Pseudo-Environmental Hummers

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A lone Hummer driver with a conscience? At first glance, it seems so. But this is actually becoming something of a trend: Everyone who is pitching an alternative fuel these days is using a Hummer to make his or her point. And the reason is obvious. Everyone knows that Hummers are the most gas guzzing private vehicles on the road, and are much despised by people who are concerned about the environment or America’s addiction to foreign oil.

This one is carrying a sign saying that because it is run on hydrogen, it pollutes less than a hybrid vehicle well known as a choice of environmentally conscious drivers. It’s evidently operated by a company pitching hydrogen fuel that has chosen a Hummer to draw attention to its statement on the cleanliness of hydrogen. There might not be emissions coming out of its tailpipe, but as James Howard Kunstler notes in his latest book, The Long Emergency, "It takes more energy to manufacture hydrogen than the hydrogen itself produces." Because of this, Kunstler calls hydrogen an energy carrier instead of a fuel, and notes that it is unlikely that hydrogen will ever amount to a significant fuel for our cars.

It would be nice, neat, and simple if all the powered infrastructure and equipment of our society could simply be switched to hydrogen, but it’s not going to happen. A few things may run on hydrogen, but not America’s automobile and trucking fleets. In the long run hydrogen will not replace our lost oil and gas endowments.

Matt Savinar, midway through the second page of Life After the Oil Crash, lays out a heavily sourced, methodical debunking of hydrogen that includes five reasons why hydrogen is going nowhere: the astronomical cost of fuel cells, the lack of adequate platinum supply, the inability to store massive quantities needed for hydrogen to function as a fuel, the incredibly massive cost of the needed hydrogen infrastructure, and as Kunstler noted above, hydrogen’s nature as a net consumer of energy.

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Here’s another Hummer on an enviro-tour, this one promoting ethanol. The Streetsblog tipster who e-mailed in the link above noted, "I can just see the bumper sticker now: ‘I ate more grain today than a small African village does in a year.’"

Ouch! How true is that statement? For the most thoughtful discussions on energy resources, I turn to The Oil Drum, which has weighed in on ethanol frequently. In May, contributor Robert Rapier ran the numbers and determined that if the United States were to yank back all its corn exports and turn them into ethanol for our cars instead of food for foreign countries, the E85 produced would amount to 3.3% of our national gasoline pool. If we wanted to turn the entire corn crop into ethanol, it would satisfy 13.4% of our annual gasoline demand. That would leave zero corn for, you know, eating, and would devastate the meat industry, which uses that corn to feed livestock. Further, he noted that the corn is grown with massive amounts of fossil fuel "inputs," like fertilizers and pesticides derived from oil or natural gas, so the ethanol isn’t feasible without oil anyway.

A better solution than ethanol or hydrogen would be to stop building Hummers and start conserving energy. The best way to do that is to promote environmentally friendly communities like New York City, which keeps development pressure away from farmland, houses millions of people in small, well-insulated apartments, and of course, promotes auto-free mobility.

  • Kurt

    Apparently, the grain needed to fill 25-gallon SUV tank with ethanol would feed a person for a year:

    http://tinyurl.com/gzvnt

    Not a village, but still one person. But multiply that by the number of fill-ups per year in this country, and you can see where ethanol is headed.

  • Thanks for posting this AD. Hydrogen is a farce. Ethanol needs a much better feedstock than corn.

    Electric hybrids that recharge at off-peak hours sounds like a better short term idea at supplementing demand. Reusing vegetable oil waste for biodiesel is another.

    But the real answer is a lot less demand. Brazil didn’t become energy independent because of ethanol, it’s because they consume a fraction of the oil we consume. If we consumed oil on a per capita basis they do, we would still be net oil exporters.

  • AD

    Kurt, thanks for the numbers. Wow.
    Glenn, Brazil also has a tropical climate that is much more conducive for growing ethanol feedstock (sugar cane in their case).

  • J:Lai

    Hydrogen is not quite a farce, although envisioning a transportation system that relies significantly on hydrogen as an energy source requires some radical re-thinking of the current energy regime.

    As I’m sure many of you guys are aware, 4th generation nuclear power is a propsed method for generating energy via modifications (some fairly radical) to current 2nd and 3rd generation nuclear facilities.

    It is feasible that 4th generation reactors could provide enough energy to meet the requirements of the entire country without modifying consumption behavior (although I believe we should, for various reasons, change consumption behavior.)

    One of the nice things about 4th generation nuclear facilities is that they are about equally efficient at producing electric power or chemical power in the form of fuel-ready hydrogen. Transmitting the massive amounts of electrical energy over long distances would probably require super-cooled transmission lines, which naturally motivates using hydrogen to cool the lines and thereby deliver it to cities and towns.

    This technology is estimated to be about 30 years away, and at such a theoretical stage is certainly bound to present many unforseen challenges. However, I just wanted to comment that it is somewhat facile to dismiss hydrogen powered vehicles out of hand.

  • In Hamburg, Germany, when I was there two years ago, they were running a certain number of city buses on Hydrogen created (or stored or generated — not sure I know the right verb here) using wind power. So, it was a totally clean system. I thought that was pretty great.

  • AD

    J:Lai, thanks. I’d be interested in learning more about how a 4th generation nuclear plant is different from a regular one. (30 years seems like an awfully long time away though.)

  • Seems like we don’t really know the costs of any energy consumption any more because everything is so subsidized and is produced by something else that is subsidized or has indirect costs.

    Corn for instance may be more subsidized than oil. I know contries like mexico (where corn’s gnetic origins are ), can’t afford to produce there own in many cases, because US corn is so cheap.

    If we don’t know what things cost, then how do we know if we are in the optimal energy system? We are totlally focused on supply, and always blaming demand, but never planning for what we actaully want as citizens of the planet.

    What never enters the convseration is the idea that we should be planning for outcomes — for a world we really want. Limitations on consumption are just never going to be compelling. Instead of a treadmile of subsidization, that perpetuates feedback loops of more cars, more fuels, more roads, etc., it has to be possible to plan our energy systems for what we actually want to get out of them.

    And our transporation system is the perfect example of this and the perfect place to start this challenge. Transporation systems are meant to get us places and faciliate economic exchange, but this has been largely forgotten as we expend more and more enery to accomplish less and less, often degrading in the process, the intended destinations, connections and potential for exchange. What if we concentrated our efforts (and our advocacy) on creating places that we really want to be in and go to, and places that are compatible with comfortable and equal economic, cultural and social exchange?

    If we planned our transporation system for these and other shared outcomes, supply and demand (the very things we measure the success of our economy and tranaportation systems with) would decrease, exteranlized costs would decrease, and true costs (witout subsidies) would emerge. Most importantly, we would actually have control over a system that is controlling us, the health of our communities and the health of our planet.

  • Paul

    and another thing: Hummers and their ilk take up way too much street space. Even if there were a way to power them sustainably, they would still hog the limited space that should be the protected domain of walkers, pedestrians and bus riders.

  • Well, I don’t know about the other Hummers, but my H2H2 is real. I modified my 2003 in 2003 to run on CNG, pure hydrogen, a blend that can be made on board called HCNG, E50, or half gasoline and half ethanol, and if none of the others are available, gasoline. Why are you smart people saying the alternative fuels won’t work? My goal is do reduce our use of petroleum. It takes a lot of energy to refine gasoline too, and what about the cost to defend, and get it here? My H2H2 is not efficient, but it does get attention to the fact that it can be driven without using gasoline. Wake-up and work together to end our petroleum nightmare!

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