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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

August 20, 2004

Air Date: August 20, 2004



The Hydrogen Horizon / Cynthia Graber

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Part One: In this Living on Earth special "The Promise of Hydrogen," reporter Cynthia Graber visits Iceland, a country with an ambitious mission: to convert all buses, cars, and fishing boats and trawlers to running off hydrogen. The reporter visits with the President, the visionary who proposed this transition, and with the man who’s implementing this international program.
Part Two: Reporter Cynthia Graber continues "The Promise of Hydrogen" with a visit to Icelandic scientists who are attempting to solve one of the major roadblocks to replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen, and explores the challenges to converting all the fleets to hydrogen even in Iceland, a country blessed with the natural resources that could make this promise a reality. (29:45)

Hydrogen at Home

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Host Steve Curwood talks with Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado about the challenges of implementing a hydrogen economy in the United States. (16:30)

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Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUEST: Amory LovinsREPORTER: Cynthia Graber


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. On a small island in the north Atlantic an experiment is underway to wean an entire nation off oil and gas and move it to a hydrogen economy. In the long run, there’s money to be saved and greenhouse gases to be reduced.

First, though, scientists must overcome a slew of technical and engineering obstacles. But if they succeed this nation would become a model for the world on how to run on new, clean and renewable energy.

GRIMSSON: Can the world afford to have the hydrogen project far into the future? Isn’t it of great need, even pressing need, for the total global environment to have the hydrogen project as a viable option, here and now, as quickly as possible?

CURWOOD: It’s “The Promise of Hydrogen” - this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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The Hydrogen Horizon

CURWOOD: From the Ted and Jennifer Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

“The Promise of Hydrogen” is the focus of our coverage this week. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and it is something of a holy grail when it comes to transportation. It offers a future in which we can use the clean, limitless gas and do away with polluting and finite fossil fuels.

Auto makers around the world are lining up at the forefront of this technology. They splash ads in glossy magazines promoting the coming “Age of Hydrogen.” And they paint a bright world. But this is also a world that’s a long ways off. It’ll take another forty, perhaps fifty years to figure out how to produce, store and deliver hydrogen in clean, efficient and economical ways.

But as Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports, one nation says the time to start is now. And it’s putting a lot of money and political capital into the promise of hydrogen. Here’s her report.


GRABER: Hi, we need to go to the president's residence?

TAXI DRIVER: To the president's - besatis?

GRABER: Yes, exactly.


GRABER: I hop into a cab on a bitterly cold morning -- but the chill is only part of why I’m shivering. I have to admit, I’m a bit nervous. I’m on my way to interview a president - something I’ve never done before. But the cabbie tells me not to worry.

TAXI DRIVER: He is good. He is a fair guy.

GRABER: It’s a 15 minute drive to the president’s compound, a cluster of boxy white stone buildings surrounded by a windswept marsh.


MAN: In a few minutes. The president will be ready in five minutes, something like that.

GRABER: The president’s assistant greets me at the door and that’s when it hits me. There are no guards here, no metal detectors, no security. Okay, maybe that’s not so surprising. It’s not the White House, after all. I'm here to interview the president of Iceland - an island in the North Atlantic about the size of Kentucky. A nation of 290,000 people out to teach the world a lesson.

GRIMSSON: So let's sit down here, if that's okay with you.

GRABER: That’s great.

GRIMSSON: Can I offer you tea or coffee or water?

GRABER: Iceland’s President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson is a striking man. Tall, stately and even early on a Saturday morning impeccably dressed in a blue, double-breasted suit.

We sit in a room anchored by a huge, weathered table, surrounded by books on Icelandic history. To really know this nation, he says, I must understand that the story of creation – the story of how god made the world in six days and rested on the seventh – well, it doesn't really apply here.

GRIMSSON: Because when it came to the creation of Iceland, the almighty became so fascinated by the possibilities that the creation has continued in this country until this very day, with new mountains and new islands and new lava fields and earthquakes and geysers. So, any time you visit Iceland you can actually bear witness to the creation.

GRABER: Today, President Grimsson is witness to a new creation in Iceland. His country is pledged to wean itself off imported oil and switch to hydrogen fuel to run its cars, trucks, buses and vast fishing fleet. It’s an ambitious undertaking that could save Iceland millions of dollars a year and cut its greenhouse gas emissions nearly two-thirds. But President Grimsson says beyond the economics and the environment is a matter of national pride.

Iceland’s President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson with reporter Cynthia Graber and producer Chris Ballman

GRIMSSON: It might sound strange when I say it. But I believe that in the world we now live in, successful foreign policy has to be based not just on military or financial strength. It has to be based on your contribution to the evolution of the good society. And if you can make meaningful contribution in such a way, your role in the world will be strengthened. We would not now be a formal partner of the United States, together with big countries like Great Britain, Germany, Japan and so on, if it wasn’t for the hydrogen project.

GRABER: What’s the role of the government in this hydrogen project?

GRIMSSON: Well, I think what the Icelanders have done – not only the government but also the people -- is to open our society up to becoming the testing ground, a kind of laboratory for the hydrogen future.


