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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  August 2005

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE August 2005

Subject:

Hydrogen Hoopla

From:

"Aaron S. Hawley" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 22 Aug 2005 17:14:13 -0400

Content-Type:

TEXT/PLAIN

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

TEXT/PLAIN (86 lines)

Hydrogen Hoopla
by Richard York
http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/york220805.html

In a time of rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the earth's
atmosphere and ever more prominent signs of global warming, General Motors
and other apologists for global capitalism are seeking to assure us of
their concern for the environment and their commitment to move beyond
fossil fuels.  Unsurprisingly, they do not propose putting a stop to the
capitalist dream of ever expanding accumulation among the corporate elite
that, to a large extent, drives environmental degradation.  Nor do they
advocate the more modest goal of moving away from the unsustainable
automobile-centric transportation system now dominant in the United States
and a growing number of other nations, and toward a more rational system
based on mass public transit and pedestrian-centric development.  The
auto-industry's solution is simple: hydrogen.  In a recent ad in the May
2nd issue of The New Yorker, GM informs us that they are "eliminating
emissions and doubters" through their development of hydrogen fuel cell
technology.  Their implicit assumption is clear: no change to the
prevailing political economy and social relations is necessary.  All that
society is faced with is a challenge that can be overcome with technology.
And, of course, as at least those of us who grew up in the United States
have been told since elementary school, nothing spurs technological
innovation quite like the free market.  Yankee ingenuity will save us all,
as long as the radicals and malcontents can be prevented from meddling in
the business of business.

Perhaps I will be forgiven if I do not have the fullest of confidence that
GM, the company that has a history of undermining public transportation
and fighting fuel economy standards and safety regulations -- and that
brought you that gas-guzzling danger of the road, the Hummer -- is as
concerned about the fate of the global environment as you and I are.  GM
is apparently undertaking some quite interesting projects.  Their website
reports that on April 1, 2005:

    Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton joined GM and the U.S. military for the
    unveiling and ceremonial delivery of a GM fuel cell-powered pickup
    truck built for the U.S. military. Developing partnerships with
    customers like the U.S. military, whose goals match GM's, will advance
    a hydrogen economy, help gain real-world experience with hydrogen and
    fuel cells and create the potential for additional future joint
    transportation ventures with the military.

Although it is comforting to know that GM is teaming up with Hillary
Rodham Clinton and the U.S. military -- that institution known for its
concern for preserving a livable world and "whose goals match GM's," after
all -- one is left to wonder whether the hydrogen economy will in fact
emerge, and, if it does, whether it will be environmentally sustainable.
Although I have no doubt that the U.S. military wants to be assured that
they can continue waging war long into the future, even after fossil fuel
resources are depleted, I suspect that perhaps something other than a
sincere effort to reduce environmental degradation is going on here.

Hydrogen is no miracle solution to our energy problems.  First and
foremost, it is important to recognize that no reserves of hydrogen are
just lying around waiting to be exploited.  On the contrary, to generate
hydrogen takes energy -- energy that typically is supplied by the
combustion of fossil fuels -- to liberate hydrogen atoms from their bonds
with other atoms in molecules such as the common hydrogen-oxygen molecule
H2O (water).  Due to the law of conservation of energy, it takes at least
as much energy to break such a bond as one receives back when a fuel cell
recombines the hydrogen and oxygen to form water.  So, although it is true
that a hydrogen-powered car can in principle operate while only emitting
water, the ultimate impact of a hydrogen transportation system depends on
how the hydrogen is produced.  In effect, hydrogen is only an energy
storage device (like a battery), not a primary source of energy.  Hydrogen
fuel cell technology, then, does nothing to address the reasons for our
extraordinary energy demands or to spur development of renewable sources
of energy.

Might it just be possible that GM's talk about hydrogen cars is merely a
ploy to avoid taking serious actions to address our energy problems?
Although I don't wish to disillusion some of the more na?ve readers out
there, I feel impelled to suggest that GM only sees the myriad of
environmental problems they are generating as a public relations problem,
and that their efforts are all about PR, not about environmental
sustainability.  Perhaps we should not sit back and wait for GM, the U.S.
military, and Hillary Rodham Clinton to deliver a clean, green hydrogen
economy.

Richard York teaches sociology at the University of Oregon. His research,
which focuses primarily on human interaction with the natural environment,
has been published in Ambio, American Sociological Review, Ecological
Economics, Gender & Society, Human Ecology Review, Organization and
Environment, and other scholarly journals.

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