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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


October 2007

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Fueling U.S. Transportation: The Hydrogen Economy and Its Alternatives

Transportation is responsible for one-fourth of global greenhouse gas emissions and consumes 75 percent of world oil production. The U.S. transportation sector alone accounts for almost 10 percent of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. Insofar as it is a carrier and a storage medium for energy (unlike electricity, the other main energy carrier), hydrogen has been promoted as ideal for future transportation, and interest in it has been increasing in the last decade. Before a costly and potentially irreversible commitment to a hydrogen energy system is made, it will be critical to first consider criteria for a sustainable transport sector and then determine how hydrogen might measure up and over what time frame. Society’s limited time and resources may make it unfeasible to fully pursue all available options for addressing the problems of climate change and oil dependence, such as energy conservation; diesel, hybrid, and electric vehicles; and biomass fuels. Therefore, a careful comparison of options may be necessary.

Interest in alternative-fueled vehicles can be attributed to rising concern over global climate change, peak world oil production, and growing dependence on insecure oil imports by the United States, Europe, and Japan. Hydrogen energy and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs), while not the only alternative for the transportation sector, have received considerable attention from government officials, automakers, and the media.

Although the United States failed to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the treaty was implemented by U.S. trading partners, and took effect in February 2005. California’s ambitious carbon-emissions reduction program, announced in 2006, will be linked to it. Much of the world seems to be searching for viable (and preferably sustainable) alternatives to petroleum-based transportation to combat climate change. Consequently, a potentially emissions-free, locally available fuel such as hydrogen would be hard to resist, presuming consumer acceptance and cost-effective technologies. However, hydrogen as an energy carrier is only as green as its energy source. If that source is renewable, are there more appropriate uses for the input energy, and more attractive alternatives to power transportation, particularly if energy efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions are primary goals?

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