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Crossing the Red Line

Luckily, a pair of new books help unravel that question. The most direct answers come from Joseph J. Romm, in The Hype About Hydrogen. Romm is no opponent of hydrogen. In his years in the Clinton Department of Energy he helped to strongly increase funding for hydrogen research; later, as an investor, he helped back SurePower systems, which in 1999, amid much publicity, sold the first commercial, stationary, hydrogen fuel cell to an Omaha-based credit card processor that was willing to pay a premium for its promise of uninterruptible power for its office buildings. This is the kind of fuel cell–based micropower installation that Vaitheeswaran foresees as a growing source of energy; sadly, since 1999 SurePower hasn’t made a comparable sale, and the company that actually manufactured the fuel cells is now phasing them out. And such on-site installations are the easy part of the fuel cell future—putting them in cars will require making them small and finding a way to distribute hydrogen around the country.

Such technical obstacles, described in great detail in Romm’s flatly written book, have turned him into a hydrogen realist. He considers, for instance, all the different methods of distributing hydrogen around the country for use by drivers of Bush’s FreedomCar. Suppose you load compressed hydrogen into canisters and put them on the back of tractor trailers: you will need fifteen of these trucks to serve the same number of vehicles as one gasoline tanker does today, and if on average they’re traveling three hundred miles, they’re using 40 percent of all the energy they deliver just to transport it. Suppose you decide instead to produce the hydrogen at filling stations with small steam methane reformers. A recent study by Argonne National Laboratory, making fairly optimistic technical predictions, found that building the necessary infrastructure to service 40 percent of American vehicles by this method would exceed $600 billion.

But here’s the really startling piece of news that emerges from Romm’s book: if you worry about global warming, that investment won’t necessarily get you much. For the last couple of years I’ve driven a hybrid-electric Honda Civic which has a gasoline engine and also a self-recharging electric motor to augment power. It works exactly like a normal vehicle, goes eighty miles per hour on the highway, drives easily up any hill, and gets fifty miles to the gallon without any of the problems of cost, technology, or infrastructure that hydrogen presents. Even if we manage to solve the huge number of difficulties that Romm invokes, in the end the hydrogen car that results will almost certainly use natural gas as the feedstock for obtaining hydrogen. It will produce about as much carbon per mile as my Honda Civic (which, in turn, should only get better with fifteen years of tinkering). Even diesel engines, which are as old-fashioned as automotive technology gets, may provide comparable reductions for far less money. Romm concludes:

Hydrogen vehicles are unlikely to achieve even a five percent market penetration by 2030…. Neither government policy nor business investment should be based on the belief that hydrogen cars will have meaningful commercial success in the near- or medium term.

For now, at least, the smart money seems to agree. Ballard’s share price has fallen from a high of $140 to as low as $6, and 25 percent of its workforce has been laid off. Paul Roberts, in his book The End of Oil, quotes a hydrogen engineer:

I’m afraid that when we finally get people to stop associating hydrogen with bombs and the Hindenburg explosion, the next word they’ll think of will be “scam.”

The End of Oil is a stunning piece of work—perhaps the best single book ever produced about our energy economy and its environmental implications. Paul Roberts writes regularly for Harper’s magazine, and he has schooled himself deeply in these questions. He writes with authority and depth, which makes it all the worse that his message is almost unrelievedly gloomy—the dismal prospects for hydrogen are just a small part of his argument. He begins with a careful examination of an important question: Are we about to run out of oil? This, of course, is a question people have been asking since the oil shocks of the 1970s, but now they are asking it with greater and greater urgency because we’ve used vast quantities of oil in the three decades since, more oil than prospectors have been able to discover. (Earlier this winter, in fact, Shell’s CEO resigned when it became apparent that the company’s reserves had been overstated by billions of barrels.) Country after country—Britain, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway—seems to have neared or hit the peak of its production, and even with all kinds of new technological tricks their oil wells can no longer maintain output. Even the mighty Arab fields are not eternal. Roberts begins his book with an account of his shock on hearing that the Saudis’ vast wells at Ghawar now need huge injections of water to keep pumping.

