The Challenge of Transition

There will likely be a lengthy transition period during which fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen are not competitive with internal combustion engine vehicles, including conventional gasoline and diesel fuel vehicles, and hybrid gasoline electric vehicles. The committee believes that the transition to a hydrogen fuel system will best be accomplished initially through distributed production of hydrogen, because distributed generation avoids many of the substantial infrastructure barriers faced by centralized generation. Small hydrogen-production units located at dispensing stations can produce hydrogen through natural gas reforming or electrolysis. Natural gas pipelines and electricity transmission and distribution systems already exist; for distributed generation of hydrogen, these systems would need to be expanded only moderately in the early years of the transition. During this transition period, distributed renewable energy (e.g., wind or solar energy) might provide electricity to onsite hydrogen production systems, particularly in areas of the country where electricity costs from wind or solar energy are particularly low. A transition emphasizing distributed production allows time for the development of new technologies and concepts capable of potentially overcoming the challenges facing the widespread use of hydrogen. The distributed transition approach allows time for the market to develop before too much fixed investment is set in place. While this approach allows time for the ultimate hydrogen infrastructure to emerge, the committee believes that it cannot yet be fully identified and defined.

Impacts of Hydrogen-Fueled Light-Duty Vehicles

Several findings from the committee’s analysis (see Chapter 6) show the impact on the U.S. energy system if successful market penetration of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is achieved. In order to analyze these impacts, the committee posited that fuel cell vehicle technology would be developed successfully and that hydrogen would be available to fuel light-duty vehicles (cars and light trucks). These findings are as follows:

  • The committee’s upper-bound market penetration case for fuel cell vehicles, premised on hybrid vehicle experience, assumes that fuel cell vehicles enter the U.S. light-duty vehicle market in 2015 in competition with conventional and hybrid electric vehicles, reaching 25 percent of light-duty vehicle sales around 2027. The demand for hydrogen in about 2027 would be about equal to the current production of 9 million short tons (tons) per year, which would be only a small fraction of the 110 million tons required for full replacement of gasoline light-duty vehicles with hydrogen vehicles, posited to take place in 2050.

  • If coal, renewable energy, or nuclear energy is used to produce hydrogen, a transition to a light-duty fleet of vehicles fueled entirely by hydrogen would reduce total energy imports by the amount of oil consumption displaced. However, if natural gas is used to produce hydrogen, and if, on the margin, natural gas is imported, there would be little if any reduction in total energy imports, because natural gas for hydrogen would displace petroleum for gasoline.

  • CO2 emissions from vehicles can be cut significantly if the hydrogen is produced entirely from renewables or nuclear energy, or from fossil fuels with sequestration of CO2. The use of a combination of natural gas without sequestration and renewable energy can also significantly reduce CO2 emissions. However, emissions of CO2 associated with light-duty vehicles contribute only a portion of projected CO2 emissions; thus, sharply reducing overall CO2 releases will require carbon reductions in other parts of the economy, particularly in electricity production.

  • Overall, although a transition to hydrogen could greatly transform the U.S. energy system in the long run, the impacts on oil imports and CO2 emissions are likely to be minor during the next 25 years. However, thereafter, if R&D is successful and large investments are made in hydrogen and fuel cells, the impact on the U.S. energy system could be great.


Systems Analysis of U.S. Energy Options

The U.S. energy system will change in many ways over the next 50 years. Some of the drivers for such change are already recognized, including at present the geology and geopolitics of fossil fuels and, perhaps eventually, the rising CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Other drivers will emerge from options made available by new technologies. The U.S. energy system can be expected to continue to have substantial diversity; one should expect the emergence of neither a single primary energy source nor a single energy carrier. Moreover, more-energy-efficient technologies for the household, office, factory, and vehicle will continue to be developed and introduced into the energy system. The role of the DOE hydrogen program3 in the restructuring of the overall national energy system will evolve with time.

To help shape the DOE hydrogen program, the committee sees a critical role for systems analysis. Systems analysis will be needed both to coordinate the multiple parallel efforts within the hydrogen program and to integrate the program within a balanced, overall DOE national energy R&D effort. Internal coordination must address the many primary sources from which hydrogen can be produced, the various


The words “hydrogen program” refer collectively to the programs concerned with hydrogen production, distribution, and use within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Office of Fossil Energy, Office of Science, and Office of Nuclear Energy, Science, and Technology. There is no single program with this title.

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