Many automakers are starting to understand that whoever goes ultralight first will take the lead in the hydrogen fuel-cell race.
The winning strategy will be improving the physics of the car. They still need to make a cheap, durable fuel cell. But if they can reduce the fuel cell and the hydrogen storage volume by three times, the cost reduces threefold.
That said, superefficient cars need hydrogen a lot less than hydrogen needs superefficient cars. If you have, say, an ultralight hybrid SUV burning gasoline at 66 miles per gallon, that isn't so bad—at least not compared to a similar one getting 18.5 miles per gallon on the road today.
If you then combine that with E85 fuel, which is 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol, you just got a 320-mile-per-gallon SUV because the efficiency times the biofuel saving of oil multiplies.
For that matter, if every car or light truck on the road in 2025 is only as efficient as the best hybrid cars and SUVs now in the showrooms, that would save twice as much oil as we currently import from the Persian Gulf. So it's not a very ambitious goal—and it doesn't even involve making vehicles ultralight.
Very efficient vehicles can get most of the same benefits without hydrogen by using today's gasoline/hybrid propulsion. However, once you have such vehicles, there is a robust business case for running them on hydrogen. Until you have those efficient vehicles, that business case is not very convincing.
I think hydrogen will be an important if not dominant energy carrier by 2050. In Winning the Oil Endgame, the comprehensive strategy we've developed at Rocky Mountain Institute for ending oil dependence, we see hydrogen as an optional add-on. It would be the most profitable and efficient way to use and save natural gas. But it's not necessary to get the country off oil at a profit; it's just icing on the cake.
A question I ask a lot is, What's the right size for the job? I have a book called Small Is Profitable: The Hidden Economic Benefits of Making Electrical Resources the Right Size. It points out 207 benefits of distributed resources, such as solar and wind power. When I begin to describe them, you'll find them really obvious:
- Renewables, such as wind energy, have less financial risk from volatile fuel prices than fossil-fuel power plants because they don't need any fuel.
- Small resources like solar cells or wind turbines have less financial risk than giant power plants that take many years to build.
- Portable resources like solar panels have less financial risk than stationary power plants, because if the system evolves differently than you'd expected and you'd rather put it somewhere else, you simply stick it on a truck and move it.
This is all blindingly obvious, yet it hasn't been taken into account by the utility industry while buying its half trillion dollars' worth of assets.
Here's what happened: For the first century of the electricity business, the power plants were costlier and less reliable than the grid, so it made sense to build a bunch of big power plants backing each other up through the grid. Well—surprise—over the last 20 years, power plants have become cheaper and more reliable than the grid. Ninety-nine percent of our power failures originate in the grid—mostly in distribution. So now if you want to deliver reliable, affordable electricity, you need to make it at or near the customer's location.
Many people didn't notice this happening. But despite the market's not yet recognizing the benefits, the decentralized low- or no-carbon generators turn out to be greater in capacity and output than nuclear power worldwide. David already beat Goliath, but nobody noticed.
The nuclear advocates frequently state that only nuclear is big and fast enough to deal with global warming. Well, five years from now the official industry forecast suggests that decentralized low- and no-carbon generators will be adding 160 times as much capacity as nuclear will add up to that year. So those who think that the decentralized generators are small, slow, and futuristic or have an unacceptable risk of not being adopted at scale in the market have some serious explaining to do.
If I could do just one thing to solve our energy problems, I would allow energy to compete fairly at honest prices regardless of which kind it is, what technology it uses, how big it is, or who owns it. If we did that, we wouldn't have an oil problem, a climate problem, or a nuclear proliferation problem. Those are all artifacts of public policies that have distorted the market into buying things it wouldn't otherwise have bought because they were turkeys.
We have more than enough cost-effective wind power just on available land in the Dakotas to meet the United States' electricity needs. We wouldn't necessarily want to do it all in two states, and there are cheaper combinations of other technologies to do the whole job, but it's an enormous resource.
Germany and Spain each install over 2,000 megawatts of wind power every year. That figure exceeds the average global net addition of nuclear power every year in this decade. Denmark is now one-fifth wind powered; Germany, about a tenth.
Wind power is doubling every three years worldwide and solar power every two, and not because some countries subsidize it strongly. In fact, the subsidies are being phased out slowly in Germany and rapidly in Japan because they have achieved their purpose of creating world-class industries that will be able to make it on their own.
If everything competed solely on merit, wind energy in the United States would be a lot better off. It gets subsidized less than its competitors, and its subsidies are temporary, while its competitors' are permanent. In other words, the fossil and nuclear subsidies—nuclear being the biggest—are permanent, while renewable subsidies are temporary.
Congress's brief and irregular renewals of the tax credit for wind power have several times bankrupted wind-turbine manufacturers in the United States. Similar misguided policies have diminished the solar-cell industry. Half of the solar cells sold in the United States a decade ago were domestically made. Now that figure is only 8 percent.
A major player in our energy future will be the Pentagon. Here's why: Trailing behind every half-mile-a-gallon Abrams tank—a peerless fighting machine if you can get it there—are two unarmored fuel trucks. Guess what the bad guys shoot at?
This is a very teachable moment—when the Pentagon becomes acutely aware of the cost and the risk of delivering fuel on the battlefield. They obviously need much lighter, more agile, radically more fuel-efficient forces.
A military transformation will have a much bigger payoff, in exactly the same way the Pentagon's research and development created the Internet, global positioning systems, the modern microchip industry, and advanced aero engines.
If you align military science and technology investments to capture this enormous improvement at a tactical, operational, and strategic level, guess what? You thereby transform the car, truck, and plane industries to get the country off oil, so we won't need to fight over the oil because we won't be using it. Mission unnecessary.