Raphael Lopoukhine. North Shore News. North Vancouver, B.C.: Sep 10, 2006. p. 3

Will hydrogen save the planet?

Critics say Olympic plans to showcase hydrogen are too little too late

A senior U.S. researcher says the planned "Hydrogen Highway" from Whistler to Victoria with a refuelling station in North Vancouver is "wildly premature."

Industry and government want to showcase hydrogen technology at the 2010 Vancouver/Whistler Winter Olympics, but funding problems persist. Wide-scale commercialization is uncertain and still many years distant. In any event, any move to hydrogen may be too little and too late to combat the climate crisis, say critics.

Meanwhile, a plant in North Vancouver that could provide hydrogen power for 20,000 automobiles is only driving a dozen and -- ironically -- powering a car wash.

Joseph Romm, author of the Hype about Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate, came to his "wildly premature" conclusion based on the research for his book and previously as the head of hydrogen research at the Department of Energy under the Clinton administration. Romm claims further research is needless.

"The idea of the highway was that there was a chicken and egg problem: Who would build the cars if there is no fuel available and who would provide the fuelling stations if there is no one there to pay for the fuel," said Romm, now a senior fellow at the Washington- based think tank, the Centre for American Progress.

"Government has to intervene if you want to solve that problem, but there is no point in doing it until you are close to a practical car, otherwise you are not jump-starting anything, you are potentially flushing it all down the toilet because you may not build that car, or someone will come along with a better alternative- fuel car," said Romm.

The Hydrogen Highway is more than just a highway, its defenders point out. It is a catch-all umbrella term covering a wide variety of hydrogen fuel-based projects, both producing and using hydrogen. It is part 2010 Olympics demonstration, part testing ground for new hydrogen technology and part booster of the commercialization of those technologies, said Alison Grigg, manager of the Hydrogen Highway.

But the Hydrogen Highway is also, like its name sounds, a stretch of highway from Victoria to Whistler, originally planned to be outfitted with seven hydrogen refuelling stations. Currently three fuelling stations along the Hydrogen Highway are planned for operation, the rest will come on stream when the demand requires it, said Grigg.

The highway is not, however, meant to kick-start the region's transformation from fossil fuel to hydrogen infrastructure.

"We are not really building gas stations," said Grigg. "In the future, the delivery of hydrogen to consumers may even take the form of home distribution," she said. "We don't know what the market will bring."

Part of the original plan for the Hydrogen Highway envisioned a fleet of hydrogen-powered busses ferrying athletes and dignitaries alike from the Richmond airport to Whistler. Grigg said the federal government has not yet offered to match industry and provincial funds for the project, so the buses are on hold. She said, if approved, it would take at least three to four years before the busses could be operational and the hydrogen infrastructure installed. With only three years and five months until the Games, the deadline is quickly approaching.

The overall scale of funding for hydrogen research in Canada is largely coming from industry. Over the last five years, industry has poured in a billion dollars compared to the $215 million from government, said Grigg.

Defenders of the Hydrogen Highway say the lack of government funding is what is stifling the scope and ambition of the project.

"The amount of support seems to be small from government," said University of British Columbia chemistry professor Michael Fryzuk, who in the past worked on hydrogen projects and believes the "future is hydrogen." He said what is lacking is a concentration of effort by several universities and government researching hydrogen technology.

Romm said the uncertainty of the technology makes it foolish for government to take on the ambitious and risky venture of building infrastructure for an unproven technology that is several decades away from commercialization.

"That's not government buying down the cost of hybrid cars that automakers are already making to suck them into the marketplace faster -- this is government taking a roll of the dice and saying 'I know that hydrogen cars are the wave of the future, therefore I can spend all of this money,'" said Romm.

Some of the Hydrogen Highway's projects are exploring innovative ways of using hydrogen, such as in flashlights, forklifts and even running a car wash. Hydrogen's hopes, however, have always been pinned on its potential as a zero-greenhouse-gas-emitting fuel for vehicles, replacing the carbon dioxide-producing gasoline and diesel. The transportation sector is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Canada, next to the oil and gas industry.

The high hopes for hydrogen are grounded by its greatest weakness. The most common way to produce hydrogen is by using fossil fuels. Hydrogen does not produce energy, it is a carrier, and it is usually made by heating up natural gas or by running an electrical current through water -- you need energy to make hydrogen.

