George W. Bush today has the opportunity to usher in the Hydrogen Age--the coming era of non-polluting, limitless hydrogen fuel cell power--as John F. Kennedy did the Space Age. In so doing, he would be remembered as one of our nation’s greatest leaders.
The advantages of hydrogen fuel cell power over conventional fossil fuels are innumerable. Fuel cells emit no “Greenhouse Gases” or pollution of any kind. A fuel cell’s only emission is water vapor--water so pure that scientists routinely gather it in a glass and drink it. And the supply of hydrogen, the most abundant element in our world, is inexhaustible, and new and efficient ways of recovering it are being developed.
Today, nearly 200 fuel cell generators help power office buildings, hospitals, schools, utility power plants, and airports. Soon fuel cell generators large enough to power strip malls will go on the market, as will systems the size of a central air conditioning unit, which will meet an entire household's energy needs.
Hydrogen fuel cells, which have powered our rockets, spaceships, and space stations for decades, are not a fantasy of environmentalists and techno geeks. In fact, many of the leaders of the oil, auto, and power generation industries--including executives at Ford, Texaco, Shell, Daimler-Chrysler, Honda and General Motors--have voiced strong support for fuel cells.
The only significant problem with electricity from fuel cell generators is its cost, which is roughly two to three times that of conventional power. Yet even this obstacle is not inherent to fuel cell production, but is instead largely the result of a lack of an economy of scale.
To a business executive, who must focus on profits, the added cost of fuel cell power is usually prohibitive. But for America as a whole, and indeed humanity as a whole, the cost difference is relatively small. Why? Because price comparisons don’t account for the massive secondary cost of fossil fuels: air pollution, global warming, and the fact that our oil supply is finite.
In addition to fuel cell power plants, hydrogen and fuel cell powered automobiles are also feasible. For example, the hydrogen-powered luxury car recently unveiled by BMW, the 750hL sedan, can travel 200 miles at top speeds on one tank of fuel while emitting 1/200th of the emissions of a conventional car. Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota are working on similar vehicles.
Here’s what Bush should do:
As Kennedy did with the race to the moon, Bush should announce that the U.S. will be the first nation to reach the Hydrogen Age. His initiative would feature:
(1) Subsidies to make fuel cell power plants and business and home-sized fuel cell generators substantially less expensive than conventional power sources;
(2) Research funds to resolve the hydrogen?powered car's remaining technological kinks, which include fuel distribution and on-board fuel storage;
(3) An executive order mandating that, as of January 1, 2009, the U.S. government will only purchase fuel cell vehicles. Creating this large, protected market would give automakers a tremendous incentive to mass produce fuel cell cars. Bush’s plan would also include federal fiscal incentives for state and local governments to follow suit;
(4) A generous, long-term tax deduction for consumers and businesses who purchase fuel cell cars and power generators;
(5) Funds to find and perfect the optimum method of hydrogen fuel production.
Could this plan work politically? Yes, because it has something for everybody. For liberals, environmentalists, and world leaders angry over Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto treaty, Bush’s bold plan would immediately vault the U.S. far ahead of any other nation in solving environmental problems. Today Bush is scolded by foreign leaders and burned in effigy in European cities. With this plan, in six months he could be the one doing the scolding.
For national-security hawks, the fuel cell would free America from its dangerous dependence on foreign oil, while providing the US with permanent energy self-sufficiency.
For the average citizen, air pollution would be dramatically reduced, as would the anxiety that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren might face environmental disaster because of global warming.
For the business community, the Bush plan would give American companies the opportunity to leap ahead of foreign companies and be the first to perfect and internationally market fuel cell products.
And for Bush’s harshest critics--who deride him as a lucky but visionless mediocrity in the pocket of big business and big oil--the Hydrogen Age plan would create the boldest, most vital presidency in decades.
It took Nixon to go to China. Maybe it will take a Texas oil man to end our dependency upon fossil fuels and open up a new era of plentiful, non-polluting energy--the Hydrogen Age.
This column first appeared in the Sacramento Business Journal (8/24/01) and others.