Eight of the nation’s leading environmental, consumer, and public policy organizations have joined together in the Green Hydrogen Coalition (GHC) to challenge President Bush’s launch of the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy (IPHE). While the Green Hydrogen Coalition supports a hydrogen future for America and the world, it charges the Bush administration with promoting a black hydrogen rather than a green hydrogen research and development agenda. The Green Hydrogen Coalition is comprised of Friends of the Earth, The Foundation on Economic Trends, the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, Greenpeace, the League of Conservation Voters, Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, the US Public Interest Research Group, and MoveOn.org.
The White House will host a meeting of energy ministers from around the world on November 19-21, in Washington, D.C., to sign a landmark agreement to share research and development on hydrogen related activity, with a goal of ushering in a hydrogen economy over the course of the next several decades. The United States has proposed that it serve as the secretariat of this first-of-a-kind global research and development effort.
The Green Hydrogen Coalition accuses the White House of using the IPHE initiative as a smokescreen to deflect attention away from its dismal anti-environmental record and a forum to promote the interests of the coal, oil, gas, and nuclear industries. The Green Hydrogen Coalition further charges the Bush administration with using the IPHE as a delaying tactic to avoid introducing already available off-the-shelf technologies and effective policies that can address local and global environmental issues.
The Green Hydrogen Coalition warns that if the United States is successful in steering the IPHE towards a black hydrogen future, it could lock the global economy into the old energy regime for much of the 21st century, with dire environmental consequences.
Hydrogen—the lightest and most abundant element of the universe—can be the next great energy revolution. People call it the “forever fuel” because it will never run out. And when hydrogen is used for power the only byproducts are pure water and heat. Hydrogen is found everywhere on Earth, yet it rarely exists free floating in nature. Instead, it has to be extracted from fossil fuels, water, or biomass. Therefore, the energy used to derive the hydrogen makes the hydrogen either dirty or clean, in other words, “black” or “green”.
The Green Hydrogen Coalition believes that, if done the right way, the shift to fuel cells and a hydrogen economy will be as significant and far reaching in its impact on the American and global economy as the steam engine and coal in the 19th century and the internal combustion engine and oil in the 20th century. Hydrogen has the potential to end the world’s reliance on oil from the Persian Gulf, the most politically unstable and volatile region of the world. It will dramatically cut down on carbon dioxide emissions and mitigate the effects of global warming.
Today, most commercial hydrogen is harvested from natural gas via a steam reforming process. Yet the supply of natural gas is as finite as our oil supply, and therefore not a dependable feedstock for hydrogen.
Petroleum, coal, and nuclear resources are all potential sources of hydrogen but are not clean, safe, long-term solutions. Producing hydrogen from petroleum will not free the U.S. from dependence on foreign oil. Coal extraction has significant impacts on the land and produces nearly twice the amount of carbon dioxide as natural gas, resulting in the emission of increased heat-trapping gases.
The U.S. Department of Energy and the coal industry counter that extracting hydrogen from coal would be viable if a commercially effective and safe way can be found to sequester carbon dioxide (CO2) and the Bush administration is seeking more than one billion dollars for research and development to make CO2 sequestration a reality. However, carbon sequestration, and the quest for “clean coal”, is not the silver bullet solution for producing hydrogen that the Bush administration is portraying it to be.
Carbon sequestration is the process of permanently storing CO2 gas in geologic or ocean reservoirs. If proven to be safe, permanent, and environmentally benign, sequestration could be used to reduce atmospheric CO2 emissions from burning coal and other fossil fuels, potentially making them more acceptable sources of hydrogen or electricity in the short term. However, producing hydrogen from coal can never be an option unless the carbon from coal can be stored safely for the long-term without other adverse environmental impacts. The safety and long-term viability of storage is uncertain, and the adverse environmental and health impacts of coal mining, mountain top removal and power plant waste disposal are still a problem with even the most advanced coal fired power plant and carbon sequestration technology being considered.
