NEW YORK, July 11 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush's State of the Union speech earlier this year contained a hydrogen bomb of sorts for the nation's energy future.
"I'm proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles," Bush said in January. "A single chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car -- producing only water, not exhaust fumes."
Constantly damp roadways notwithstanding, hydrogen appears at first glance to be a far cleaner alternative than fossil fuels. When oil, coal and natural gas are burned, they produce such nasties as acid rain, smog and, arguably, global warming. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells also promise to be far more efficient than internal combustion engines.
"The United States uses almost 20 million barrels of petroleum every day, around 12 million of which power surface transport," said Paul Grant of the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. "A major portion of this is wasted, as internal combustion engines have an efficiency of 20 to 30 percent. Only 3 million barrels, therefore, are usefully consumed."
Fuel cells, on the other hand, could reach efficiencies of about 65 percent, Grant said, "much better than can be obtained by gasoline or diesel engines."
Like a battery, a fuel cell generates power with chemical reactions. Commonly, hydrogen and oxygen are combined to make water, producing electricity that can be used to drive a car's motor.
Political support for hydrogen is more than just national. Even the politically touchy European Union is collaborating with the United States on hydrogen after signing the Cooperation in the Area of Fuel Cells agreement last month.
"The first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free," Bush said in his January address.
Possible, but the president's assertion about hydrogen being non-polluting might contain a catch: nuclear radiation.
Hydrogen is the simplest element and most plentiful gas in the universe, so at first it might seem easy to obtain as fuel. The problem is hydrogen almost never occurs by itself on Earth. Instead, it binds easily with other elements -- most commonly when two hydrogen atoms stick with an oxygen atom to produce one water molecule.
If hydrogen replaced oil completely, Grant explained, the United States would need to generate some 230,000 metric tons of the gas daily or "enough in liquid form to fill 2,200 space shuttle booster rockets or, as a gas, to lift a total of 13,000 Hindenberg airships."
Extracting such huge volumes of hydrogen requires energy -- a lot of it. To get all this hydrogen from water -- hydrogen's most readily available source -- "about 400 gigawatts of continuously available electric power generation have to be added to the grid, nearly doubling the present U.S. national average power capacity," Grant said.
Based on present technologies, that much power would require roughly 800 natural-gas-fired, combined-cycle electric generating units of 500-megawatt capacity. Or, 500 coal-fired units of 800-megawatt capacity. Or 200 Hoover Dams of 2 gigawatts each, or 100 French-type nuclear clusters containing four reactors producing about 1 gigawatt each, Grant calculated.
Furthermore, the average capital cost of building an electric power plant is roughly $1,000 per kilowatt. This means the hydrogen economy would require at least $400 billion, or 5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product -- not including hydrogen storage and delivery costs.
Given those requirements, Grant contends nuclear power is the only practical and clean way to go for the hydrogen economy. He argued as much in a commentary appearing in the July 10 issue of the British journal Nature. His case is based on the constraints -- including environmental constraints -- associated with the alternative power generation methods.
For example, the country simply would not tolerate 200 Hoover Dams. As far as wind and solar power are concerned, they "are expected to approach power densities of about 10 to 100 watts per square meter, respectively, when the wind is blowing hardest and the sun shining the brightest," Grant said. Therefore, to power a hydrogen economy, he calculates an area the size of New York state as necessary for wind and a space half the size of Denmark for solar arrays.
Burning biomass also could yield power, but it would require an area about the size of Nevada, and it would negate the non-polluting advantage because combustion releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
That leaves the nuclear reactors, which represents, relatively, a much smaller and more manageable effort.
Not everyone agrees, however. Alan Nogee, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean energy program in Cambridge, Mass., argues nuclear power has far too many strings attached.
"The (nuclear) industry says it can be cost-competitive, but also insists that it needs loan guarantees for 50 percent of the cost of building new reactors. It says it can build a new generation of inherently safe reactors, but also insists on continued exemption from liability in the event of a catastrophic accident at one of the new generation of reactors," Nogee told United Press International.
He added Grant's land requirements for wind and solar power were skewed.
"Solar technologies can be installed on existing buildings, rather than set-aside open land," Nogee said. "Wind turbines themselves take up a fraction of the area of wind farms -- land between the turbines can be productively used for agriculture and ranching."
Natural resource and environmental advocates see the claims of nuclear power solving hydrogen woes as ploys to resurrect the long moribund U.S. nuclear power industry. Nuclear power has consistently had the largest cost overruns of any energy technology in the nation, and no new nuclear power plant in the United States for 30 years.
"The nuclear industry has always had powerful friends in Congress and the administration, but never more so than today," Nogee said. "It's a mystery how policymakers can continue to say that clean, sustainable, safe technologies like wind, solar and other renewable energy sources should learn to compete in the free market, while allowing subsidies on the nuclear industry and continuing to spend billions after billions after 50 years of ongoing safety and economic challenges."
Nogee is trying to keep an open mind toward the novel $1.1 billion nuclear plant proposed in the Energy Policy Act of 2003. The high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor pilot facility would be dedicated to generating hydrogen and electricity at the same time, and would be built at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, in Idaho Falls, within 10 years.
The Senate's energy bill also proposes subsidizing half the cost of six to 10 new HTGR power plants in the United States. HTGR plants are expected to generate less radioactive waste than many existing ones.
"There certainly is potential for improvement from today's technology, but there are still many unanswered questions about safety, waste disposal and cost," Nogee said. Although the energy bill is scheduled for completion before Congress leaves for recess in August, he added, most observers of the debate doubt the legislation is going anywhere this year.