GRABER: The plan for Iceland’s hydrogen economy was born in a small laboratory here at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. The father is Bragi Arnason, a ruddy, white-haired gentleman who’s called “Professor Hydrogen.”

Bragi “Professor Hydrogen” Arnason in his lab at the University of Iceland in Rekjavik with reporter Cynthia Graber (Photo: Chris Ballman)

ARNASON: This is how the major energy system of human kind might look in the future.

GRABER: Arnason points to a light bulb representing the sun. It shines on a tiny solar panel that collects the energy used to break apart the bonds of hydrogen and oxygen in water.


GRABER: Off to the side, oxygen and hydrogen bubbles rise to the top of two glass tubes.

ARNASON: You simply split the water in its components.

GRABER: Hydrogen is not a fuel itself. It’s a carrier of energy, in this case carrying solar power to be released in a fuel cell. In fuel cells, hydrogen atoms are split into electrons and protons. A membrane blocks the electrons, but lets the protons pass into a chamber where they mix with oxygen to create water. But for these water molecules to be stable they need the electrons left on the other side of the membrane. And the flow of these electrons to the water molecules through a wire creates an electrical current. Here, it turns a small fan.


GRABER: The only waste from this reaction is water.


Professor Arnason’s hydrogen fuel cell demonstration model (Photo: Chris Ballman)

GRABER: Bragi Arnason tells me his tiny model is a showcase for the potential of hydrogen to transform the way we use energy. He says it’s also a handy PR tool.

ARNASON: Well, I put it up two to three years ago. We used it to show reporters, and maybe politicians when we need more money. (LAUGHS)

GRABER: When Arnason started pushing his hydrogen economy in 1978, Iceland was phasing out coal in favor of hydropower from the nation’s many rivers and geothermal power from the hot water and steam vents that dot this volcanic island. Arnason said these renewable sources could be tapped to provide hydrogen for the nation’s vehicles.

At first, his theories were met with a shrug. Good idea, people said, but kind of a pipe dream. Then, in the1990s, breakthroughs in fuel cell technology made hydrogen a serious option. International companies looked to Iceland - with its cheap, renewable energy and manageable infrastructure - as the perfect testing ground. They called Professor Hydrogen, and the island’s powerbrokers took notice.

ARNASON: Once I met one minister on the streets, downtown. You see, we are very small country, everybody knows each other. Then he says to me, ‘There are some good things you are doing. Because these big companies, they will not come into Iceland just to drink coffee and chat. They must mean some real things. And that is of very great importance. If you are going to succeed with such projects, you need the industry with you, and you need the government.’ And we have both now.

GRABER: The consortium of industry, government and academia charged with implementing the hydrogen economy is called Icelandic New Energy. Jon Bjorn Skulason runs the enterprise. Skulason is a large, personable man with perfect English – an important skill in navigating the international interests involved in this project. He’s driving me to a filling station on the outskirts of Rekjavik, where Iceland’s transition to a hydrogen economy is underway.


SKULASON: As you can see, this is just a normal filling station. Here you can buy gasoline, diesel, whatever. And then we added this hydrogen part, which is here.


GRABER: Skulason parks at the far end of this full-service complex -- past the car wash, the pumps, the convenience store and snack bar. He leads me to a large square area with walls of concrete and glass, and panels explaining the hydrogen project in Icelandic and English.

Inside, there’s a large electrolyzer to split water into hydrogen and oxygen; a compressor and a row of bright blue storage tanks. This facility is unusual for two reasons – it’s the world’s only hydrogen filling station open to the public, and the only one that runs entirely off clean, renewable energy.

SKULASON: This station is just connected to the normal water and electricity gridwork in Reykjavik. Like every other home.

GRABER: And like every other fueling station in Iceland, it’s self-serve. Skulason says the goal is to keep the new technology simple.

SKULASON: You just unplug this, you connect it to the car. And then you just push the green button and the hydrogen starts going. This is just a standard dispenser, so if a car from Ford would drive up here today we could fill it from this dispenser also, so.

GRABER: Well, right now there are no hydrogen cars made by Ford, or anyone else in Iceland. So far it’s just three city buses that fill up here. It’s the first stage of a five-stage operation. First, trial buses. Then, trial cars. The plan is to eventually replace all gasoline and diesel vehicles with hydrogen models. But don’t hold your breath. Even the optimists here say it will take about fifty years to implement, in part because of one huge technical challenge.

SKULASON: How do we store sufficient amount of hydrogen if you need to have hundreds of cars driving through here on a daily basis to refuel?

GRABER: What are the economics of it right now, in terms of the buses?

SKULASON: To discuss economies is almost not relevant. The vehicles are four times more expensive than the normal vehicle. The filling station is much more expensive than a normal gasoline station. And the fuel is much more expensive than diesel fuel today.

We are quite convinced that within a very short period of time, the fuel cost go down. Meaning that the equivalent amount of fuel will cost the same as untaxed hydrogen as taxed gasoline. That means European prices. You in the U.S. of course have almost free gasoline.

