- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

When pitching private choice in Social Security, President Bush often speaks of an “ownership society.” So why can’t he and his party do the same on cars and energy?

Instead, the administration is big on the omnibus energy bill, passed by the House with more pork in it than all the barbecues in Carolina. At least $23 billion is devoted to automotive fuel cells and the hydrogen to power them.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to form water, producing electricity as a byproduct. That electricity then runs a motor, which can propel a car. Fuel-cell cars are quite the rage now because they can be designed to produce no carbon-dioxide emissions, the main cause of global warming.

Twenty-one percent of the Earth’s atmosphere is composed of oxygen, so there’s enough in the air to easily supply one side of the fuel cell. Hydrogen’s the problem. There’s hardly any in the air we breathe — less than half of 1 part-per-million. To power fuel cells, concentrated hydrogen has to come from somewhere.

Two candidates are obvious. One is water. The other is fossil fuels. Since the fuel-cell car is meant to reduce oil use, we’re stuck with water, which can be split into hydrogen and oxygen, a common high school chemistry experiment.

Extracting hydrogen from water takes energy. So whatever electricity source is employed had better also not be based on the combustion of fossil fuels. Otherwise, the overall-fuel cell cycle will dramatically increase the rate at which carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere.

Solar power to split water would require state-sized arrays and transmission from sunny places to the rest of the country. Wind has similar problems, and the turbines are quite ugly. Nuclear is politically incorrect and more expansive than the coal-fired plants that produce more than half of our power (and a third of our carbon dioxide).

And there might even not be enough uranium to power a highly nuclear U.S. electrical grid. A highly cited, but controversial, paper published in Science three years ago claimed we may only have six to 30 years worth of uranium if we switched to intensive nuclear. “[H]ardly a basis for energy policy”, wrote the author, Marty Hoffert of New York University.

But the theory is, if you legislate it, it will come. The current energy bill requires a commitment by automakers “no later than 2015” to have a fuel-cell powered vehicle for commercial sale, and promises a hydrogen infrastructure by 2020.

You would think conservatives would have learned from the saga of hybrid car development. In 1993, Bill Clinton and Al Gore started the “Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles,” which paid about $ 1 billion to GM, Ford and Chrysler to produce a high-mileage family car.

They didn’t. Toyota and Honda, two nonpartners, did, the latter offering the first for sale in the U.S. in December 1999. Ford recently put some hybrid technology in its small Escape SUV.

Meanwhile, Toyota, Honda and the Once-Big Three all are working on their own fuel cell cars. So the obvious question is: Who needs the government to assist in this process? When it “helped” with hybrids, not one car hit the road.

There’s a better, more efficient way to foster development (or failure) of fuel-cell powered cars: Let investors choose which company they believe will prosper most in the future. Otherwise we may get a substantial chunk of taxpayer’s change sunk into a failing GM or a foundering Ford. It would be ironic if one of those two actually developed an economically viable fuel cell car but went bankrupt before it could be marketed.

Meanwhile, the hydrogen problem will remain. But is it again necessary for taxpayers to pay for the infrastructure? This was once a country where no gasoline was sold, and individuals and businesses figured out how to get this very flammable and volatile fuel everywhere it was needed.

None of this logic will stop the energy bill. Automotive engineers from one of the above companies recently told me a commercially viable fuel cell car is at least 10, more likely 15 years away. Funny, that’s what I heard almost five years ago. Perhaps “15” is a synonym for “never” in engineering-ese.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of “Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media.”

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