The following article appears in the March/April 2007 issue of Technology Review.
By the time Klaus Draeger, BMW’s manager of research and development, took the microphone at a Berlin hotel last fall, the assembled journalists’ bellies were full of mint juleps–and it all started to make sense. Maybe the world’s oil crisis and the threat of climate change could be sensibly addressed by using hydrogen as a transportation fuel. Draeger sketched the alluring vision of a future in which high-performance luxury cars burn hydrogen and emit mostly water vapor. The hydrogen could someday be provided by renewable sources of energy, he said, and nobody would have to make any sacrifices. And we journalists would get to drive the first such cars the following day.
“You’ll be pioneers! You will be sitting at the wheel of the Hydrogen 7, driving through Berlin and the countryside. And for the first time, you will drive this hydrogen-powered luxury saloon,” Draeger exclaimed, using the Britishism for “sedan.” BMW will lend 100 of these cars to yet-unnamed public figures as part of its global clean-energy promotional campaign. In some ways, the campaign resembles GM’s effort to tout its own hydrogen-car program. GM’s focus is on a futuristic fuel-cell car. The BMW version uses internal combustion: it burns hydrogen rather than skimming off its electrons. Same message, though: hydrogen is the answer.
“Experts will tell you that hydrogen has the biggest possibility to replace fossil fuels,” Draeger explained, as the wine flowed. “Please see the Hydrogen 7 as an offer. We can only make this car a reality with our partners in political science, the world of business, the energy industry.” He concluded with an appeal to “politicians the world over” to make the production, delivery, and storage of clean hydrogen affordable.
The next day, I got a look at the Hydrogen 7. From the outside it looked like a normal BMW four-door luxury sedan. I opened the trunk and marveled at the heavy steel tank that held liquid hydrogen at -253 ºC. While driving, I touched a button on the steering wheel to switch from gasoline to hydrogen; I noted no hiccup, just a higher-pitched engine noise. The car is very nice. But does it make environmental sense?
The simple answer is no. In the context of the overall energy economy, a car like the Hydrogen 7 would probably produce far more carbon dioxide emissions than gasoline-powered cars available today. And changing this calculation would take multiple breakthroughs–which study after study has predicted will take decades, if they arrive at all. In fact, the Hydrogen 7 and its hydrogen-fuel-cell cousins are, in many ways, simply flashy distractions produced by automakers who should be taking stronger immediate action to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions of their cars. As of 2003, transportation emissions accounted for one-third of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
Nobody has made this point more clearly than Joseph Romm does in Hell and High Water. Romm is an MIT-trained physicist who managed energy-efficiency programs in the U.S. Department of Energy during President Clinton’s administration and now runs a consultancy called the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions. His book provides an accurate summary of what is known about global warming and climate change, a sensible agenda for technology and policy, and a primer on how political disinformation has undermined climate science. In his view, the rhetoric of “technology breakthroughs”–including the emphasis by President Bush and some in the auto industry on a future hydrogen economy–provides little more than official cover for near-term inaction.