Meanwhile, demand continues to soar. Roberts’s statistics are up to date, and appalling. As recently as last summer, forecasters were predicting world oil demand would rise 1.3 percent this year. But the Chinese desire for automobiles is growing so rapidly that in fact demand may rise 2.25 percent this year—or two million barrels more a day. He quotes the Tufts researcher Kelly Sims-Gallagher, who attended the recent Seventh Beijing International Auto Show. “You had no elbow room—you were just being carried along on this wave of people,” she said. “I’ve been in China many times, but I had never experienced crowding on this scale, and that was when it hit home how many people there are who are absolutely serious about buying a car.” Or, in the words of a Chinese auto executive, “You could see consumers’ fever.”

Roberts also concentrates on natural gas, which many see as the “bridge fuel” that will help us move from fossil fuels to an age of renewable energy. So many see it that way, in fact, that heightened demand for natural gas, largely from new electric power plants, is already straining supply. Unlike oil, gas is hard to move around: getting it from distant wells to North America or China will require liquefying it, an expensive technology whose spread will take time. And though it’s cleaner than coal or oil, it still produces carbon—at best it’s a stop gap.


In the long run what we need are carbon-free fuels. There are several possibilities. Some in the coal industry hope they can figure out ways to capture the carbon dioxide that comes from burning coal and inject it safely into underground pockets where it can’t warm the climate. This technology, as Roberts points out, is still in its infancy, and even the best cases that can be made for it are not exactly simple:

For every freight car of coal delivered to a [power plant], three cars of captured CO2 would need to be removed and somehow transported to a safe repository and placed underground—a task that, on a global scale, would involve handling a volume of waste material larger than the combined tonnage of the steel and iron industries.

Such efforts would add 30 to 50 percent to the cost of the electricity.

Then there’s solar energy and wind, the truly renewable sources of energy. In a perfect world, we’d use them to provide the electricity we need for houses and businesses, and also to extract the energy from hydrogen in fuel cells to power our cars. And indeed this corner of the industry is finally starting to really grow. During 2002 alone about $7 billion was invested in wind energy—the market is doubling in size every two and a half years, and by 2020 could easily be supplying 12 percent of global power needs. Solar panels are getting more efficient and less costly by the year as well—enough so that even without government subsidies they will be competitive in sunny parts of the world, including the US Southwest by 2008.

The problem, says Roberts, derives from the very nature of wind and sun. Sometimes the wind dies; sometimes the sky clouds over. This “intermittency” means that if a utility wants to add 100 megawatts of wind capacity, it has to build 250 megawatts’ worth of new wind turbines, which is enormously expensive to do. The ratio for solar power is even worse. Their intermittent effectiveness also means that they lack what the utilities call “dispatchability.” Unlike a gas or coal plant, in which you can increase power whenever demand soars, you simply can’t count on the renewables. Experts quoted by Roberts say this limits them to providing perhaps 20 percent of a region’s power—past that point there are too many power disruptions.

In the simplest terms, the energy challenge of the twenty-first century will be to satisfy a dramatically larger demand for energy while producing dramatically less carbon,” Roberts concludes. “Yet the availability of carbon-free energy on a mass scale will not happen without significant technological developments.” Such breakthroughs will not happen “until the market regards carbon as a cost to be avoided—not just in ‘progressive’ economies like Germany or England, but in the big economies of Russia, China, and above all the United States.” But, as we have seen, our leaders are largely uninterested in the carbon taxes that might help change the system.

Roberts’s prescription, and it is a balanced and rational one, involves muddling along for the moment while waiting for technological advance. As fears about global warming grow (as more Pentagon reports emerge, for instance), political support for carbon taxes and for taxes on gas-guzzling automobiles will increase. We should speed up the transition to natural gas, which, owing to its lower carbon content, will buy us a decade of grace. And we should hedge our bets technologically, “aggressively pursuing as many technologies as we can afford to” but not locking ourselves into any particular choice until we see where the best results lie.