GRABER: There goes a hydrogen bus.

SKULASON: There’s another hydrogen bus, yeah. So, actually we think that’s a very important issue -- that people keep in mind that this is still a research and demonstration phase. Commercialization is still a few years away. So the economies are not there yet.

One of Iceland’s Hydrogen buses receives its weekly maintenance checkup. (Photo: Chris Ballman)

GRABER: As part of the research project, the hydrogen buses are thoroughly monitored and maintained at a garage just a few hundred feet away from the fueling station.

SKULASON: Shall we begin by looking on the roof?

GRABER: Skulason leads me up a set of metal stairs to a small platform that looks down on the roof of a hydrogen bus.

SKULASON: On the top of the roof here, we have nine cylinders with compressed hydrogen gas. Here you have two fuel cell units. Then you have fans to remove hot air from the fuel cells themselves and so on. But it’s true, it's bulky, still a bulky system. But I'm not afraid that we will not be able to compact this into a car in the future.

GRABER: You have a lot of really unique – a unique setup here in Iceland. You have an amazingly abundant supply of energy. And an incredible supply also of water. And it’s a small country, and you don’t need many fueling stations, and you don’t have a problem with where to put the electrolysis. What do you think about that? What do you think when you hear that?

SKULASON: A lot of challenges worldwide. And of course though the government sees this as beautiful picture of utilizing hydrogen instead of fossil fuels. I think we always have to keep in mind we have not proven yet that this is the only solution. Because if it’s not going to work in Iceland, I think there’s even a lesser chance it will work in other locations.

GRABER: Even in Iceland - a nation that can produce all the hydrogen it needs from renewable and non-polluting sources - there are enormous obstacles to a hydrogen economy. It’s still expensive to produce from any source; even more expensive to manufacture vehicles that run on this gas. And, of course, the question of how to store it until it’s ready to use - whether at the filling station, or on a bus, or in a car -- just how to make fuel delivery efficient and economical remains one of the biggest hurdles to opening the hydrogen highway.

CURWOOD: In just a minute we’ll visit with the scientists and researchers of Iceland who are crunching the numbers and sputtering molecules of metals to unravel the elusive hydrogen storage mystery. And we’ll meet the politicians who support them. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Gus Gus “Why” POLYDISTORTION (Warner Bros. – 1997)]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood, and you’re listening to The Promise of Hydrogen. So far in our program we’ve heard that Iceland is a country moving to become the first nation to say no to fossil fuels and use vehicles that burn hydrogen without polluting. It is a lofty goal and many obstacles lie ahead. Perhaps the biggest is storage. You can store hydrogen as a liquid – but it takes too much energy right now to make that process efficient. You can also store hydrogen as a gas, but you would need a huge tank to get the same range that today’s cars get with gasoline. But there's another option - using blocks of metal to absorb, hold and then release hydrogen when needed. They’re called metal hydrides - and researchers in Iceland think they maybe the answer to the storage dilemma. Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber continues her report on: “The Promise of Hydrogen.”


GRABER: Sveinn Olafsson and Hannes Jonsson are a couple of problem solvers. Right now they’re figuring how long it’s going to take to set up the next experiment they’ll conduct in their crowded underground lab here at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik The answer: at least a few days. These two scientists are taking painstaking measures to find the best metal - or combination of metals - in which to store hydrogen molecules until they’re ready to be turned into energy.

OLAFSSON: OK, Hydrogen metal storage is very simple in a sense that you have a tank that is filled with metal hydrides. And when you apply hydrogen pressure, that hydrogen goes into the metal. And at certain temperature, there’s equilibrium pressure in the tank.

JONSSON: One can soak up hydrogen much like a sponge can soak up water. And then by heating it up, the hydrogen is released again.

GRABER: This sounds simple enough, but applying the technology to make cars run is a challenge. Most metals that can store and release hydrogen are too heavy to use in automobiles. And lighter metals that could store hydrogen operate at temperatures too high to be practical.

Professor Sveinn Olafsson and Professor Hannes Jonsson in their lab at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik with their “sputter chamber” for hydrogen research. (Photo: Chris Ballman)

Usually, researchers looking for the perfect hydride heat large amounts of metals, mix them together and hope this new metal combination will solve the weight and temperature conundrum. But Olafsson prefers to work on the molecular scale with a machine he calls, “The Sputter Chamber.”

OLAFSSON: So the sample is in the center here. Where we can use these shutters to open from the atomic range of magnesium.

GRABER: The “sputterer” is a large chrome cylinder with tubes and wires jutting out all over the place. Olafsson places samples of metals in the machine, then bombards them with gas. The gas chips away at the metals, breaking off molecules which allows him to slowly layer them in the center chamber.

OLAFSSON: Typical run is maybe fifteen minutes, so it means that we get say about 300 to 500 atomic layers of material.

GRABER: Then Olafsson feeds hydrogen into the chamber and measures how much hydrogen the metal absorbs. He says there are benefits to working on this nano-scale.

