California must lead transition to hydrogen-based energy

Hydrogen powered car with fossil fuel powered cars on a road
Ashley Zhang /Staff

Earth’s alarm bells are ringing! Greenhouse gases are increasing. Glaciers are disappearing. And the Arctic regions are melting away. Much of the world is suffering from foul air, prolonged droughts, severe hurricanes and oil spills.

Meanwhile, the world’s leading climate scientists have issued a report through the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The scientists warn that we have a 12-year window of opportunity to alter the destructive trends of fossil fuels. If we fail to act in this time frame, the trends will become unalterable, and we will enter a time of irreparable and life-threatening environmental damage.

Fortunately, we have the opportunity to significantly cleanse the world of filthy fossil fuels through the utilization of alternative forms of energy. Much of this process can be accomplished in the allotted 12 years with the development of a new hydrogen-based economy.

Hydrogen has already been used to power spacecraft, automobiles and buses and to heat buildings — and it is a totally nonpolluting form of energy. When hydrogen is extracted from water and ignited as a fuel, it recombines with oxygen and becomes pure water vapor. Since it begins as water and returns to water after use, it never pollutes or departs from our environment.

A new hydrogen economy is currently emerging in California. Toyota, Honda and Hyundai are selling hydrogen-powered automobiles that emit pure water vapor. These cars have top speeds of more than 100 miles per hour and a range of more than 300 miles. All can be refueled in three to five minutes at one of more than 30 hydrogen filling stations scattered throughout the state.

According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, nine more stations are in the planning-approval stage. Berkeley is projected to open a hydrogen station on University Avenue this year; San Francisco, Palo Alto and Sacramento already have stations; and Oakland also has a station under construction.

How can the campus and the community contribute to the development of this emerging hydrogen economy? For starters, with a vigorous demand that Congress should make hydrogen a central part of the Green New Deal. And as we decarbonize, perhaps the UC Berkeley Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering can research and implement the use of hydrogen as a heating and cooling agent in buildings.

UC Berkeley and the surrounding community must also deal with one negative aspect of this new hydrogen economy. The private sector is maximizing profits by extracting hydrogen from natural gas — a process that creates pollution and promotes harmful fracking.

The good news is that hydrogen can be extracted from water using electricity. This environmentally friendly process is called electrolysis. But the private sector finds electrolysis to be cost-prohibitive — and further, it seems that private industry is unable to produce hydrogen at a competitive price. Fossil fuels are therefore the more profitable choice in industry.

These problems are solvable, and electrolysis can be used to produce hydrogen on a massive scale. Such production would prove to be profitable for businesses and affordable for consumers. The proof of this lies in a model derived from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

In 12 years, FDR and his New Dealers built multiple publicly owned hydroelectric dams. Many of those dams were built on the tributaries to the 652-mile Tennessee River, and they furnished electricity for a seven-state region at a cost less than that of private companies in the area. The magnificent Grand Coulee Dam of Washington state was a New Deal project as well. It has faithfully provided affordable electricity to parts of an 11-state region and Canada. Another example is the Hoover Dam on the border between Nevada and Arizona, which was finished during the Roosevelt administration and dedicated by FDR. It furnishes electricity to parts of three western states.

The people of the United States own 27 perfect venues for the performance of electrolysis. In our inspirational environment of abundant water and electricity, the priority of profit should give way to the altruistic goal of massive hydrogen production at bargain rates.

If New Dealers could provide the nation with 27 publicly owned dams with turbines to produce electricity, Green New Dealers can create 27 publicly owned stations to manufacture hydrogen.

If New Dealers could sell cheap, publicly owned electricity to the private sector and rapidly turn undeveloped areas into industrial hubs, Green New Dealers could sell cheap, publicly owned hydrogen to private industry and rapidly create a new, hydrogen-based economy. Subsequently, the private sector could rapidly produce new, hydrogen-powered automobiles and hydrogen filling stations in addition to hydrogen buses, aircraft and a multitude of other entities.

If Green New Dealers can manage to expand our emerging hydrogen economy through their hydroelectric dams, they will also inspire other countries to turn to clean energy as well, which would profoundly aid the world in combating climate change before the tipping point in 12 years.

As UC Berkeley students, it is your duty to learn about and contribute to the renewable energy research that is taking place on campus.

We worked miracles in the 12 years of the New Deal. Green New Dealers can absolutely do it again. We need a new hydrogen economy. It is time to lead. It is time to rally. The power is in your hands.

Joseph Bagnall is the assistant dean emeritus of Santa Barbara City College.