Thursday, October 12, 2006

Critics Call GM Fuel Cell Strategy "Insane"

Well, OK, only one critic, Joseph Romm, executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, used that exact word, but MIT's Technology Review quotes a number of experts that believe General Motor's plan to move aggressively into the testing of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells is a waste of money and effort. According to an article from last week,
...GM's focus on creating a fleet of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles could be a costly mistake as a strategy for combating global climate change and for decreasing U.S. dependence on oil, many energy experts say. The problem, these critics argue, is that powering electric vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells is both inefficient and expensive.

Hydrogen fuel must be extracted from fossil fuels or water--both energy-consuming processes. Once produced, the gas must be compressed or liquefied for distribution, and this process and the distribution itself take yet more energy. By the time the hydrogen has been delivered to the fuel cell for conversion to electricity, then, a significant amount of energy has been lost to these processes.

"Along the way, you've thrown away nearly three-quarters of the electricity. No one in their right mind would do that--if your alternative is to just string a power line from zero-carbon electricity and charge a battery onboard a car," says Joseph Romm, executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, and formerly in charge of energy efficiency and renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Romm says a more promising alternative to internal-combustion engines are plug-in hybrids, which combine an electric motor powered by batteries with a conventional gasoline- or diesel-powered engine, but rely on the electric motor far more than today's hybrids.
GM argues that fuel-cell vehicles are only an interim solution, and that the real alternative to the internal combustion engine will be "...all-electric vehicles that feature "no compromises" with gasoline-powered vehicles..." This seems like an odd argument -- wouldn't hybrids and plug-in hybrids seem like a much more logical bridge to all-electric cars than the fuel cell? Not to mention that vehicles like the Tesla Roadster, while certainly not an affordable alternative at present, do provide all-electric power with "no compromises."

I'm still kind of foggy on this whole love affair with hydrogen-powered vehicles: they're not commercially viable, won't be for decades, and will require a whole new fueling infrastructure. They're definitely neat to think about -- I've been entranced by the idea at points -- but hybrids seem like a very viable (and very popular) technology that's commercially available now. Is it just me, or does it look like GM's taken a page from the coal industry's playbook: hype a technology that won't be available in the near future while basically continuing to do the same old thing? And wouldn't you think they'd have learned the pitfalls of doing that from the butt-kicking they took from the Japanese automakers 20-25 years ago...? I'm scratching my head...

Via The Energy Blog

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