OLAFSSON: That allows me to make very special samples which you cannot get by mixing, say, kilos of metals and trying to get new properties. With the method I am using, just thin film growth, I can make, say, a mixture of magnesium in layers, try to get some new structures. And Hannes can then try to solve many things for me by his calculations.

JOHNSSON: One can ask questions like, if I want to improve the storage properties of certain materials, let’s say magnesium, which elements should I add to it, so as to make the hydrogen come out at a lower temperature and make it come out faster? And while of course these calculations are not perfect, they can help predict and gain intuition into where to go… Another thing that we can do with these calculations is to try to understand in more detail the results that Sveinn gets from his experiments.


GRABER: All the number crunching goes on in a room just a few doors down the hall. Hannes Jonsson takes me there. He’s obviously proud of his little makeshift computer lab that’s packed with rows of gray computers stacked neatly on metal shelves.

JOHNSSON: This is a cluster of computers -- about 130 of them here – and then we get pretty good computational power. Still the computers they run perhaps a week continuously just doing one calculation.

GRABER: Hannes Jonsson and Svein Olafsson have been collaborating for a couple of years now on metal hydride research. They lead two of four research groups working on hydrogen at the University of Iceland.

They’re far from a breakthrough, but Olafsson says he’s looking forward to the day when metal hydrides can be built into the very structure of an automobile, and its fuel source - hydrogen - can be fed directly into the car’s frame.

OLAFSSON: This is a possibility that has not been tried so far by the car companies. People usually think of hydrogen as just a tank, not a part of the structure of the car.

GRABER: So you have the metal as if you’re looking at research in metal, then the metal as you’re saying could theoretically be a part of the structure of the car, and then when you are pumping, you’re actually pumping into your car in general

OLAFSSON: Yeah, and we can take this idea further, say, the fuel cell could also be part of the car.

GRABER: Such a breakthrough would have an enormous impact on the world’s auto industry and mean untold dollars for its creator. So, as scientists and engineers get closer to developing a commercially viable hydrogen car, Hannes Jonsson says information does not always flow so freely in scientific circles.

JONSSON: There are some players that really play things more secretly and don’t want to disclose so much what they’re doing. But we’re doing this more as a research project, a basic research project. We share information and are in collaboration with many other groups. But when it comes to getting some research funds, yes, presumably there is some competition

GRABER: It sounds like it’s an exciting area to be working in right now.

JONSSON: Yes, it’s something very new and uh, many open questions and many things to be done. I think the basic research being done here is going to be valuable to help spawn off some new hi-tech companies. And there are going to be a lot of opportunities for innovation before the hydrogen economy really is in full place.

GRABER: Those opportunities draw American students to the University of Iceland’s various hydrogen projects. I met up with two of them, Luis Camargo and Bill Stier, in a small rectangular wooden building near the science lab that’s called: “The Summer House.” You can often find them here poring over their research until the early hours of the morning. It’s hard work and the pace can be excruciatingly slow, but as Stier and Camargo explain, there are benefits to being on the cutting edge of science.

STIER: Well, it’s really good for funding. I mean there’s a problem a lot of times with society, that there’s some problem and it gets a lot of media for a little while so there’s a lot of interest. And then after it’s had its moment in the spotlight it’s gone. So the backing for funding sometimes only lasts only as long as the public awareness. So in that way it's a good thing, something that is on a lot of people's mind.

CAMARGO: I worked in some companies in the past that the projects were a bit more controversial, such as genetically modified crops. But it’s really nice to know that you can put yourself forth to something that pretty much everybody agrees is a good thing. So, it’s nice. Definitely nice.

GRABER: These students say they enjoy working on the hydrogen project and look forward to the contribution to society it may make. Oh, and there’s other reasons why young Americans might enjoy spending time in Iceland.


FEMALE: my name is Cindy..

FEMALE: and my name is Laura. We are the hottest chicks on the place, you know.

GRABER: It's two in the morning, but the night has just begun for patrons of Vegamöt - one of Iceland’s popular nightclubs: a place where people come to grind up against one another on a packed dance floor.

Iceland has earned a reputation for its party scene, attracting travelers from around the world. And for a small island, Iceland exports more than its share of popular music through acts like Björk, and Gus-Gus. And there are Icelanders who are betting that their nation’s next big export could be hydrogen.

GUNNARSSON: I tend to look at it as one of the long, long term investments in my portfolio.

GRABER: Gunnar Orn Gunnarsson manages the New Business Venture Fund, which provides seed money for startups in Iceland. He has about seventy companies in his portfolio, from biotech to fashion. He says he doesn’t know if Iceland’s hydrogen project will ever produce products or services for export, but he believes Iceland will be able to market its knowledge about hydrogen.

GUNNARSSON: If we will be able to start up a real commercial society with hydrogen in the near future hopefully, where we will have a big car fleet, and we will have tank station and infrastructure and all those problems that will be related to this, that will mean that a lot of other cities around the globe when they will start to think in this direction, they will maybe make a shortcut by coming to us and say, how did you do this?

