Earth Day 2004

Tod Kershaw
Earth Day Speech (4/24/04)

Good afternoon, welcome to Earth Day and thank you for coming out. My name is Tod Kershaw, I'm an electrical engineer and I'm just about to finish my master's thesis on energy storage devices for Electric, Hybrid electric and Fuel Cell vehicles at UC Davis. I also work in the Fuel Cell lab at UC Davis.

1) Main Section:

My main goal is to convince you - not that Fuel cells are bad technology - they're not - but that they are not the magic silver bullet that they are being hyped as. They will not save us from the mess we have gotten ourselves into with fossil fuels. They are a possible part of a solution - but they are not the solution.. The issues are actually much larger than just hydrogen vs. fossil fuels.

Fuel cells and hydrogen are being used as a smoke screen by short sighted, corrupt people like those currently running our country to get us to feel comfortable about continuing to waste fossil fuels the way we have been doing for so many years. We can say, "It's ok to keep burning gasoline - fuel cells will be here soon. No more air pollution, no more dependence on foreign energy sources." These assumptions, which we are actively being encouraged to make, are wrong.

There are significant technical hurdles that must be overcome before we have a hydrogen economy. Here are 2 examples: 1 gallon of Hydrogen, compressed to 10 thousand pounds per square inch contains about the same amount of energy as about 37 table spoons of gasoline. Hydrogen storage is a major difficulty and possible showstopper. Another technical issue is that PEM fuel cells - Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel cells - have water in them. In fact, water is necessary for transporting the hydrogen protons across the polymer membrane. And water freezes and expands in cold temperatures. This can damage fuel cell components. Cold starting fuel cells in a reasonable amount of time is a serious problem that has yet to be solved.

But this is not a technical speech. Instead, I'm going to share with you quotes I have read or have heard in person during my conversations with people in the Fuel cell and hydrogen industries. I decided to only give the positions of most of the people I am quoting.

2) Quotes/Conversations

I mentioned to a fellow graduate student at UC Davis that I had entered the Transportation Technology and policy program with optimism about the promise of fuel cell technology. She said, quote : "I knew better. I came here from (a mechanical engineering) position at General Motors and since they were really pushing it, I knew it had to be crap." The director of my department at UC Davis and another respected hydrogen researcher and advocate said in a recent article: "Hydrogen is neither the easiest nor the cheapest way to gain large near and medium term air pollution, greenhouse gas or oil reduction benefits." Is this what we're hearing from Bush or Arnold? Incidentally, Schwartzenegger took part in a hydrogen PR event at UC Davis last Tuesday - he drove up to the hydrogen filling station in a fuel cell car for a fill up. A friend of mine told me that Arnold left the event in a huge SUV. Now that's leadership!

Last February I went to a 2 day Fuel cell and hydrogen infrastructure symposium at the Cal EPA building in Sacramento that was put on by the Society of Automotive Engineers and, I took notes on my conversations.

I talked with the Fuel Cell Stack Technology Group Manager for UTC - That's United Technologies Corporation, which had Fuel cells aboard the Apollo moon missions and has fuel cells on board NASA's Space Shuttle Orbiter. When asked how serious UTC is about commercializing fuel cells, he said: "sure the management of UTC is putting some money into the fuel cell division, but the total funding for the fuel cell division is still less than the CEO's salary." The message here is that this particular company is hedging its bet on commercial fuel cells. Did you know that the US Department of energy is waiting till 2015 before even making a decision on whether fuel cells cars can be commercialized?

The presenter from Argonne National Laboratories said in his presentation, quote: "Manufacturing volume is not likely to bring cost down to the level of current technologies." Many people throw out the issue of volume as one of the main impediments to getting prices down and fuel cell vehicles on the road. It is an impediment - but it's not the only one.

One of the presenters at the symposium mentioned that he had heard that Honda motor company could - now - mass produce Fuel Cell vehicles for $300,000. How many people here drive $300,000 cars?

I had a very interesting conversation with the Chief Engineer for Fuel Cell Operations at General Motors. I said to him that there seems to be a perception that Fuel cells for transportation are right around the corner. He chuckled and said, "No, there are a lot of technical difficulties and issues." I said, "It's hard to even predict a time frame." He said, "That's right." I said, "There's a difference between a time frame to get fuel cell vehicles on the road vs. getting them to where ordinary people can afford them." He said, and I quote, "Yup." About 2 hours later he gave an official presentation to the symposium in which he gently and commercially glossed over the technical difficulties as engineering challenges - not as potential show stoppers - which many are - but you don't know that unless you're around industry people or academics involved in fuel research and development.

