The 3,000-Mile View: From Wall St. to California Popping the Hydrogen Bubble

By Published On: January 29, 2005

Please excuse me for sticking a cold, New York steel needle into one of the bigger California bubbles: the Hydrogen Highway as the path to a serene New Age of risk-free renewable power. For some reason, the public has latched onto the idea that we can keep our SUVs (fully loaded Escalades for those in 90210) and fuel them up with global-warming-free hydrogen. And all for practically free. See, when hydrogen burns, enviros tell you with misty eyes, the exhaust it produces is just water vapor! And you can make hydrogen with the electricity from wind farms! We?ll all live happily ever after . . . There?s a reason why those words come at the end of fairy tales. I understand the enthusiasm. I?ve made two trips to Iraq since the war began, and I appreciate why we might want to find some alternative to having a couple of generations of American combatants occupying the oil fields, spreading democracy and freedom, and enforcing checkpoints with armored vehicles. Even our friends over there don?t like us, and you may have noticed that our oil hasn?t gotten any less expensive. It made sense, therefore, for Governor Schwarzenegger to proclaim on April 20 of last year (Earth Day) that ?the state of California is committed to achieving a clean energy and transportation future based on the rapid commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies . . . so that by 2010, every Californian will have access to hydrogen fuel, with a significant and increasing percentage produced from clean, renewable sources.? Here?s the main point, though: hydrogen isn?t a source of fuel for us. It?s a storage medium. It is produced by expending other primary sources of energy. The source the federal government has in mind for the Hydrogen Highway is nuclear power. We?re not talking about just a modest extension in the life of the San Onofre or Diablo Canyon plants. We are talking about hundreds, really thousands, of new nuclear facilities dedicated to the production of hydrogen through fission-powered electrolysis. There just ain?t any other way to make the hydrogen arithmetic work. While many of the rest of us have been dreaming renewable dreams while floating on puffy clouds of water exhaust, the scientists at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory have been developing the advanced nuclear technologies that will actually power the hydrogen world. The INEEL was established in 1949 as the National Reactor Testing Station, and for many years it was the site of the largest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world. It is operated for the Department of Energy by a subsidiary of San Francisco?s own Bechtel Corporation. Among the designs the INEEL has been working on is the very-high-temperature reactor (VHTR), the one best suited to providing the process heat necessary to break hydrogen apart from water so it can be turned into fuel. (There are a few issues with storing the stuff, but we won?t deal with that here.) Among the high-temperature reactor variants is the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) being developed here and in China. The PBMR designs have the potential of being much safer than the 103 light-water power reactors currently operating in the U.S. I asked Dr. Steve Herring of the INEEL how many of these new, relatively efficient reactors would be needed to displace just 10 percent of the estimated U.S. fuel import requirements 20 years from now. I picked the 20-year horizon to give us all some time for a total redesign of our energy economy. Dr. Herring promptly responded by devising the equation below, based on the Energy Information Administration?s estimate of 2025 fuel imports (measured in quads, or quadrillion BTUs), the output of 600 MW thermal (300 MW electric) per VHTR reactor, and the comparative efficiency of hydrogen fuel compared to gasoline. Of course, Californians think big, so they might want to displace all imported fuel with clean-burning hydrogen. Given California?s share of the U.S. population (around 13 percent), that would mean the Golden State would need to build about 480 nuclear reactors to generate the necessary hydrogen. I need hardly mention that the reactors would be in your backyard, not mine, so I?m personally very much in favor of the program. As for enviros? wish that hydrogen be created through electrolysis using wind power, the entire current wind development in California would displace only four reactors? worth of energy for hydrogen production. Whatever your momentary doubts about this prospect, though, the hydrogen economy does compare favorably in at least one way: it?s not that much more expensive, and might actually be cheaper, than occupying the Middle East indefinitely. Using $1,200 per kilowatt for the reactors, those 480 reactors will cost about $180 billion. The cost for the country as a whole would be about $1.5 trillion. Now, the direct costs of the peacekeeping, if that?s the term I?m looking for, in the Middle East are about $100 billion a year. Over twenty years, that?s $2 trillion. Throw in the capital costs, not to mention the survivors? benefits, and nuclear-powered hydrogen becomes quite competitive. I?m leaving out the operating costs, of course, but the real hurdle with nukes is the capital cost, rather than the operating cost. Maintenance, fuel, and operation add up to less than 1 cent/kWh, and total energy content in a kilogram of hydrogen or a gallon of gasoline is about 50 kWh, or about 50 cents a gallon. There would still be a couple of issues. The first would be finding all the new uranium supplies to fuel the reactors. There hasn?t been a problem finding uranium in the past, though nuclear weapons programs and the existing nuclear power establishment had more modest requirements than they have now. Let?s say we can just comb through Canada and the Western states for our requirements. Then we?d have to come up with a place to store all the used fuel. The good news about the pebble bed reactors is that the fuel packages are less radioactive and come prepackaged in small ceramic containers that are easier to handle than the metal fuel rods you saw in The China Syndrome. The bad news is that the pebbles take up a whole lot more volume?more volume than could ever be accommodated in the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. So we?d have to find, or create, some caves in geologically stable formations such as, perhaps, the granite in Vermont near former governor Howard Dean?s house. That would work, I think. Then we?d have to gather the helium that?s used for heat transfer in the pebble bed reactors. There?s a lot of helium in the universe; little of that is on our planet. Dr. Herring ran some numbers on the helium requirements for the very-high-temperature reactors. He calculates that 1 percent of present domestic sales could fill about 32 reactors a year. But helium leaks. You would need a little over 7 percent of present U.S. helium production to replace the annual losses in California?s new nuclear plants used to fuel the Hydrogen Highway, or 60 percent if the whole country followed California?s example. The problem is that our helium reserves are running down and would be in serious decline by 2025. The solution is to go overseas to where new helium reserves have been discovered. Where would some of those be? In Qatar, just across the Gulf from Iraq. See, for every problem there?s a solution, if you just look hard enough. <i>?John Dizard is also a columnist for the </i>Financial Times.<i>

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