This more or less describes the efforts of many outside the Bush administration who are trying with some success to influence energy policy, working from state capitals, city halls, and even some corporate headquarters. A number of states have adopted standards requiring utilities to provide 10 or 20 percent of electricity from renewables within the next decade. For instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he will continue to demand higher mileage standards for cars in California. Even in the US Senate, forty-three senators managed to vote for an (exceedingly modest) climate bill sponsored by Arizona Senator John McCain.1

This somewhat plodding approach is balanced and rational. It may be our only bet, in view of the power of the fossil fuel lobby and consumer resistance to higher prices. But it’s also an extremely dangerous gamble, even more than Roberts realizes. Before the Industrial Revolution, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere were about 275 parts per million. Since global warming was first seen as a danger in the 1980s, scientists have used twice that figure—550 parts per million—as a red line that should not be crossed.

Beyond it, they warn, the effects on the climate may be impossible to control. Right now, carbon dioxide makes up more than 380 parts per million in the atmosphere, and the proportion is steadily rising. So steadily that some, including Roberts, say it may no longer be possible to stay below 550 parts per million. We should, he writes, be cautious about adopting technology so as not to make costly mistakes, even if it means “temporarily” crossing that border. “Granted, such a strategy is risky,” he writes. Still, paraphrasing the Stanford economist Richard Richels, he contends that “by lowering replacement costs and allowing alternative technologies to mature, we dramatically improve our chances for making even greater reductions later on.”

In truth, though, the more we find out about climate, the more terrifying such gambles seem. Michael Oppenheimer, the Princeton researcher and longtime prophet of global warming, recently warned about the impact of such a strategy. “Say we go temporarily to 600 parts per million and stay there for a hundred years” (which is roughly the time that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere). “We find,” he told me,

it makes a difference of generally around half a degree Celsius. That may not sound like a lot, but the target of a lot of us here is to keep temperature rise to one or two Celsius more than we’ve already done. So that’s a significant chunk. What you put at risk, perhaps, is the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Greenland Ice Cap.

If you think the Gulf Stream predictions are scary, wait till the Pentagon starts calculating the sea level rise that comes when Antarctic ice slides into the ocean.

Two new books, in fact, make a strong case that the damage is not some future prospect but instead already very real, if only one knows where to look. Feeling the Heat, a collection of pieces by environmental reporters for E magazine, looks at regions around the world (including New York City and its harbor, which are also the subject of a big-budget greenhouse disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which Hollywood is now releasing). Their reporting from the northern Pacific coast, with its shrinking glaciers, or from Australia, where coral reefs are being bleached, or the ocean off California, where maritime food chains appear in danger of collapse, suggests the claim of the editor, Jim Motavalli, in his introduction to the book, that “whether it is politically convenient or not, ‘global warming’ has arrived.”

Later this month, Basic Books will publish Ross Gelbspan’s Boiling Point, the long-awaited sequel to The Heat Is On, his classic account of how oil and coal companies have been poisoning the debate over global warming with their expensive advocacy of junk science. Gelbspan, more than anyone else, helped to expose the disinformation, only to see those energy companies gain huge new power in the Bush administration. Now he worries that even people who are concerned about global warming, in their dismay at the lack of progress, may be setting the bar much too low, advocating only the smallest and most politically practical changes, all the while ignoring the physics and chemistry that indicates that a large-scale shift is likely to take place soon. His concluding chapter, “Rx for a Planetary Fever,” sets out perhaps the most thought out and plausible proposal for rapidly accelerating the transition to a new world.