The head of Ford's operation at the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento gave Ford's official symposium presentation. In the presentation he made the statement that, "Ford will have fuel cell vehicles in production by the end of the year (2004)." That sounds great! Someone in the audience asked him how many fuel cell vehicles would be in production. He hedged and grinned and said, "Not that many." When pressed for a number, he said. "2 or 3." Sure, Ford will, technically, have fuel cell vehicles in production by the end of the year. 2 or 3 of them Perhaps for some government fleet. That's not a lie, but it is misleading. I'm guessing this guy was given a script by his bosses because I know him and think of him as someone who truly does want to do some good for our planet.

A scientist from the US Department of Energy gave the official presentation for that agency. This was also the presentation for the Bush administration since the DOE is a government agency. The scientist showed a graph of US transportation petroleum use by year, projected out to around 2025. The claim was made that by the year 2040, 11 million barrels per day of petroleum will be replaced by hydrogen if we follow Bush's plan. I extrapolated the petroleum use line out to 2040 and came up with a number of about 40 million barrels used per day. Currently, we use around 20 million barrels per day. So our net use of petroleum, already unsustainable, will actually increase by around 10 million barrels per day under Bush's plan. That's good for Halliburton and Exxon Mobil, but it's not good for the rest of us. When I asked the scientist if DOE has a plan for dealing with this net increase in oil consumption, he absolutely sidestepped the issue. He said, quote: "I'm a materials guy, not an energy guy." Ok, that's true - but he was the one presenting for the USDOE. I don't mean to malign him - I think the DOE sent a scientist to do a political hack's job.

JOSEPH ROMM "Hype about Hydrogen."
I'll share this next guy's name with you. Joseph Romm worked on alternative energy and hydrogen fuel cells in the Department of Energy under Clinton. In a presentation he made at UC Davis a few weeks ago on his book, "The Hype About Hydrogen," he covered many of the technical aspects of implementing a hydrogen economy that I am skipping. After the talk, an audience member began some question on sustainability in the energy sector with the word, "hydrogen." Mr. Romm stopped him and said, "Please don't say 'hydrogen,' say 'clean hydrogen, because hydrogen itself is not a solution." I don't think I need to expand on that, but I will anyways: If we are not producing hydrogen from renewable feed stocks using truly renewable energy, we are accomplishing nothing. Mr. Romm's assertion is that one of the major reasons for converting to an alternative energy infrastructure, is global climate change. Right now, most hydrogen (about 50 million tons per year) is produced from natural gas, which is also 1) being depleted and 2) very popular for electricity generation, because it is so clean burning

Romm is very convincing when he says that renewably generated electricity should be used as electricity - not to make hydrogen. He says that green electricity used to produce hydrogen displaces about 500 lb of carbon dioxide per Megawatt-hour of electricity generated. Green electricity used as electricity - thus decreasing demand for electricity from coal - displaces 2250 lb of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour.

Mr. Romm shared a statement from Shell Oil Company in his talk. Listen to this: "At the end of the day, hydrogen and other alternative fuels will be three to four times as expensive as oil based products, and if no one wants to pay for that, we can't make those fuels." End quote. So, I guess we need government subsidies to make alternatives affordable. But didn't Bush give something like $1.7 billion for the "Freedom Car" initiative to promote research into hydrogen? Yes, but he has also used around $200 Billion of our money for the war in Iraq - and I hear there's oil in Iraq.

I had the opportunity to spend some time talking to the scientist from Argonne National labs and I really got to like and to respect him.. He even took the time to give me some technical advice on my master's thesis research. But I had an exchange with him during his official presentation at the Fuel Cell symposium that I think is indicative of one of the major hurdles we face - our tunnel vision. In his presentation, he spoke of the very popular notion of using green electricity - from solar, wind and geothermal - to electrolyze water - as the holy hydrogen grail to aim for. Many people consider this to be the purely sustainable and good option.

