by Mike Nicklas
Mike Nicklas
When President Bush’s National Energy Policy was released, hydrogen clearly came out as a winner. When hydrogen was presented in this document as an “alternative” energy technology with great promise, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Abraham quickly initiated efforts to develop a foundation upon which a hydrogen economy could be built. In November 2001, DOE convened a group of 53 business executives, federal and state energy policy officials, non-governmental organizations and representatives of national labs and universities to develop a vision for a more secure America, powered by “clean,” abundant hydrogen.

The conclusions of this vision-setting effort, released in February, seemed positive. Like supporters of a hydrogen future fueled by solar, wind and other renewable technologes, this group determined that “hydrogen has the potential to solve two major energy challenges that confront America today – reducing dependence on petroleum imports and reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.”

This event was followed by a National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap Workshop held in April 2002 in Washington and attended by 240 energy professionals and officials. The stated intent of this meeting was to “identify the most important barriers and needs that should be addressed in order to achieve this vision.” From DOE’s perspective, the roadmapping effort was to be used to identify the “top priority research and development” efforts that the agency would support.

I attended this Roadmap Workshop and can tell you that, from my perspective, renewable energy technologies have very little role in President Bush’s vision for our “clean” energy future. “Clean,” in this case, means coal, nuclear and natural gas. The “alternative” energy technology that President Bush was referring to in the National Energy Strategy must have been alternative ways of using fossil and nuclear energy.

The format of the roadmapping event was such that the invited participants (you had to pay $275 to get in the door) were divided into groups representing production, delivery, storage, conversion, applications, public outreach/education and integration. The production section, which I attended, was chaired by Gene Nemanich of ChevronTexaco, and dominated by fossil and nuclear industry representatives.

Not surprisingly, this group of industry representatives determined that the number one technological barrier to achieving a clean hydrogen future is the lack of cost-effective carbon sequestration methods. Although not recorded in the final documentation of the event, the discussed magnitude of this multi-year effort was to be in the range of hundreds of billions of dollars and, as recorded, was to be split 25 percent by industry and 75 percent by our federal government. The group determined that funding in the area where renewable energy currently has the most potential – producing hydrogen through electrolysis – should be accomplished primarily by industry.

The only barriers that the production group felt were important to address – which on the surface seemed to favor renewables – dealt with the lack of incentives or disincentives regarding pollution and societal costs. This issue garnered support primarily because the representatives of nuclear energy, who view their industry as producing “clean” energy with minimal societal costs, supported it.

As I see this unfold, hydrogen is quickly becoming the funding vehicle for a new round of nuclear plants and carbon sequestration.

The “strong public-private partnerships” that are emphasized in the “National Vision of America’s Transition to a Hydrogen Economy” are not with the solar, wind and other renewable energy industries, but rather with the well-established fossil and nuclear industries. If allowed, these industries will exploit the “green” image of hydrogen to simply continue the fossil age. If allowed, DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy budget will be dominated by non-renewable, environmentally problematic hydrogen efforts that will place solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies at an even greater disadvantage.

For years we have been promoting hydrogen because we felt that the production would, of course, be done with renewable energy. The nuclear and fossil fuel industries see hydrogen as their future. Hydrogen may very well be in our energy future but – if it is to be clean – we need to get a lot more aggressive about letting everyone know the difference between “clean” and clean.


Mike Nicklas is the Chair of the American Solar Energy Society and a principal with the leading sustainable design architecture firm,
Innovative Design (Raleigh, NC).

Innovative Design has designed 650 solar buildings, more than any other architectural firm in the world.

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