Hydrogen reappears as a fuel of the day on US political menu

July 30, 2012
Has hydrogen reemerged as a fuel of the day in American politics?

Has hydrogen reemerged as a fuel of the day in American politics?

The administration of President George W. Bush savored hydrogen. The world is loaded with the stuff. It produces only water vapor when burned or oxidized in fuel cells.

But it made the administration of Barack Obama gag. Soon after Obama became president, Sec. of Energy Steven Chu began cutting budgets for hydrogen research.

Chu thought problems of hydrogen production, storage, and infrastructure loomed too large to be overcome quickly. He favored electricity generated from solar energy and wind.

Now the energy secretary's view might be changing. In May, Chu met with a subcommittee of a Department of Energy advisory group dedicated to hydrogen. In a June interview with Autoline Daily, he confirmed his new stance.

"Several things changed my mind," Chu said. Prime among them: "We now have natural gas in abundance."

How things change.

Cheap and abundant gas certainly improves the economics of steam reforming, the dominant method of producing free hydrogen, which can be used in a power-generation cycle.

Cheap gas also—although Chu didn't say so—sours the economics of electric power from solar and wind, despite their subsidies.

The possibility also exists that, this far along in Obama's first term in office, the urge finally has subsided to stigmatize anything affiliated with Bush.

Whatever the politics, Chu's reversal points to the capricious nature of fuel selection by government.

For automakers developing fuel-cell vehicles, federal swerves over hydrogen must make for a wild ride.

First the Bush team picks hydrogen as its favorite form of nonfossil energy. Then the Obama administration decides it likes solar and wind better. Now it looks anew at hydrogen as solar and wind struggle under competitive pressure from natural gas.

Of course, government officials should feel free to change their minds about policy when circumstances change.

But the best change for America's energy future would be for them to quit treating fuels like entrees in a buffet line.

More Oil & Gas Journal Current Issue Articles
More Oil & Gas Journal Archives Issue Articles
View Oil and Gas Articles on PennEnergy.com

About the Author

Bob Tippee | Editor

Bob Tippee has been chief editor of Oil & Gas Journal since January 1999 and a member of the Journal staff since October 1977. Before joining the magazine, he worked as a reporter at the Tulsa World and served for four years as an officer in the US Air Force. A native of St. Louis, he holds a degree in journalism from the University of Tulsa.