For a certain segment of technotopians, hydrogen looms large in our transportation future. It’s the ultimate clean fuel — nothing but water left behind...

For a certain segment of technotopians, hydrogen looms large in our transportation future. It’s the ultimate clean fuel — nothing but water left behind after combustion! It’s everywhere — just pull the H2 out of our vast oceans of H2O! And it’s coming tomorrow!

The problem, though, is that the hydrogen car economy is always coming tomorrow. The first hydrogen fuel cell was designed in 1839 and, despite some truly astounding advances since then, we’re still nowhere near a widespread hydrogen highway.

Which makes announcements like this one from London problematic: the London Hydrogen Partnership today unveiled plans to build a hydrogen network in the city by 2012 (the year London plays host to the Summer Olympic Games). By that year, the plan aims to have in place at least six hydrogen refueling stations across the greater London area, along with at least 150 hydrogen-powered vehicles — from motorbikes to buses and vans — on the road.

In a city that sees 24 million vehicle trips a day and 33 billion kilometres of road travel a year, those hydrogen vehicles are going to be hard to spot … even if they do all make it onto the road.

And that’s a big “if.” Consider the experience of California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 envisioned a statewide network of 150 to 200 hydrogen fueling stations by 2010 (pdf), to be built at an estimated cost of between $75 million and $200 million. With less than a year to go before that deadline, California in fact had managed to build just 24 fueling stations, with most of them clustered around the Los Angeles area.

So where’s the disconnect between hydrogen-car dreams and reality? A few things come to mind:

  • Fuel-cell cars remain outrageously expensive compared to hybrid and plug-in vehicles. The hydrogen-powered Honda FCX Clarity that was rolled out with such great fanfare last year, for example, was described by Los Angeles Times writer Dan Neil as the “the most expensive, advanced and impractical car ever built.”
  • For that and other reasons, widespread adoption of hydrogen-powered cars remains unlikely over the next couple of decades. US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu acknowledged as much last year when he announced the Obama administration was dropping funding for hydrogen-based transportation in favour of research on stationary fuel-cell technologies. (The kind of fuel cell, for example, that recently began providing energy for two London-based agencies.)
  • The fact is, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. Because hydrogen must first be produced using some form of energy, why not just use that energy directly for transport? As writer Curt Suplee of The Washington Post put it, “(W)hy would you want to store energy in the form of hydrogen and then use that hydrogen to produce electricity for a motor, when electrical energy is already waiting to be sucked out of sockets all over America and stored in auto batteries — all without a middleman?”

Why indeed?