Imagine a giant coal plant or other fossil fuel power plant spewing black smoke into the atmosphere, increasing greenhouse gases. Now imagine your hydrogen car, which is supposed to produce water as its only emission, spewing the same smoke out of its tailpipe. Does your so-called “clean” car look so good anymore? Hydrogen cars themselves may directly produce no harmful emissions, but the hydrogen fuel that powers them is not created in an environmentally-friendly manner. In the United States, the vast majority of power plants are fossil-fuel-burning, with fossil fuels producing 89 percent of the energy produced in the United States. Furthermore, much of the clean energy in the United States comes from aging nuclear power plants that will soon be out of commission. Unless these plants are replaced, even more energy in the United States could come from fossil fuels. Since hydrogen is currently produced using electricity generated by these plants in a process that is only about 70 percent efficient, it turns out that just about as much greenhouse gas is produced by creating the hydrogen to power hydrogen cars as is produced by gasoline-powered cars themselves. Consequently, while hydrogen cars may indeed be an environmentally-friendly alternative option in countries where clean energy sources provide the majority of the electricity, it is not so in the United States. Considering our heavy reliance on fossil fuels for electricity, hydrogen cars offer negligible benefits for the environment.
In addition to their negligible benefits for the environment, hydrogen cars are not economically feasible in the United States. There are a few hundred thousand gas stations in the United States. To replace that many gas stations with hydrogen fueling stations would cost billions of dollars. Consequently, companies do not want to invest in building hydrogen fueling stations without car companies first introducing hydrogen cars. However, car companies do not want to introduce a hydrogen car if there are no hydrogen stations to fuel it. Since neither side wants to risk being the first to invest in large-scale production, it is unlikely that hydrogen cars will be a common sight in the near future.
However, we are not doomed to reliance on environmentally-damaging, fossil-fuel-burning cars. While hydrogen cars may not be a feasible environmentally-friendly automotive alternative in the coming years, other options do exist. A tax on fuel mileage could provide an incentive for consumers to buy cars with better mileage and for car companies to produce vehicles with higher mileage ratings. This would in turn reduce gasoline consumption by cars-a very beneficial point to the environment. Hybrid cars offer another alternative. Hybrid cars get significantly better mileage than gasoline cars, and unlike hydrogen cars, they are already on the market; unfortunately, the main problem is their cost. However, if the government were to subsidize hybrid cars in one way or another, they would become much more popular. The popularization of hybrid vehicles would in turn reduce the stress on the world’s oil industry while helping the environment and while providing a smooth transition from gasoline cars to alternatively-powered cars.
By shifting towards higher mileage cars and hybrid cars now, we can afford to wait for a more opportune time to introduce an alternatively-powered car, such as a hydrogen-powered car. We can allow the technology to be developed and fine-tuned in smaller countries more suited to attempt the large change from gasoline cars to hydrogen cars, and then decide how to best adapt the technology to the United States. This will also make the technology cheaper, and as investors see the success of hydrogen cars overseas, they will become more likely to invest in the United States. Furthermore, as wind and nuclear power become more practical and widespread in the United States, there will be a larger abundance of clean energy that can be used to produce hydrogen fuel, making hydrogen-powered cars a truly cleaner alternative. Thus, by using hybrid and high-mileage cars to transition to hydrogen cars, we will be able to transition in the not-too-distant future while maintaining the best balance between protecting the environment and successfully changing over to alternatively-powered cars.
Barbieri can be reached at [email protected]