One of the biggest hurdles for mass commercialization is generating the hydrogen without fossil fuels. That's "everyone's blue sky goal," said Fryzuk.

The hydrogen produced for the Hydrogen Highway is trying to avoid fossil fuels by either capturing it from a waste stream or producing it with renewable energy, said Grigg. The green-produced hydrogen will then be burned in converted combustion engines, or used in fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel cells are a lot like batteries but with a replenishing source of fuel and only water as the waste.

The big picture goal of fossil-fuel-free produced hydrogen is not a supply concern for the Hydrogen Highway project; if anything, they have too much green-produced hydrogen and not enough demand.

One production node planned to be opened in the fall is run by North Vancouver-based Hydrogen Technology and Energy Corporation (HTEC), but managed by Sacre-Davey under the banner of the Integrated Waste Hydrogen Utilization Project (IWHUP), which gets $12.2 million from government and $6.1 million from industry.

The IWHUP plant in North Vancouver will be cleaning and refining hydrogen produced as a byproduct of creating sodium chlorate. Fossil fuels are used in producing the chemical compound, but without HTEC's investment, all the hydrogen would be flared up into the atmosphere and the energy lost.

Currently, Grigg said, only a portion of the hydrogen will be captured because the demand does not exist. HTEC will only be capturing enough hydrogen for eight pick-up trucks; four TransLink- run, hydrogen/natural gas burning buses; and a car wash run on hydrogen fuel cells.

Collin Armstrong, director of IWHUP, said there is enough hydrogen to power 20,000 cars just coming out of North Vancouver. In Canada there are 20 plants with the same potential currently wasting their hydrogen, said HTEC's site manager Alex Moret.

Romm said the time for using the hydrogen for experimental purposes is past, something that should have been explored 20 or 30 years ago. He said the hydrogen should be put back into the chemical company's energy stream or back into the electrical grid. "Flaring hydrogen is like flaring natural gas, it's just plain stupid," he said.

Romm said since hydrogen is not a technology of today and may not be one of tomorrow, projects like the Hydrogen Highway create a false sense of security in the general public because they give off the image that government is tackling climate change, when much more is needed.

"It makes people feel good because it is sexy and flashy and has a certain high-tech trendyness to it, but in my mind it is not part of the serious effort to take on the defining problem of this century," he said.

University of British Columbia professor of climatology Garry Clarke agrees with Romm's assessment that action is needed with today's technology. "Belief in new technologies encourages a passive response from a lot of people," he said.

"We have to do some very serious stuff soon," said Clarke. "It would take at least two decades to get up to speed where it (hydrogen fuel cell cars) would make an impact. I think the crisis demands action much faster than that."

"We've got to get sober pretty quickly," said Romm. "We don't really have a lot of time -- you see what is happening with the pine beetle in British Columbia -- to be wasting on what I consider is largely a pie in the sky."

The pine beetle, unhindered by seasonal frosts linked by many to global warming, is multiplying and destroying millions of hectares of trees across British Columbia. It has been dubbed Canada's worst natural disaster. The release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community as the cause of already observable climate change that is projected to accelerate.

"On our current path, we're going to change the temperature 10 degrees Fahrenheit. If one degree has radically changed the ecosystem of British Columbia, what's 10 going to do?" asked Romm. "The goal is to reduce CO2 emissions. If that is your main goal, then a hydrogen car in my mind is not the way to do it."

Romm said the solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is through the adoption of current technologies, starting with the soon- to-be released plug-in electric car -- a technology capable of travelling much farther on battery power than today's internal recharging hybrids, he said.

Meanwhile Grigg, who has read Romm's book, welcomes all technology that eliminates the use of fossil fuels, but does not agree that investment should cease.

"I wouldn't want to exclude fuel-cell vehicles and pursuing them, because they are right now the only zero-emission alternative that doesn't require extended periods of plugging in," she said.

All parties believe the government should play a more interventionist role in kick-starting alternative forms of energy.

As well, they all have the fear of unrestrained global warming overshadowing their individual work. The distinguishing factor between their attitudes is their belief in hydrogen technology as the future. Will it arrive in time to help mitigate the climate crisis?

The hydrogen backers say it is the future, while Clarke, the climatologist, and Romm, the informed skeptic, say it will be too late.