GRABER: Jon Bjorn Skulason, head of Icelandic New Energy, hopes Iceland will be able to answer that question not just when it comes to cars and busse.

The fishing fleet at Reykjavik harbor (Photo: Chris Ballman)

SKULASON: Well we're down at the Reykjavik harbor, this is of course one of the biggest harbors in Iceland. And one of the biggest users of fossil fuels in Iceland is the fishing fleet.

GRABER: Skulason stands by a row of trawlers docked in the harbor. They range in size from a small blue vessel that might go to sea for a few days, to 300-ton trawlers that stay for weeks.

Iceland's seafood is known the world-over. The nation exports around two million tons a year, accounting for about 70 percent of its gross domestic product. But this fishing fleet runs on imported and expensive diesel fuel, and is responsible for a third of the island’s greenhouse gas emissions.

SKULASON: Fish is, of course, has been the groundwork for the economy of Iceland for a very long time. And that's one of the locations where we think we can apply hydrogen if we want to become a hydrogen society is to have the fishing fleet running on clean energy carrier like hydrogen.

GRABER: Iceland was the first country to discuss the need for converting its fishing fleet to running off hydrogen. Soon after, number of maritime nations joined the effort. But it won’t be easy. Skulason says hydrogen fuel cells for trawlers will have to overcome a whole new set of problems.

SKULASON: There’s a lot of salt in the atmosphere, which is not very good for fuel cells. Boats don't come into harbor every day. And like buses and cars and vehicles and so on, they can go to the same refueling station everyday. But ships are out at sea for a few days or many many weeks.

GRABER: Once again, the hydrogen problem comes down to storage. Storage in metal could work on big trawlers that can carry the load. Another option is to use large and powerful fuel cells – the kind used now at stationary locations. These operate at very high temperatures but the extra heat could provide steam to power a ship’s frozen fish storage. There’s also talk of storing natural gas on trawlers and reforming it into hydrogen on board.


GRABER: Skulason hopes to have at least some of these solutions worked out so that in a few years he can put a hydrogen demonstration project on a trawler. He says Iceland is the perfect place for this research.

SKULASON: We don't built cars in Iceland, we don't build car engines or anything. But we build ships in Iceland, and we have a lot of knowledge about shipping and construction of ships. So we are quite convinced that Icelandic know-how can be applied in the maritime applications for hydrogen. And therefore that could be a technological development, even create jobs and know-how in Iceland, which could be valuable to other countries. But financing projects currently and overcoming technical obstacles is a challenge, which we are tackling at the moment.


GRABER: A few blocks from the harbor, the office of Iceland’s Prime Minister is the site of a protest against the war in Iraq. Eighty percent of Iceland’s citizens oppose the war, so their government’s decision to back the U.S. is unpopular here.

Another unpopular government decision involves its plans to build a huge dam in the middle of a pristine wilderness. The dam would power a new aluminum smelter. Iceland’s metal industry emits a third of the nation’s greenhouse gases. And because of its smelters Iceland was granted an exemption to actually increase emissions over 1990 levels in exchange for its signature on the Kyoto Protocol.

One vocal opponent of the smelter is the Iceland Nature Conservation Association. The group is also critical of the government’s hydrogen project. Spokesperson Arni Finnsson calls it a diversion, a greenwashing tactic to make the government look like it’s doing something about emissions from cars, boats and smelters when it’s not encouraging the purchase of efficient vehicles, which could reduce emissions now. Finnsson says hydrogen cars are a good idea but too far off.

FINNSSON: We're talking of 20 years maybe, 15-20 years. And look, your administration, we can't put off, you know, actions to stop climate change by ten, fifteen, twenty years under the pretext that we're doing research and have good plans for hydrogen. That's impossible.

GRABER: This criticism does not surprise President Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson. He doesn’t respond to the question of how his government might promote cleaner forms of transportation now. Instead, he looks ahead to the promise that hydrogen holds.

GRIMSSON: And I would ask the question, does, or can the world afford to have the hydrogen project far into the future? Isn't it of great need, even pressing need, for the total global environment, to have the hydrogen project as a viable option here and now, as quickly as possible?

GRABER: President Grímsson admits he may not live to see this project completed. It could take fifty years, and it won’t be a simple task. As we’ve heard throughout this story, even if it’s possible to build a hydrogen economy here in a country where it seems a natural fit, it will be a long and costly venture.

But Hjelmar Arnason, a member of parliament who’s played a major role in pushing the government to back the hydrogen project, tells me that Icelanders have a knack for overcoming technical challenges. They did it once before, weaning themselves off coal and tapping hydro and geothermal power to heat and light their homes and businesses. In the process, Iceland went from one of the poorest to one of the richest nations in the world.

Even though, Arnason says, some sacrifices had to be made along the way – like not disturbing the elves, ghosts and other spirits that according to Icelandic lore lurk on the landscape.

