Hydrogen-powered cars are coming

Mar 19, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: With the nationwide average for a gallon of regular gas at $3.829 this week, we’re pleased to be able to tell you this: A number of car companies are soon going to be making cars that run on hydrogen. The hydrogen powers fuel cells that generate electricity without pollution.

The bad news is you’re not going to see them on the roads any time soon. From Washington, Sabri Ben-Achour explains.

Sabri Ben Achour: In 2009, American Hydrogen died.

Steven Chu: This was a tough call. Hydrogen for vehicles is not near-term.

That’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu three years ago explaining to senators why the Obama administration had decided not to place its bets — and taxpayers’ money — on hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Chu: There are real issues. The most problematic, in my opinion, is we still have not figured out how to store hydrogen in a compact form. The other is the infrastructure: We would have to create a totally new infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles to be fueled.

That didn’t stop foreign car companies including Toyota, Daimler and Honda from pushing ahead. Hydrogen cars are coming.

Craig Scott: Certainly the goal is to commercialize the vehicle in a big way.

That’s Craig Scott, manager of advanced technologies at Toyota. Toyota has already developed tanks to store hydrogen in a compact form. He says its car will be three times more efficient than a Prius. It’ll debut in 2015 at an estimated starting price of $50,000 that he says will drop sharply after that.

Scott: The plan is to roll them out into select markets that have infrastructure that can support the car.

That is basically code for Germany and Japan, where hundreds of hydrogen fueling stations will be built in the next few years.

That’s not happening in the U.S. Joe Romm is author of the book “The Hype About Hydrogen.”

Joe Romm: I just don’t see anyone who has the money.

It’d cost at least tens of billions of dollars. In other countries, the government has subsidized this process, but not in the U.S. But Romm says there’s another reason not to push hydrogen here — it’s not that much cleaner.

Romm: The overwhelming supply of hydrogen in this country is made from natural gas. It releases greenhouse gases when you convert it to hydrogen.

Technology may resolve that problem in the long-term, but emissions aren’t actually the point right now, says Alan Crane. He’s a senior scientist with the National Research Council.

Alan Crane: The big advantage of the fuel cell is that it’s much easier to get an equivalent vehicle to what people have now functionally. It’s easy to get several hundred miles range. You could refuel very rapidly.

So really what’ll usher in the age of hydrogen will be consumer convenience — for consumers in Germany and Japan. In the U.S., we’re going to have to wait a while.

I’m Sabri Ben-Achour for Marketplace

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