When I pointed out to him that water is becoming a scarcity worldwide, he corrected me and said that potable (drinkable) water is what is becoming scarce. That's true, I told him, but electrolyzer technology is moving towards requiring cleaner and cleaner input water - so the less pure the water is initially, the more time and money and energy must be spent on it to clean it up and make it ready for electrolysis. He just shrugged and said no more. There was nothing more he could say - he had simply never considered that angle. I am aware of the larger water issues primarily because I live in Rancho Cordova, where we have all kinds of toxic crap in our water, courtesy of Aerojet and the Department of Defense. I probably don't have to tell you that, despite EPA and Aerojet assurances, I don't drink the water.

Last year, for one of my graduate classes, I wrote a report on the electricity plus water to hydrogen pathway, with a focus on the water itself. My conclusion: Put simply, we have a problem here on planet Earth. Actually, we have lots of problems, but I'm just looking at this particular one at the moment.

Here is a quote from 2000 from Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the UN: Global freshwater consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995 - more than twice the rate of population growth. About one third of the world's population already lives in countries considered to be 'water stressed'... If present trends continue, two out of every three people on Earth will live in that condition by 2025. Water stressed refers to areas where consumption exceeds 10% of total supply.

But what is "total supply?" Officially, the water in Rancho Cordova is included in the "total supply" - but it has poisons in it. How much other water - particularly in poorer countries - should not be considered part of the total supply? I don't know. Add to that the fact that multinational corporations are taking over public water systems all over the World - including in the United States. Now, if an average multinational corporation can make more money selling water from a poor country to the US or Europe for running our Fuel Cells Hummers than by selling it to the local population, what will that corporation do? Almost 60% of our transportation fuel already comes from overseas - and that fuel is a fluid that is NOT necessary for human survival. I'm not saying that the poor of the world will certainly be left without water if we start using hydrogen fuel cells. But I am saying that the danger of terrible conflict and abuse exists if we allow our political and business leaders get us our hydrogen the way we get everything else we want or think we need - with manipulation, corruption and violence.

Who here thinks that Bush and his (in my opinion) rotten little band of corrupt murderers wouldn't kill for hydrogen? Who here thinks that Kerry would be a whole lot better? I think he'd be a little bit less overt about it - but he'd damn sure get us our fuel. And we would throw our money at the energy companies and demand that fuel - just like we do now.

There are countless studies on how to make hydrogen from water, but while doing my research for that report, I found none on the potential impacts of feeding our ravenous appetite for energy with water - something that, like air and food, we absolutely cannot live without. Maybe in our rush to a new technology we should be looking at possible dangers. People will say, "Use seawater." Ok, that's a possibility. But one of the challenges of getting a hydrogen fueling structure set up is the high cost. And every step in the process of creating hydrogen adds cost to the process. Using seawater adds one more step and more cost.

The Earth has a certain amount of water in the hydrosphere. We aren't going to get an infusion from outer space or from God or from any other source that I can think of. Hydrogen is the smallest and lightest element in the Universe. This means that it leaks. And when it leaks, some will escape the Earth's atmosphere and head out into space. That will truly be water lost from the hydrosphere. How much? I don't know. That depends on how much we make and on how carefully we use it. Ask Exxon if there has ever been a fuel spill.

And there is one more thing about using water - seawater or freshwater - both of which there is so much of: There is no such thing as an infinite resource. Long ago it seemed that there were endless buffalo on the plains and endless forests to cut down. There were unlimited fish in the oceans. There was unlimited air and water to pump our industrial and personal effluent into. Some people still think that there will never be an end to oil. The assumption of an infinite resource has proven wrong every single time. Maybe we should learn from that. And we can't just assume that water from the fuel cell vehicle tailpipes is going to flow clean and easy back into the hydrosphere. We just can't make these assumptions.


I'm just about done, but I want to share a few more thoughts. First of all, the oil is running out. My friend Steve Bash has a biodiesel set-up over there, and he is selling copies of Richard Heinberg's book "The Party's Over." I read it and I think it's well researched and worth the read. I do not agree with Heinberg's conclusion that world oil production will peak around 2015. I think it's happening right now - give or take a year or five.

In case you're not familiar with what peaking oil production means, let me give a quick explanation: Before the peak, for every oil well that goes dry, two new wells are discovered. At the peak, for every well that goes dry, one will be discovered. After the peak, for every well that's discovered, two will go dry.

I recently learned that U.S. oil production peaked in 1971. Why was that not big news? Do we have confidence that our beloved and trusted leaders will inform us when world oil production peaks and starts to decline?

