Hydrogen Hoopla

In a time of rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere and ever more prominent signs of global warming, General Motors and other apologists for global capitalism are seeking to assure us of their concern for the environment and their commitment to move beyond fossil fuels.  Unsurprisingly, they do not propose putting a stop to the capitalist dream of ever expanding accumulation among the corporate elite that, to a large extent, drives environmental degradation.  Nor do they advocate the more modest goal of moving away from the unsustainable automobile-centric transportation system now dominant in the United States and a growing number of other nations, and toward a more rational system based on mass public transit and pedestrian-centric development.  The auto-industry’s solution is simple: hydrogen.  In a recent ad in the May 2nd issue of The New Yorker, GM informs us that they are “eliminating emissions and doubters” through their development of hydrogen fuel cell technology.  Their implicit assumption is clear: no change to the prevailing political economy and social relations is necessary.  All that society is faced with is a challenge that can be overcome with technology.  And, of course, as at least those of us who grew up in the United States have been told since elementary school, nothing spurs technological innovation quite like the free market.  Yankee ingenuity will save us all, as long as the radicals and malcontents can be prevented from meddling in the business of business.

Perhaps I will be forgiven if I do not have the fullest of confidence that GM, the company that has a history of undermining public transportation and fighting fuel economy standards and safety regulations — and that brought you that gas-guzzling danger of the road, the Hummer — is as concerned about the fate of the global environment as you and I are.  GM is apparently undertaking some quite interesting projects.  Their website reports that on April 1, 2005:

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton joined GM and the U.S. military for the unveiling and ceremonial delivery of a GM fuel cell-powered pickup truck built for the U.S. military. Developing partnerships with customers like the U.S. military, whose goals match GM’s, will advance a hydrogen economy, help gain real-world experience with hydrogen and fuel cells and create the potential for additional future joint transportation ventures with the military.

Although it is comforting to know that GM is teaming up with Hillary Rodham Clinton and the U.S. military — that institution known for its concern for preserving a livable world and “whose goals match GM’s,” after all — one is left to wonder whether the hydrogen economy will in fact emerge, and, if it does, whether it will be environmentally sustainable.  Although I have no doubt that the U.S. military wants to be assured that they can continue waging war long into the future, even after fossil fuel resources are depleted, I suspect that perhaps something other than a sincere effort to reduce environmental degradation is going on here.

Hydrogen is no miracle solution to our energy problems.  First and foremost, it is important to recognize that no reserves of hydrogen are just lying around waiting to be exploited.  On the contrary, to generate hydrogen takes energy — energy that typically is supplied by the combustion of fossil fuels — to liberate hydrogen atoms from their bonds with other atoms in molecules such as the common hydrogen-oxygen molecule H2O (water).  Due to the law of conservation of energy, it takes at least as much energy to break such a bond as one receives back when a fuel cell recombines the hydrogen and oxygen to form water.  So, although it is true that a hydrogen-powered car can in principle operate while only emitting water, the ultimate impact of a hydrogen transportation system depends on how the hydrogen is produced.  In effect, hydrogen is only an energy storage device (like a battery), not a primary source of energy.  Hydrogen fuel cell technology, then, does nothing to address the reasons for our extraordinary energy demands or to spur development of renewable sources of energy.

Might it just be possible that GM’s talk about hydrogen cars is merely a ploy to avoid taking serious actions to address our energy problems?  Although I don’t wish to disillusion some of the more naïve readers out there, I feel impelled to suggest that GM only sees the myriad of environmental problems they are generating as a public relations problem, and that their efforts are all about PR, not about environmental sustainability.  Perhaps we should not sit back and wait for GM, the U.S. military, and Hillary Rodham Clinton to deliver a clean, green hydrogen economy.

Richard York teaches sociology at the University of Oregon. His research, which focuses primarily on human interaction with the natural environment, has been published in Ambio, American Sociological Review, Ecological Economics, Gender & Society, Human Ecology Review, Organization and Environment, and other scholarly journals.