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Delayed Promises

Gretchen K. Aleks

Since President Bush delivered his rousing State of the Union speech in January in which he announced that his administration would budget $1.2 billion dollars for research into fuel cells for automobiles, the media has been abuzz with talk of super-sleek hydrogen-powered vehicles cruising down America’s highways, generating no pollutants save sweet, sweet water vapor more pure than a mountain stream. This scenario is a huge joke, just like the United States’ energy policy has been for the past thirty years.

The government, with a little encouragement from oil, gas, and automotive corporations, has managed to avoid implementing alternative or renewable energy sources on any significant scale since the 1970s by continually promising better, more efficient, more reliable energy sources in the future. What’s the reason that a pitiful one-sixth of one percent of electricity in this country comes from solar energy? Clearly it’s because in ten years, we will have developed a photovoltaic cell that can compete price-wise with oil. And why shouldn’t the government subsidize alternative technology now? Just as obviously, it’s because the government’s money can be better spent funding research so that a hypothetical solution can be developed for later. Sadly, this same argument has been at work since the oil shocks of the 1970s, and it has succeeded mightily in postponing the phasing-in of sustainable sources.

It is deceitful for the government to continue advocating this line of reasoning. By all indicators, renewable energy technologies have outperformed expectations. They are more reliable and, yes, cheaper than anyone expected them to be in the 1970s when the government first started investing heavily in alternative energy technology research. The awesome leaps made in the fields of alternative energy technology have been accompanied by gains in oil and gas recovery technology. Although the cost per kilowatt hour of energy capture from wind or solar sources, for example, is cheaper than analysts predicted in the 1970s, so is the cost of drilling a hole in Alaska or off the coast of Louisiana. The combined effect of direct governmental subsidies for oil and gas extraction -- with indirect incentives such as low taxes on gasoline -- means that fossil fuels remain cheaper than renewables and will continue to dominate the market until Washington takes the next step by actually segueing in the technology its money has devised, rather than simply funding more and more research.

The U.S. government has gotten away long enough with neglecting its responsibilities to implement some of the energy technologies that have been developed. It is far less expensive for them to continue funding energy research than for them to start subsidizing the implementation of the technology already developed. This is the game that Bush intends to play by trying to convince 250 million people that what this country needs is cars that run off fuel cells. Although certain types of fuel cells do offer potential for clean energy and electricity generation far in the future, the cells that Bush has in mind operate by taking hydrogen, reacting it with oxygen from the air, and producing water vapor. The reaction is exothermic, and the mechanics of the cell turn this energy directly into electricity, which is then harnessed to power an automobile. The problem is that hydrogen gas is not abundant, so we must generate it in order to use it in fuel cells. Bush’s plan for hydrogen generation involves natural gas: if you combust methane, you’ll get hydrogen, but you’ll also get carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, other pollutant gases, and aerosol pollutants.

Not only are fuel cells not as environmentally friendly as the good folks in Gale Norton’s Department of the Interior make them out to be, but hydrogen-powered cars are still years away. Even with the billion dollars that Bush wants to sink into fuel cell research, this technology will not come to market for at least another 10 to 15 years.

If Bush really were committed to developing fuel-efficient cars, he would subsidize hybrid electric vehicles rather than a technology that will not be ready for another ten years. And in ten years, more likely than not, whoever occupies the oval office will say that the technology is still too expensive to compete with good old petroleum. Hybrid Electric Vehicles contain mature technology that makes driving a car more environmentally-friendly than driving a traditional gas-powered vehicle by coupling an electric motor with a gasoline-powered generator. The smaller engine means that less gasoline is used to power the car, leading to less pollution, yet the car has similar performance specs to those of a traditional vehicle. The drawback to hybrid electric vehicles is again price: a hybrid Toyota Prius costs around $19,000 while a traditional Echo costs around $10,000. American consumers are not willing at this point to make up for the price differential without government subsidies, and unfortunately, the big three auto manufacturers in the states are less excited about the mass manufacture of hybrid vehicles than they are about the prospect of continuing to receive government funds to develop yet another technology that will likely never be implemented. American consumers and tax payers should try to reverse this disturbing tradition and demand that the government carry through on its energy promises by actually making new technologies affordable.