Nuclear power could also be used to produce hydrogen, but there are unresolved safety and disposal issues that have not been adequately addressed. Nuclear power plants are also vulnerable to potential terrorist attacks. Still, the Bush administration is seeking more than a billion dollars to develop a new nuclear power plant designed to produce hydrogen.
There is another way to produce hydrogen—one that uses no fossil fuels or nuclear power in the process. Renewable sources of energy—photovoltaic solar cells, wind, small sustainable hydropower, geothermal, and even wave power— are technologies that are available today and are increasingly being used to produce electricity. That electricity, in turn, can be used, in a process called electrolysis, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Once produced, the hydrogen can be stored and used, when needed, to generate electricity or be used directly as a fuel. Storage is the key to making renewable energy economically viable. That’s because when renewable energy is harnessed to produce electricity, the electricity flows immediately. So, if the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, or the water isn’t flowing, electricity can’t be generated. But, if some of the electricity being generated is used to extract hydrogen from water, which can then be stored, for later use, society will have a more continuous supply of power.
Clean biomass, which includes non-genetically modified sustainably grown energy crops and sustainably retrievable agriculture wastes, could also be an important near-term source of hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles and electricity generation. Clean biomass is a proven source of renewable energy that is utilized today for generating heat, electricity, and liquid transportation fuels. Clean biomass can be used to produce hydrogen through a process called gasification in which the biomass is converted to a gas and hydrogen is extracted.
Virtually no net greenhouse gas emissions result because a natural cycle is maintained in which carbon is extracted from the atmosphere during plant growth and is released during hydrogen production. Replanting and reforesting are prerequisite for maintaining a renewable hydrogen supply from biomass.
The Bush administration says that harnessing hydrogen will free the U.S. from dependence on Mideast oil and provide a non-polluting source of energy for electricity and transport. In reality, the White House plan calls for massive subsidies to the coal and nuclear industries to extract hydrogen—a black hydrogen agenda. While Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham claims that the Bush administration is equally committed to research and development of renewable sources of energy to extract hydrogen—a green hydrogen agenda—the current energy bill tells a different story. The bill contains subsidies of more than $8 billion to the fossil fuels and nuclear industries and less than $4 billion to the renewable energy industries in its current draft.
Moreover, despite continued public pronouncements by the Department of Energy that it is equally committed to promoting renewable sources of energy, the White House and their Congressional allies have systematically blocked efforts in Congress to establish benchmarks and target dates for the phasing in of renewable sources of energy in the generation of electricity and for transport. The European Union, by contrast, has made a commitment to produce 22 percent of its electricity and 12 percent of its overall energy from renewable sources of energy by 2010.
Therefore, while we favor an international research and development partnership to help usher in a hydrogen economy, we oppose the U.S. government becoming the Secretariat as long as the Bush administration’s agenda is to use hydrogen as a Trojan horse to foster the interests of the fossil fuel and nuclear industries and to avoid dealing with important environmental issues today. With this consideration in mind, we have written letters to the Presidents and Energy Ministers of each of the countries invited to take part in the IPHE, urging them to oppose the U.S. proposal that it be the secretariat of the IPHE unless the Bush administration is willing to agree to set renewable energy benchmarks and targets equivalent to those established by the European Union.
The Green Hydrogen Coalition believes that the full energy and ecological benefits of a hydrogen future will only be realized if renewable sources of energy are prioritized and increasingly phased in, eventually becoming the global source for extracting hydrogen. The Coalition advocates an intentional program to build a renewable hydrogen based future. While the green hydrogen economy is being phased in, the Coalition advocates simultaneously dealing with today’s environmental problems directly and without delay through immediate implementation of solutions that are currently available, including: significant increases to vehicle fuel economy, the introduction of hybrid electric vehicles which pave the way to fuel cell cars, the redesign and overhaul of the nation’s power grid, massive energy conservation measures, the Kyoto Protocol global warming treaty, and benchmarks targeting renewable energy adoption. The Coalition believes that these initiatives should parallel efforts by the IPHE to subsidize and underwrite the research and development of renewable energy technology, hydrogen and fuel cells. Governments should set the goal of a fully integrated green hydrogen economy by the middle of the 21st century.
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