BMW has recently announced pacesetting plans to introduce the Hydrogen 7 to a small pool of U.S. consumers later this year, ideally becoming the true (read: environmentally friendly) “Ultimate Driving Machine.” The vehicle will utilize an internal combustion engine capable of being powered on either gasoline—thus providing the common consumer demand of 300 miles—or on liquid hydrogen for about 125 miles.
So is hydrogen the solution for decreasing our dependency on oil, or will the first models merely end up as dead as General Motors’ electric vehicles?
With more time, money and engineering entrepreneurship, mass-produced hydrogen-powered cars may be possible. Yet do we want to wait for an alternative that may not be the best alternative, or should we seek what’s viable at the present moment? Currently, plug-in electric hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) are a better, cheaper and more readily available option than hydrogen-powered cars—despite how snazzy advertising and quick science may make the hydrogen cars appear.
At first glance, hydrogen seems like the perfect solution for our infamous car culture, which chugs gasoline faster than a pre-initiated frat boy downs a bounty of beer. According to the April issue of Scientific American, US Vehicles consume 383 gallons of gasoline a day; do the math and you have about 140 billion gallons annually. That’s about two-thirds of total national oil consumption, half of which is imported from overseas.
Hydrogen, unlike gasoline, can come from both renewable and non-renewable resources. BMW, in their brochure for the Hydrogen 7, highlights the car’s green selling point: the electricity used to split water molecules, which provides an alternative to fossil fuels, could come from renewable energy sources.
However, the use of renewable energy sources for hydrogen-powered cars currently does not appear to be economically feasible, particularly as only two percent of energy production currently falls into the reusable category. A 2004 California Academy of Sciences study even foresaw that fossil fuels would be the source of hydrogen for “several decades.”
While hydrogen fuels generate less carbon dioxide than conventional internal combustion engines, its production, according to the March/April issue of MIT’s Technology Review, generates four times more pollution than a vehicle that runs on methane, diesel or gasoline.
With global warming making its presence noticeably felt and heard, it’s time for automakers—and consumers—to take stronger, more tangible action. As of 2003, transportation emissions account for one-third of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
While hydrogen vehicles would require an entirely new network of pipelines and fuel stations, PHEVs are currently capable of reducing petroleum consumption and emissions. The half-gas, half-electric vehicle that allows its battery to be recharged overnight provides a better bet than hydrogen-powered cars—or, really, any cars.
The Department of Energy (DOE) made a smart move earlier this month in granting $14 million in research for plug-in hybrid batteries.
Currently, the DOE estimates that hybrids produce 22 percent fewer greenhouse gases than purely petroleum-powered cars; for PHEVs, the reduction stands at 36 percent.
PHEVs are also enormously economically friendly. At an average cost of $3 per gallon of gas, a non-hybrid car costs 8 to 20 cents per mile, according to the advocacy group CalCars. With a PHEV, taking into account the average U.S. electricity rate of 9 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), these costs drop to 2 to 4 cents per mile.
And, if all automotive alternatives fail, we can always ride bikes.