In the Sacramento Bee on Sunday, April 11, there was an article about the peaking of oil production in which there is a quote from Kenneth Deffeyes, a petroleum geologist, professor emeritus of geosciences at Princeton University and author of the book, "Hubbert's Peak." Quote: "This is the monster in the closet. This is such bad news that we're not going to hear from either Republicans or Democrats about it until after the election. Everyone wants to say we can have 2 or 3% economic growth."
End quote.

In Deffeyes' book he says that, as oil becomes scarce, he hopes that the bidding war for the Earth's remaining oil will be waged with money and not with thermonuclear weapons.

Why do I bring up oil depletion in a speech about hydrogen? It's because the debate on hydrogen is generally limited to pollution and global warming and energy independence. I talked to a senior scientist from Exxon-Mobil and to some scientists, engineers and executives from Shell and I asked them how much the oil depletion issue has to do with the move towards hydrogen. They made themselves unbelievable with the vehemence of their assertions that there is no connection. The basic response was: "There is plenty of oil." That's true - there is plenty of oil - but there soon will be plenty more oil demanded than can be produced. I don't know what the connection is between oil depletion and hydrogen - but I refuse to believe that there is none. The point is that our energy well is running dry.

Finally, I want to talk about us. And When I say us, I mean us - because if we want something better - something sustainable - for ourselves and future generations, we are going to have to make it happen. First of all, I was once asked, during a presentation I was giving, "What is sustainability? It seems to have become a catch phrase - but what does it mean?" A young lady asked me this and I found myself momentarily at a loss. It took me a moment to figure out what sustainability means to me. And I'll tell you, but first, here's a defining example of unsustainable: I got a big box of peaches out of a grocery store dumpster a couple weeks ago. I was perturbed to see so much food in the trash. Then I became downright perplexed when I saw that the peaches were a product of Chile. So fertilizer and pesticide and probably virtual slave labor had been used to grow the peaches, they had been packaged in cardboard and plastic, shipped, using fossil fuels to the US and then to the grocery store in Sacramento, California - then thrown in the garbage. That is not sustainable, much less intelligent - whether it's done in a hydrogen economy or in a petroleum economy.

What is sustainability? At some point, this planet will no longer support our hunger for energy and toys and goodies that have been transported around the world. And we will be forced into a position where we have no choice other than to live on that which is immediately available to us. Then we will be living a sustainable lifestyle. That sustainable lifestyle can take different forms. We can squander huge amounts of the Earth's remaining resources on war and greed and create a scorched, smoking, ruin of our beautiful planet, or we can all work together, globally, and create a more lush and comfortable world of local economies and responsible agriculture and manufacture and I don't know what else. Do I sound like a dreamer? I don't know what else to do. I don't see any option for us other than cooperation. No technology - Hydrogen fuel cells or anything else - will give us this more desirable future. I don't know how to bring a sustainable and livable future about for us. I am one person - one middle class white guy living in the suburbs. I do, however, know what I can do - I can change and control the things that I have some power over. I can ride my bike or walk or take public transit or stay at home. I can stop buying oil except when I have no other choice - Because every dollar I spend on oil is a direct economic demand for more oil which means for more war and for drilling in the Arctic, etc. I can buy locally and organically grown produce, not buy industrially raised meat and I can use a solar cooker. I can stay out of places like Wal Mart and home Depot. Politicians and business leaders do not listen to reason, but they do listen to money, so I will curtail the amount of money that I put into the parts of this economy that are built on destruction, resource depletion, sweat shop labor and war.

The bottom line is that it is entirely up to us. In "A People's History of The United States," Howard Zinn talks about humanity's longing for a savior. We are basically looking for a savior right now as we wait for hydrogen fuel cells to come rescue us from this mess of our own creation that we are living in. The technical and policy people will be our saviors. And maybe John Kerry will save us from George Bush. I think our only salvation will come from ourselves. It is up to us. If we want clean air and clean water and peace and justice and freedom for all, we need to demand it with our actions and our money, as well as with our words. We may never get it - but we certainly won't if we don't try. There is that immortal line, I believe from a Hopi elder, but it has been said in different ways by many wise people: "We are the ones we have been waiting for."

If anyone has questions or accusations or anything at all, I will be at the Peace Action Table over there. Please stop by and chat. And everybody - whether you agree with me or not - please talk to people about these issues. We have to be the mainstream media.

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