University of Calgary engineering professor David Keith. "Lightbulbs are pollution-free, but power plants are not."

In the short term, nuclear power may be the easiest way to produce hydrogen without pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Electricity from a nuclear plant would electrolyze water-splitting H2O into hydrogen and oxygen. Ballard champions the idea, calling nuclear power "extremely important, unless we see some other major breakthrough that none of us has envisioned."

Critics counter that nuclear power creates long-term waste problems and isn't economically competitive. An exhaustive industry analysis entitled "The Future of Nuclear Power," written last year by 10 professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, concludes that "hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water depends on low-cost nuclear power." As long as electricity from nuclear power costs more than electricity from other sources, using that energy to make hydrogen doesn't add up.

Perform electrolysis with renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, and you eliminate the pollution issues associated with fossil fuels and nuclear power. Trouble is, renewable sources can provide only a small fraction of the energy that will be required for a full-fledged hydrogen economy.

From 1998 to 2003, the generating capacity of wind power increased 28 percent in the U.S. to 6,374 megawatts, enough for roughly 1.6 million homes. The wind industry expects to meet 6 percent of the country's electricity needs by 2020. But economist Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England calculates that converting every vehicle in the U.S. to hydrogen power would require the electricity output of a million wind turbines-enough to cover half of California. Solar panels would likewise require huge swaths of land.

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(In case you have never heard of him, Paul Martin is Canada's Prime Minister)

Steve McIntyre is Paul Martin's worst nightmare. A couple of years ago, the Toronto mining consultant got interested in the science behind global warming. Mr. McIntyre is not a scientist. He's just a curious citizen with a first-rate mathematical mind who was intrigued by the biggest public policy issue of the age. "It started as a hobby," he says. But soon his research on climate change took over his life -- at some cost, he says ruefully, to his business. Today, his conclusions are making waves around the world. For the politicians and bureaucrats in Ottawa, they could mean an acute case of policy indigestion.

In a nutshell, Mr. McIntyre says one of the biggest claims made for climate change is wrong. The claim is that we are now experiencing a warming period unprecedented in the past thousand years. Maybe you've seen the famous graph -- the one shaped like a hockey stick, with the big spike at the end; this graph has been a major marketing tool for global warming. But Mr. McIntyre says the data show no such thing. Yes, the world is getting warmer. But this warming spell is nothing special. "The math involved is not particularly sophisticated," he says. "The errors would have been discovered long ago had there been even routine checking."

Mr. McIntyre's published findings, which he co-authored with Canadian scientist Ross McKitrick, have set off a storm of debate. One leading climate scientist says the study has made him fundamentally revise his views, and others say it's obvious that the original hockey-stick study is full of holes. Unlike almost everyone else in the highly charged climate-change debate, Mr. McIntyre has nothing personal at stake. He doesn't need to advance his career or get research grants. He's never taken money from any company or industry group. And he is astonished that climate science isn't subject to the same audits and due diligence that are carried out in any ordinary business. "And yet we're making billion-dollar decisions based on it," he says.

Well, make that $5-billion. Or maybe $10-billion. That awesome number is the latest figure being bandied about as the price tag for meeting our Kyoto commitments. It's no secret that Ottawa's Kyoto strategy is a shambles. Nobody can figure out what to do or how to do it, and Paul Martin is said to be mightily impatient with his ministers' inability to "reach a consensus" on a plan. But Mr. Martin has a bigger problem. It is slowly dawning on some folks in Ottawa that the science behind global warming isn't bulletproof after all.

The trouble is that global warming is no longer a scientific issue. It's also political and ideological. Within the science world, pressures to support the global-warming doctrine are rampant. Some scientists say they've been urged to suppress their data for the good of the cause. Meantime, the climate skeptics -- who include leading figures from Harvard and MIT, as well as dozens of Canadian scientists -- are all but ignored in the mainstream media. Even careful readers would scarcely know these people exist, or what arguments they make. (Don't count on the Conservatives for a good critique. Their position on Kyoto is incoherent.)

But wait. Don't most scientists still believe in the perils of man-made global warming? "Sure," says Mr. McIntyre. "And most stockbrokers believed in Enron."

He says that most scientists haven't analyzed the data, and that scientists, like everyone else, are subject to peer pressure and groupthink. "Just because everybody thinks something's true doesn't make it true." Even its strongest supporters admit that the Kyoto protocol is "flawed." They defend it because it's better than nothing, and remind us that we must act now, even if we don't know all the facts. But what if Kyoto is worse than nothing? What if the science is flawed, too? What if the world will keep on warming up and cooling down no matter what we do? And what if we simply don't know?



Many people would like to be kind to others so Leftists exploit that with their nonsense about equality. Most people want a clean, green environment so Greenies exploit that by inventing all sorts of far-fetched threats to the environment. But for both, the real motive is to promote themselves as wiser and better than everyone else, truth regardless.

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