ARNASON: There are roads, even here in the neighborhood of Reykjavik. Comes in a straight line. Then all of a sudden it takes a U-turn around a small stone, I mean a big stone. Because the experience was when the constructors went there with all the big bulldozers and machines they broke down, repeatedly. So the conclusion was we have to respect the elves living in there.

So that's - I love this, it's part of our culture, our history and heritage. We believed. Before, we had light and electricity. You need to know that here in the north, nine months we have very dark months. So light from electricity is very important to us. But before we had that, it was this darkness. And in the darkness all this creativity of imagination came and we had all kinds of ghosts, elves and other creatures.

GRABER: In Iceland imagination can make roads curve, and it may help an entire nation say goodbye to oil and gas and find a way to fulfill the promise of hydrogen. Arnason says Iceland will show the world - in particular the United States - what is possible.

A clear day in downtown Reykjavik (Photo: Chris Ballman)

ARNASON: Two-thirds of our emissions here in Iceland is from transportation and fishing. So that's where our sins are basically. So that's why we want to attack those sins and implement this new technology in transportation and the fishing fleet, and by that, reduce our emission down two-thirds. So that's a lot. And we will be the leading nation, as you in the states are in other fields. We will be in that. But you can come up and follow up, be our guest.

GRABER: For Living on Earth, I’m Cynthia Graber in Reykjavik, Iceland.


CURWOOD: Our special, “The Promise of Hydrogen” continues in just a minute with a look at how hydrogen could meet energy needs here in the United States. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, making grants to improve the health and health care of all Americans. On the web at r-w-j-f dot o-r-g; The Annenberg Foundation; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at w-k-k-f dot org. This is NPR -- National Public Radio.


Related links:
- University of Iceland
- National Hydrogen Association

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Hydrogen at Home

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. And our topic this week is the Promise of Hydrogen.

Now, so far in our program we’ve heard how the tiny nation of Iceland is positioning itself as a leader in the science, technology and politics of making the switch from a fossil fuel to a hydrogen economy. But there are projects here in the U.S., too, that are ushering a revolution in energy use.

Small fleets of hydrogen cars are already cruising the streets of Washington D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco as test models. And the state of California is preparing a string of fueling stations for hydrogen vehicles. American companies are also manufacturing fuel cells to power not just vehicles, but commercial buildings and homes – even laptops and cell phones.

President George W. Bush has noted this coming Hydrogen Age, saying it could mean cleaner air, fewer greenhouse gases and less reliance on foreign oil.

BUSH: We import over half of our crude oil stocks from abroad. And sometimes we import that oil from countries that don't particularly like us. It jeopardizes our national security. If we develop hydrogen power to its full potential, we can reduce our demand for oil by over 11 million barrels per day by the year 2040.

CURWOOD: Joining me to talk about what role hydrogen may play in the nation’s energy future is Amory Lovins, who heads the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think-tank based near Aspen, Colorado.

Now tell me, what are the relevant differences, if any, between the United States and Iceland?

LOVINS: (LAUGHS) Just about everything is different. Iceland is a small country with a fairly homogenous and ancient culture. It has very rich geothermal and hydroelectric resources. Not much energy use. But the United States is equally rich in renewable energy resources, even though it’s a big, diverse, young country.

Certainly we have plenty of opportunity to run all renewable and all hydrogen if we want. Just the attractive wind-power resources in North and South Dakota could make as much hydrogen as the world makes now – that’s about 50 million tons a year. And if our highway vehicles were feasibly and profitably efficient that would be enough to run all our highway vehicles.

CURWOOD: That’s a big if, of course.

LOVINS: Well, it’s not all that difficult. Cars and light trucks and even heavy trucks have been designed already with spectacularly greater efficiency. The round number is that you can save a factor of five or six on your light vehicles, and about a factor two on your heavy vehicles – both very profitably compared to present wholesale gasoline prices.

CURWOOD: So you’re saying it’s pretty easy to get a car that’s five or six times as efficient as what people are driving today?

LOVINS: Yeah. And the key is not just to mess with the engine – that only gives you a factor two or so – but to start by making the car half the weight, giving it lower aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance, which is the energy that goes into heating the tires and road. So you reduce by three-fold the power needed to run the car.

Of course, when you make the car three times more efficient by working on its physics, then whatever you’re propelling it with gets three times smaller. This means, for example, that you have a three-times-smaller fuel cell, if you’re going to hydrogen, so you can afford to pay three times as much per kilowatt. So you can adopt fuel cells many years earlier before the prices come down.

Moreover, your storage tanks for the hydrogen get three times smaller, so they fit conveniently and leave plenty of room for people and cargo. Therefore you don’t need any breakthroughs in storage – the tanks on the market will do the job.

CURWOOD: Well if ordinary processes can get to such high efficiencies, why should we be thinking about hydrogen at all?

LOVINS: Because it’s very versatile. You can make it from any hydrocarbon or carbohydrate, or any other source of energy. Nuclear electricity, renewable electricity, whatever. Generally, making it out of electricity is quite expensive, and we don’t do it that way – 96 percent of our hydrogen is made from natural gas. And that will go on, I think, being the cheap method for a long time.

