Mark Brandon is the Managing Partner of First Sustainable (http://www.firstsustainable.com), a registered investment advisory catering to socially responsible investors. In addition to Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), he may opine on social venturing, microfinance, community investing, clean technology commercialization, sustainability public policy, green products, and, on occasion, University of Texas Longhorn sports.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Hydrogen Fueling Stations in Minot, ND?

Hydrogenix (NASDAQ:HYGS) issued a press release nine days ago indicating their intention to build a hydrogen refueling station in Minot, ND. This would not be unique, except that they also contracted to electrolyze water on site with energy from a nearby Bismarck windfarm. So, with wind energy, they will obtain their hydrogen for vehicles from simple H2O. Everything is clean and renewable. Hydrogen fueling stations are beginning to dot the land, but the majority of them obtain their hydrogen from methane or other non-renewable source.

This news makes for a good press release, but there are many problems with this method. Electrolyzing water requires many times the energy to split the molecule than is yielded in the process, which is why other stations are using methane, itself well more expensive than refining plain old gasoline. Many clean technologies are more expensive because they lack large economies in manufacturing, but this particular conundrum is not going to be solved by volume.

Although it will strike many greens as anathema, I think the effort to get the transportation infrastructure running on fuel cells is misplaced effort. Fuel cells will be a major force in energy production in future decades, but its promise lies in stationary applications. The properties of hydrogen are just too problematic to make it competitive in mobile applications. When you take into account the cost to electrolyze, the cost to compress, the cost to store, and the cost to transport the gas, it becomes clear that it will have a hard time being competitive with non-renewables. If you add to that the hundreds of billions required to put a fueling infrastructure in place before vehicle sales can gain traction, the proposition becomes a loser. Although I wish it would happen through virtue alone, the American economy is not going to adopt non-polluting transportation sources unless it presents a clear monetary advantage.
Sorry.

Fuel cells should certainly be explored for stationary applications. For example, an infrastructure that currently carries natural gas can be adapted to carry hydrogen to homes and businesses where electricity is generated on site by a fuel cell stack.

Further, the strategy to wean America off its gasoline addiction is multi-pronged, but the technologies are available right now. First, the auto industry should build lighter cars using carbon materials that are just as strong as steel. This alone would shave 20 percent off our vehicle energy usage. Second, the auto industry should push plug-in hybrids. These babies get their electricity from a battery that is charged at home in addition to the standard braking energy. They deliver enough juice for most daily commutes and city driving. Moreover, if a customer who is concerned enough to get a plug-in hybrid also gets his electricity from clean sources such as a Green Choice-like plan, the wind energy gets channeled directly to vehicle usage instead of electrolyzing water.

This is the way to go. Any thoughts?

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