Environmental & Safety Issues: Hydrogen or Hybrids?
In President Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address, he proposed a $1.2 billion investment for hydrogen fuel cell technology research. What is not so well known is that in November 2001, the U.S. Department of Energy developed the "National Vision of America's Transition to a Hydrogen Economy-to 2030 and Beyond" leading to workshops where 250 representatives from 135 organizations projected what would be required to achieve a hydrogen economy. The conclusion was that "Hydrogen has the potential to play a major role in America's future energy system...provided that all stakeholders work together to overcome an array of technical, economic, and institutional challenges."
As a directive from the President, hydrogen was presented as a lofty solution without an interim policy strategy to stimulate the fuel efficiency during the lengthy research and development phase expected for the hydrogen fuel cell and other infrastructure requirements. This meant that issues such as raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards (expressed in miles per gallon of a manufacturer's fleet of cars or light trucks) would not be part of the plan, sending a confusing message to domestic automakers that had already begun aggressive developments on alternative fuel vehicles. The unintended consequence of the hydrogen strategy was the creation of a dichotomy between two "green" technologies-hydrogen and alternative fuel or hybrid vehicles.
From a technical standpoint, some automakers like Ford Motor Co. have already begun to focus efforts on hydrogen fuel cells. According to Ford's 2003 Technology Report, "pure hydrogen fuel is the ultimate goal." Ford estimates that fuel cell commercialization may be only 10 years away, but others are not so optimistic. For example, Dr. Robert Uhrig, professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee and distinguished scientist emeritus at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, believes the hydrogen economy may actually be 50 years away, given the significant engineering and social challenges required to be overcome in order to efficiently and economically produce, store, distribute, dispense and use hydrogen fuel.
While we debate hydrogen technology in the U.S., the foreign market has been busy with a more near-term attainable technology-hybrid technology. A hybrid automobile operates by utilizing gasoline and electric power. Because of this improved efficiency, hybrid cars are able to achieve increased gas mileage and reduced emissions.
The Toyota Prius was the first mass-produced hybrid car in the world, and the Honda Insight was the first hybrid sold in the U.S. in model year 2000. These cars are not just receiving praise from environmental groups; institutions such as Motor Trend, Popular Science and Consumer Reports have filled the mantles of foreign automakers with awards like Car of the Year, Best Innovation and many others. Economically speaking, aside from a technological and environmental feather-in-the-hat, there is a market for these vehicles. The waiting list for a Toyota Prius may be more than 12 months.
A criticism of this market is directed at the American automakers. Try to research hybrid cars using popular Internet search engines, and you will find nearly all of the top results are for Honda and Toyota-the Big Three are nowhere to be found. Chevrolet and GMC have plans to release hybrid pickups in late 2004, but if their release is anything like the Ford Escape hybrid, which has seen a number of delays, it could be some time before you're able to test-drive a domestic hybrid.
Where does this leave the American consumer that is interested in managing fuel expenses and doing their part to protect the environment while supporting American industry? Consumers face the realization that they are spectators in a tug-of-war for the limited resources needed for both hydrogen and hybrid technologies. At the same time, industry executives, as well as environmentalists, are left scratching their heads on where to focus their efforts. Do they aggressively pursue alternative fuels, or develop technology to use the existing petroleum-based fuel system more efficiently? One requires years of research and the fortitude of the public and private sector-the other is already here.
With gasoline prices on the rise, and more Americans uncomfortable with the dependence on foreign oil, research and development of alternative fuel sources will undoubtedly increase. American automakers have been followers in the hybrid revolution, but as Larry Burns, Vice President, Research & Development and Planning for General Motors advises, "The advanced technology race is a marathon, not a sprint." One thing is certain: the race will yield progress along the way, regardless of which automakers crosses the finish line first.