But it’s possible, for example, that it may be very cheaply make-able from coal -- using coal basically to pull hydrogen out of water and then take the resulting carbon dioxide and keep it from going in the air. Some serious analysts think that will also be profitable -- which would mean a long climate-safe future for the coal industry, and they would like that idea.

CURWOOD: Indeed.

LOVINS: Then, hydrogen of course releases nothing bad when you use it. You can burn it in an engine or turbine very efficiently. Companies like Boeing and Airbus have looked seriously at liquid hydrogen powered airplanes, cryoplanes, because liquid hydrogen is incredibly light – that’s why they use it in rockets. It has about the density of medium styrofoam. And they concluded that actually such planes would be feasible, and would be safer than today’s aircraft in a crash.

The use in buildings would be typically through fuel cells, which are about twice as efficient as engines. And generally, whether it’s in a building or a car, a well-designed system for using hydrogen will be two or three times as efficient as using a hydrocarbon fuel to do the same job by normal means. That’s why it’s worth paying a lot more per unit of energy for hydrogen than for fossil fuels, because you can get more work out of it.

That means, in turn, that the hydrogen in our hydrocarbons is probably worth more without the carbon than with the carbon – even if nobody will pay us for keeping the carbon out of the air. So this is actually an attractive future for oil and gas companies as well.

CURWOOD: This is I think a point of contention, though. Other folks say, hey, if you use natural gas, oil or coal to generate hydrogen, in fact you’ve got to do something with this carbon. And the technology is not there yet to keep the carbon out of the environment.

LOVINS: That last part is true. There are a number of ways being developed for keeping the carbon out of the air. Some of them are being tested; I wouldn’t say any of them is yet proven.

But if you, for example, pipe natural gas through the existing pipes to a gasoline filling station where you’ve installed a new gizmo, called a “miniature reformer,” that will turn it into hydrogen -- half extracted from the natural gas, half from steam – and then pump the hydrogen into the tanks of fuel cell cars; even if you release all that CO2 into the air, it’ll be two to six times less CO2 per mile than you’re releasing right now in your gasoline car.

So it’s, I think, a very reasonable stop on the way to the hydrogen economy. And it’s a lot more climatically responsible than what we’re doing. It will also reduce your fuel cost per mile from roughly five cents to something around three cents.

CURWOOD: So, let me see if I understand your vision then of the United States. We’re going to create hydrogen from fossil fuels…

LOVINS: Typically natural gas, and directly not through electricity.

CURWOOD: … and that this will have less of a burden on such issues as climate change and ground level pollution than the present system. Even, say, going with very efficient hybrids?


CURWOOD: Now tell me, looking ahead to this hydrogen economy, how do we move it around? How do we move the hydrogen from one place to another?

LOVINS: Typically, we will be producing the hydrogen at the filling station. Filling stations serving about 90 percent of our cars have natural gas piped to them right now. If they can get very cheap electricity, which they also can get through the grid, it’s conceivable that in some situations they might be able to make competitive electricity that way. But I think that’s a lot less likely. Electricity is an awfully expensive way to make hydrogen. So I think natural gas will continue to rule.

This, by the way, will not use more natural gas. It may sound like, gee, we’re already short of natural gas. How can we also make it into hydrogen without running out faster? Well, the reason is that, meanwhile, you would be saving natural gas at power plants displaced by the electricity made by fuel cells; at refineries, where you’re using it to make gasoline and diesel fuel displaced by fuel cell vehicles; and in buildings, where you’re using it in furnaces and boilers displaced by waste-heat recovered by fuel cells in the building.

So when you work out all the balance, it turns out the hydrogen transition doesn’t use more natural gas, and may well use less.

CURWOOD: Okay, let’s say for a moment that we adopted this plan. You say we need ultra-efficient cars, and this is a way that the U.S. gets going with the hydrogen economy. What will be the infrastructure costs here to do this, say, over the next 35 years you suggest we could do this?

LOVINS: Oh, probably a few tens of billions of dollars. The hundreds of billions you commonly hear is clearly exaggerated. It’s based on making hydrogen centrally and building a complete new pipeline infrastructure to pipe it everywhere. I don’t think there’s any reason to do that, it doesn’t make sense.

You also need to net out the investment you’re not making in sustaining the oil-fueling infrastructure. And it turns out that oil is more capital-intensive upstream than gas is, and that the miniature reformers are probably cheaper and more efficient than centralized ones, which was a bit of a surprise.

So when you work all this out, you find you’re probably saving hundreds of dollars per car on the whole infrastructure for creating and delivering the fuel into your tank if you choose hydrogen rather than gasoline, and do an apples-to-apples comparison of investments required on both sides.

CURWOOD: Now, some people who work in the energy field don’t think that future cars will all run off hydrogen. They say, look, what about getting fuel from biomass, agricultural byproducts, or even crops specifically grown to produce fuel.

LOVINS: Mm-hmm.

CURWOOD: How do you see that fitting into our future energy needs?