In my reading, though Roberts is clearly more “realistic” politically, Gelbspan’s desperate demand for convulsive change displays a more acute realism, one informed by deep immersion in climate science. In view of the current political impasse over environment issues, it seems to me worth making the special efforts his analysis demands. Not just for a “Manhattan Project” to dramatically speed up technological innovation, but also large-scale attempts to make real changes in personal behavior. And not just to use energy more efficiently, but to use somewhat less of it. Two years ago, when Californians began to fear power shortages, they managed, simply through conservation, to cut electric demand more than 10 percent in the course of a few weeks. These small changes in habit could reinforce emerging technologies. For instance, my wife and I have solar panels on the roof of our house to supply some of our power, and they work well—but their biggest effect is to make us far more conscious of turning off lights. Similarly, my hybrid car saves energy in part because of its brilliantly designed engine but also because it comes with a display that tells me constantly how much gas I’m using and this, as a consequence, has cured me of a heavy foot on the pedal.2 If Roberts is correct in saying that the development of solar and wind power will face serious problems of “intermittency” and “dispatchability,” then we may even need to start thinking about energy a little differently—using more when it’s easily available

and less when it isn’t.

It would, of course, take leadership to make such changes, and one of the greatest sins of the Bush administration is that it squandered the best opportunity for that leadership we’ve ever had. It’s hard to imagine that Americans in the immediate after

math of September 11 wouldn’t have been open to a message of energy conservation and energy transition. In one speech the President could have made the SUV an indulgence to be avoided and the solar panel an almost mandatory accessory for every good patriot. Instead, we were told to return to business as usual. And we have, burning more energy than ever. Now we’re three years closer to the eventual reckonings.

James Gustave Speth’s Red Sky at Morning is a particularly useful summary of the ecological situation. A negotiator for ecological treaties in the Carter administration, he went on to found the World Resources Institute and serve as CEO of the United Nations Development Programme. Now dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, he has probably spent more hours in international conferences and treaty parleys than any other American. His careful and judicious book concludes that much of that effort has been wasted:

Thus far, the climate convention is not protecting climate, the biodiversity convention is not protecting biodiversity, the desertification convention is not preventing desertification, and even the older and stronger Convention on the Law of the Sea is not protecting fisheries.

With the exception of the relatively simple pact to protect the ozone layer, competing national and economic interests have kept most treaties weak: “Global environmental problems have gone from bad to worse, governments are not yet prepared to deal with them, and, at present, many governments, including some of the most important, lack the leadership to get prepared.”

Speth offers a long and persuasive list of specific changes in national and international policies that need to be made. But, tellingly, he, too, ends with “the most fundamental transition of all,” a “transition in culture and consciousness.” He quotes from a group of researchers at the Stockholm Environmental Institute. Instead of the Pentagon planners with their visions of endless raiding wars over food, they imagine a planet where

preferred lifestyles combine material sufficiency with qualitative fulfillment. Conspicuous consumption and glitter are viewed as vulgar throwbacks to an earlier era. The pursuit of the well-lived life turns to the quality of existence—creativity, ideas, culture, human relationships and a harmonious relationship with nature…. The economy is understood as the means to these ends, rather than an end in itself.

It is the true measure of our desperate position that the frail hopes expressed by Speth may turn out to suggest the most solid and practical advice anyone can give.

  1. 1

    As an example of this consensus, see “The Future of Energy Policy,” an article in Foreign Affairs, July/August 2003. Co-written by former Senator Timothy Wirth, C. Boyden Gray (who served as counsel to the first President Bush), and John Podesta, chief of staff for President Clinton, it outlines the obvious and easy improvements to current policy.

  2. 2

    The hybrid car, by the way, may have a more important part yet to play in the technological future. According to the invaluable David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, writing on the Mother Jones Web site, manufacturers are now developing so-called plug-in hybrids. In essence, they simply add a battery or two to the kind of car I’m driving now. This would allow it to cover forty or fifty miles a day on electric power alone, which is sufficient for most people. But on those days when I wanted to take a longer trip, I’d have the gas motor there as a backup, thus curing the defect of limited range that has always dampened demand for purely electric cars.

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