Senators Attempt to Put Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Back on Federal Clean-Energy Radar
While solar power and wind power continue to twist in the wind of politics, another alternative energy with significant potential has been quietly growing with far less attention. This is a technology so non-controversial that it manages to muster bipartisan Congressional committees that lead to no grandstanding, no panel discussions on cable news and no vitriolic sniping across the aisles on Capitol Hill.
During the last week of July, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) held a meeting that was considered to be the first step toward reconvening the bipartisan Senate Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Caucus, a group of about 40 lawmakers originally formed to promote the development and commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cell technology. The caucus had been inactive since 2010.
“The fuel cell and hydrogen energy industry is a true American success story,” said the senators in a statement marking the reconvening of the caucus. “Domestic fuel cells and hydrogen energy systems have achieved significant advances in power generation, portable applications, transportation, back-up and material handling. Across the nation, fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies are creating jobs, reducing emissions and improving efficiency.”
The event was attended by public- and private-sector organizations, including Bloom Energy, the California Fuel Cell Partnership, U.S. Department of Energy, Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, Linde North America, National Fuel Cell Research Center, Nuvera Fuel Cells, the South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance and General Motors, which sent a representative to discuss the automaker’s plan to bring a line of fuel cell vehicles to market by 2015.
In 2009, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced cuts to government funding for fuel cell programs, noting that hydrogen vehicles were still 10 to 20 years away from practicality. Curiously, his proclamation came only weeks after the DOE had announced a nearly $42 million investment in fuel cell technology (which was later canceled). At the time, analysts cited the Obama administration’s focus on plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) for the cuts to hydrogen programs. (It should be noted that the EV market will likely fall far short of the government’s intended target of one million EVs on U.S. roads by 2015.)
The current White House and the DOE now appear to be embracing an all-encompassing energy strategy that combines cleaner power solutions across the board, and it has proven to be good news for hydrogen fuel cell development, reported the website Gas2.org. It’s also good news for fuel cell supporting technologies and services such as on-site hydrogen generation, transport and storage solutions.
So why is the federal government changing its mind on fuel cell technology — again?
One hint comes from the Senate Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Caucus’ own flyer: “The United States is the world leader in fuel cell manufacturing, research and development; however, fuel cell and hydrogen industries are becoming more popular abroad. The senators… help demonstrate interest on Capitol Hill to maintain the United States’ leadership in this area.”
Cynics are wondering if this is partly an admission that the United States has lost solar panel manufacturing to China and is now seeking a clean-energy sector it can still dominate. Hydrogen and fuel cell technology would be a good area in which to excel.
Hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity through hydrolysis, a process whose only end-products are heat, water and electricity. Pound for pound, hydrogen contains nearly three times as much energy as natural gas.
Automakers haven’t needed convincing of hydrogen fuel cell technology’s benefits. During the caucus meeting, GM described its plan to commercially launch a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle by 2015. And it’s not alone, as Hyundai, Honda, Toyota, BMW and Mercedes-Benz (Daimler) have made investments in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The auto industry thinks such cars are ready for their closeup, now that hydrogen fuel cell technology has overcome many of its early challenges — notably fuel infrastructure and in-car hydrogen storage. A primary drawback now is the scarcity of fueling stations.
But it’s not just cars that will benefit from a bold push into hydrogen fuel cell technology. Today, data centers, residential buildings, grocery stores, military installations, hospitals, construction equipment and many other establishments are taking advantage of the benefits of fuel cells.
That’s not to say that hydrogen technology doesn’t have some drawbacks. Though it’s the most plentiful element in existence, naturally occurring atomic hydrogen doesn’t exist in large quantities on Earth, because it quickly forms compounds with other elements. This means that it needs to be manufactured, usually by three common methods: steam reforming from hydrocarbons; electrolysis, which is splitting the hydrogen from oxygen in water; and thermolysis, which separates the hydrogen out by heating and cooling.
While the processes aren’t difficult, they can be energy-intensive, which can take away some of hydrogen’s street cred as a green technology. In addition, it’s hard to transport. Unlike oil and natural gas, which can be moved through pipelines and easily stored in tanks, hydrogen is hard to both transport and store: a single gram of hydrogen takes up nearly three gallons of storage space at atmosphere, so it needs to be pressurized to several hundred atmospheres and then stored in a container that can hold that kind of pressure. It’s also prone to escape during storage, losing about one percent of its volume each day, and presents a risk of explosion if not handled properly.
Worries About the Country’s Energy Future
Washington’s rediscovered enthusiasm for hydrogen is being driven in part by a present glut of natural gas production in the United States, Downstream Today reported, since natural gas can be easily and relatively cheaply reformed into hydrogen gas. In fact, in the not-very-distant future, small residential fuel cells could potentially reform natural gas that comes through existing infrastructure to provide cleaner electricity on demand for homes. But the government is also showing concerns about the country’s energy security.
During the caucus, Senator Coons, who is also a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said, “A truly secure energy future for the United States will depend largely on the diversity and availability of our energy sources. Fuel cells and hydrogen-based technologies have enormous potential and should be an important part of our energy mix.” He noted that fuel cells are already boosting the economy of his home state of Delaware, where Bloom Energy, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based maker of popular fuel cells dubbed Bloom Boxes, recently broke ground on a new manufacturing facility that could eventually employ 900 people.
Regardless of the reasons behind the renewed enthusiasm for hydrogen technology, its proponents welcome it with open arms — presuming the Senate Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Caucus succeeds in getting hydrogen and fuel cell technology back on the federal menu. A blogger for BeforeIt’sNews wrote, “…To see Senators reaching across the aisle with regard to hydrogen is a [sight] for sore eyes. And us hydrogen advocates have needed Visine for a long, long time now.”
Gus Block, director of marketing and government affairs for Billerica, Mass.-based Nuvera Fuel Cells, says the government’s renewed interest in the fuel cell industry will be a boon and noted that the caucus’s organizers were “giddy with the response” to the July relaunch, which was organized for 50 attendees but saw people spilling out into the hallways.
“The re-establishment of caucus is vitally important because it signals to fuel cell technology developers and their investors, automakers and the general public that there will be leadership on this issue that will continue through successive [presidential] administrations,” Block says. “That’s the kind of stability in energy policy that has allowed other countries like Germany, Japan and South Korea to make so much progress in bringing the technology to market over the past decade, and that will enable the U.S. to retake the clean energy lead.”
Block adds that progress on fuel cells that run on hydrogen made from natural gas could help pave the way for the introduction of hydrogen made from renewable feedstocks such as biogas.
Then again, all of this may be an academic exercise depending on this year’s presidential elections. GOP candidate Mitt Romney has pledged to repeal tax credits and government funding for all green energy initiatives. Barring that occurrence, hydrogen’s reversal of fortune could be very good news for U.S. hydrogen and fuel cell technology companies.