LOVINS: These are all competitors. And in fact, in our study “Winning the Oil Endgame”, we’re looking at how they all interplay, and which ones have how much of the market in the long run. And I think the answer is going to be that they’ll all be active. We are already seeing a lot of biodiesel and other bio-fuels emerging in the market.

Those processes are getting steadily better. What they will tend to do, just like what hydrogen will tend to do, is squeeze out oil. Because these alternatives -- whether in saving oil or substituting for it -- tend to have rising reserves and falling costs, whereas oil tends to have falling reserves and rising costs. And the curves are starting to cross.

You know, I’ve been looking at the history of the American whaling industry. And before Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania in 1859, whaling had peaked two years before that and was already headed down. Not because there weren’t more people wanting to light their houses, but because the whale oil price had been high enough for long enough to elicit fatal competitors. In this case, kerosene and town gas, both made mainly from coal.

Basically, the whalers ran out of markets before they ran out of whales. And the remaining whales were saved by technological innovators and profit-maximizing capitalists, who came up with better, cheaper ways to light your house. Now this came as a great surprise to the whaling industry because apparently nobody had added this stuff up – saying here’s what’s on the market, here’s what’s in the lab, and then there’s that guy over there Thomas Edison who’s working on electric light. And if you kind of look at that whole picture, the future for whale oil doesn’t look very good.

I think we’re at that stage now for oil. The things we do with it, we’re now realizing we can do better and cheaper without it. These hadn’t been added up before. But I think when you do, investors will start reallocating their assets, hedging their bets, and realizing they can make more profit at less risk following an impeccable business case for getting off oil.

CURWOOD: Talk to me a bit about the politics of the promise of hydrogen. President Bush mentioned it in a State of the Union address. Some people said that he was saying this to avoid dealing with other parts of the question of climate change. What’s your analysis of the interest of the government and hydrogen?

LOVINS: It’s impossible to tell from the outside whether the intention of the federal hydrogen program is sincere. And I expect that would depend on which people you’re referring to in the program and in its senior guidance. The trouble is the administration has this self-inflicted wound of having done its best to block any significant improvement in light vehicle efficiency, and meanwhile held out the long-term vision of hydrogen.

So I think environmental groups have gotten suspicious of the program for several reasons. One is, who’s in favor of it is not their traditional allies. And second, I’m afraid that the administration’s opposition to short-term gains in fleet efficiency creates the suspicion, worthy or unworthy, that hydrogen is meant as a distraction or a stall rather than a compliment to short-term fleet efficiency.

A sensible policy would of course go for both. We would make fleets dramatically more efficient by accelerating the turnover of the capital stock. We would reward people for buying efficient vehicles and scrapping inefficient ones. And there are ways to do that that are revenue-neutral, and very good for the industry. They get to sell more cars and they’ll make more money.


LOVINS: But that isn’t how we’ve approached it. You know, we’ve had instead the assumption that efficient cars will be unattractive to the buyer because they’ll have trade-offs and compromises. So you need government intervention via either mandatory standards or fuel taxes to get people to buy these undesirable vehicles. And we’ve been gridlocked over twenty years on which of those two instruments to choose.

CURWOOD: Thinking back to where we started, which was looking at the Icelandic experience, what’s your grand vision for the U.S. energy economy thirty, forty, fifty years from now?

LOVINS: If we led always to save or produce energy, compete fairly at honest prices --regardless of whether they’re on the supply or demand side, what kind they are, how big they are, and who owns them – we will end up with a very efficient, diverse, dispersed, renewable energy system. And I suspect that hydrogen may well emerge as the dominant energy carrier over the coming decades.

CURWOOD: Amory Lovins is the CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Thanks so much for taking this time with me.

LOVINS: Thank you.

[MUSIC: Gus Gus “Anthem” GUS GUS VS. T-WORLD (4AD Records – 2000)]

Related links:
- Fuel Cells 2000
- U.S. Deptartment of Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells & Infrastructure technologies Program
- Rocky Mountain Institute

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CURWOOD: And for this week – that’s Living on Earth. You can learn more about the move towards hydrogen and see pictures of Iceland on our web site. The address is livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth dot o-r-g. You can reach us at comments@loe.org. Once again, that’s comments@loe.org. Our postal address is 20 Holland Street, Somerville, MA, 02144. And you can call our listener line anytime at (800) 218-9988. That’s (800) 218-9988.


CURWOOD: And for this week – that’s Living on Earth.

Before we go, one last stop on the island of fire and ice. In the center of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, there’s a pond where each day young and old alike come to feed the geese, ducks and assorted fowl that inhabit the waterway. Here’s what it all sounds like on a typical morning.


CURWOOD: Our special, The Promise of Hydrogen, was produced by Cynthia Graber with help from Chris Ballman. Our engineers are Paul Wabreck and Nal Terro. Special thanks to Ernie Silver and Carl Lindermann. Al Avery runs our web site. Alison Dean composed our themes. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm – organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Oak Foundation, for coverage of marine issues.

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