The Perpetual Problem

According to Wired magazine this week, Renault-Nissan, Ford and Daimler are teaming up to bring cars to market within five years that will use standardized hydrogen fuel cell engineering. In the article, a spokesman for Daimler says, “We are convinced that fuel cell vehicles will play a central role for zero-emission mobility in the future.”
Zero emissions? An inquiring mind, and especially a good journalist, would want to stop there and raise some questions about this claim. Anyone who claims he has a zero-emissions energy technology might as well be claiming that he has invented a perpetual motion machine. The Associated Press and Huffington Post also ran this story with no serious questions asked about the "zero emissions" claim.
A simple internet search turns up the disappointing facts about hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel is not a naturally occurring source of energy, so it can only be called a carrier of energy. Hydrogen fuel is made with inputs from various energy sources. Like a battery, it can store energy until it is needed, but the disadvantage is that it has a low energy value relative to storage size. Mass marketing of fuel cell cars is hindered by the lack of infrastructure and standards, not to mention that it does what batteries already do.
This trio of car makers believes that hydrogen fuel will be made from emissions-free energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear. However, the label doesn’t apply to any of these energy sources, especially nuclear.
Wind and solar require the use of fossil fuels in their manufacture, and they are made with materials mined from the earth, some of which are associated with serious environmental effects. Furthermore, there could never be enough of wind and solar energy to meet transport needs. The earth has limited surface area available to catch the wind and sun. The biggest criticism of them now is that they cannot replace the present need for electricity, especially base load electricity that needs to be constant, so it is inconceivable that they could generate enough hydrogen to make a difference in transportation. Even if the plan is to create the hydrogen fuel during off-peak hours when generators have to run at high output (because they can't just be turned off for eight hours), there is no reason to think that this stored energy wouldn't be better used to equalize the present difference between peak and off-peak demand for electricity. The hydrogen fuel, converted from wind and solar, could first be used to replace electricity that used to be generated with coal, oil, gas and nuclear, but it is doubtful there would be much left over to shift transportation from carbon fuels to "emissions-free" fuel.    
Some in the nuclear industry dream of creating hydrogen fuel with nuclear power plants, but nuclear has huge inputs of fossil fuel energy throughout the cycle from mining, processing, enrichment (very energy and, by some methods, CFC gas intensive), delivery, power plant construction and decommissioning, and finally storage and transport of spent fuel. This expensive and energy intensive energy source could never expand enough to seriously offset the carbon fuels consumed in transportation.
If auto companies are really going to spend billions developing fuel cell cars, it might be purely for public relations purposes. Fuel cells could be only the next gimmick to make consumers feel good about maintaining energy-intensive lifestyles. They will be the next hoola hoop - a fashionable token of environmental consciousness.
Which brings me to my point: to recommend the excellent essay called The Hoola Hoop Theory of History by Morris Berman. He articulated an insight I’ve been coming around to as I’ve watched Japanese society react to its nuclear crisis, and the entire world react to the undeniable reality of climate change. Humanity does not stop disasters. Disasters stop humanity. We won’t stop until we’ve steam-cleaned every drop of oil out of the Alberta Tar sands, fracked all the gas from under our aquifers, and distilled every atom of uranium out of our gardens. If Florida and Bangladesh are underwater, and Paris is radioactive, the rest of us will just adjust and carry on in other places as long as we can. One can hold onto a sliver of hope - because a different path can be imagined - but there is scant evidence that we are ready to take it.

“I recall attending a conference on postmodernism in the 1990s and being struck by how similar the lectures were, in form, to those of Communist Party members of the 1930s. The ‘holy names’ were different – one cited de Man and Derrida instead of Marx and Lenin – but the glazed eyes and the mantra-like repetition of politically approved phrases were very much the same. Truth be told, I have observed the same hypnotic behavior at all types of academic conferences, from feminism to computer science. You watch, you listen, and you wonder: When will we finally wake up? And you know the horrible truth: never. In effect, we shall continue to erect statues to Napoleon, but never, or rarely, to Montaigne. This much is clear… We will not escape the ravages of climate change; we shall not avoid the economic and ecological disasters that are integral to global capitalism; not be able to avert an oil crisis, an energy crisis, or a food and water crisis that will become extreme when the world population finally arrives at 10 or 11 billion, by mid-century. These things are not going to be resolved by reason, by the neocortex, no matter how many articles are published on these subjects in learned journals or popular magazines. And they certainly can’t be resolved by the limbic brain, whose function is indulgence, not restraint. Hence, it is a fair guess that we shall start doing things differently only when there is no other choice; and even then, we shall undoubtedly cast our efforts in the form of a shiny new and improved hula hoop, the belief system that will finally be the true one, after all of those false starts; the one we should have been following all along. What to call it? Catastrophism, perhaps. You can consider this the founding document.”
January 13, 2013

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