Fuel cells and the natural gas revolution

Last week, I wrote to you about an alternative fuel — natural gas — which in a welcome contrast with the President’s greenback energy experiments is being adopted freely by American truckers. This week, I want to highlight the promise the natural gas revolution holds for consumer automobiles—but not in the way you might expect. While the collapse in natural gas prices is likely to induce demand for natural gas cars, it also might finally make it feasible to bring a space-age technology to our cars: hydrogen fuel cells.

Fuel cells are a completely different way of thinking about powering our cars.  Instead of an engine which has many moving parts, a fuel cell is a power generation device that is solid-state. It’s just two plates of metal or composite with a membrane in the middle in which gasses mix—air along with some other fuel. When the fuel passes between the two plates, a chemical reaction produces electricity. Because fuel cells do not combust fuel, they are far more effective use of energy than a standard combustion engine—and they emit no pollutants to create smog or reduce air quality.

What does this have to do with the natural gas revolution? Fuel cells can run off a variety of energy sources, using different metals and composites, but two of the most common fuels are natural gas and hydrogen. Since industrial hydrogen (the best choice for use in cars) is itself produced by “reforming” natural gas, the same steep drop in the price which has made practical natural gas powered trucks also slashes a main input cost for hydrogen fuel cells.

Unlike many of President Obama’s favorite energy fantasies (such as algae), fuel cells are a viable option for many uses today, freely adopted in industries that need reliable, clean fuel sources. Forklifts, for instance, operate indoors where combustion engines would necessitate expensive ventilation systems. Instead of building a fleet of battery powered forklifts, which require perhaps two or three extra batteries for every forklift in operation, major companies such as Walmart and Coca-Cola are choosing equipment powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which refuel in minutes and run at full power for eight hours. Similarly, hydrogen fuel cells are already being used in cities around the world to power public transportation buses. Viewed over time, in many cases they’re simply a better choice.

With the boom in natural gas production, they may soon be attractive in many more applications. The really exciting promise of hydrogen fuel cells, in fact, is the automobile. Because hydrogen is one of the most basic elements on earth, it could serve as a stable, inexpensive, and universal source of fuel indefinitely.  And just as in the case of the forklifts, hydrogen cars would refuel in minutes and have a range of hundreds of miles, compared with battery powered cars that take hours to recharge and travel uselessly short distances.

The major auto manufacturers have already invested millions in the development of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, and Honda, among others, have all demonstrated hydrogen vehicles.

Oddly, while indiscriminately wasting billions of dollars on failed alternative energy projects, the Obama administration appears much less enthused about fuel cell technology. The President proposed large cuts to fuel cell programs this year—a 20 percent reduction—while doubling down on solar and battery technology that has lagged far behind in real world results. When asked about hydrogen fuel cells’ potential in testimony before Congress last year, Secretary of Energy even made the bizarre claim that “natural gas will have to be significantly more abundant and less costly” to support fuel cell cars—bizarre, because natural gas is more abundant, and less expensive relative to oil, than at any point in history.

Once again in this instance, the administration’s policy of punishing success and subsidizing failure seems attributable to its radical environmental ideology. Secretary Chu’s tepid view of fuel cells appears rooted in the knowledge that reforming natural gas into hydrogen produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct—the same reason he’s opposed to conventional automobiles.

The administration’s confused energy approach notwithstanding, the challenges facing hydrogen fuel cell cars are much like those facing natural gas trucks. There’s a chicken-and-egg problem until energy suppliers invest in refueling stations. Like the natural gas highway, the best way to enable investments that can make the technology commercially successful is to implement serious tax reform and move to 100 percent expensing, to allow American business to write off new equipment in one year. Potentially, the infrastructure for hydrogen fuel could even piggyback on top of the developing natural gas highway, since hydrogen can be reformed from natural gas right on-site. 

The President’s approach to energy policy seems to exist in isolation from the real world: he pushes solar and battery technologies that can’t compete with conventional fuels while ignoring other choices—natural gas and hydrogen fuel cells—that are already adopted over gasoline in many instances. American won’t reach the next generation of energy technologies because of President Obama. We’ll reach it in spite of him.