We’re being gassed by a lot of hot air

Hydrogen fuel cell technology may be a viable energy source, but it is over-hyped at the expense of other contenders.

What is it about fuel cells that so catches the imagination of those in government? You might expect someone like Tony Blair, keen to promote his green credentials, to stamp his authority on energy policy and to trumpet the achievements of the scientific research community in the UK, to take a passing interest in the subject.

But even George W Bush, a leader not exactly known for pandering to the green vote, and a man suspected by many to be firmly in the pocket of the oil industry, has put his weight behind hydrogen fuel cell technology for road transport.

Now the DTI has announced it will fund a new fuel cell trade association aimed at helping out the nascent fuel cell industry in the UK, to be run by the private-sector renewable energy consultancy Synnogy.

How much will this cost the taxpayer? They won’t say, for reasons of ‘commercial confidentiality’. What happens when the funding runs out? Can’t say much about that either, but it might involve another injection of public money if private alternatives can’t be found. And what does the public get out of the research? Well, the chance to pay for hydrogen fuel cell technology produced by the private companies that are benefiting from the scheme. Or to watch while the money is frittered away on impressive-sounding events and initiatives that add little to the science but generate great PR.

That’s one of the biggest problems around fuel cells and this government’s energy policy. Hydrogen fuel cell technology attracts people because it looks easy: pilot versions have been successful in some areas, and the cells can readily be adopted as a flagship green technology.

Who could disagree that we want fewer carbon emissions? That we want less pollution? That at the same time we need to keep the wheels of industry turning with a cheap and plentiful supply of energy? Well, we seem to be told, you’d better get behind the fuel cell. It’s been identified as the future for reducing emissions in the government’s energy report.

Yet as an alternative to the internal combustion engine in cars the technology holds many flaws. Chief among them is the expense of generating hydrogen. Then how do we transport this fuel? Will we need a nationwide network of pipes? Or will there be a safer way of creating hydrogen ‘sponges’ that can be transported in blocks – along roads, by petrol-guzzling lorries? These issues need to be investigated before we start pouring public money into fuel cell research.

And these flaws simply get overlooked in the government’s way of operating. The prime minister believes that what’s needed in key areas of public policy, such as law and order, is a few initiatives that will steal the headlines. The same thinking seems to have been applied to energy policy. Rather than a sober scientific investigation and evaluation of a broad range of technologies that could deliver energy efficiencies and lower emissions, the government seems to have plumped for a single flagship technology on which to pin all our green energy hopes.

Of course there is some substance behind the hype. Hydrogen fuel cell technology could prove to be a significant source of clean energy for homes and businesses. It is exciting, and if the problems around its production can be solved, could form an alternative to fossil fuels in some areas.

The problem is that this research will take many years. And we need to start looking for ways to lower emissions and consume energy more efficiently now. We should not be letting energy companies hoodwink us into thinking they really are reducing our reliance on oil by promoting hydrogen. In reality they are content to let us carry on upping our consumption of fossil fuels instead of looking to shorter-term alternatives such as petrol-electrical hybrid vehicles. Here’s a clue: if Mr Bush likes fuel cells it probably means they don’t pose much threat to the established interests of big oil.

So the government should stop spinning so much hype and come clean about the problems with the technology. It should cast its net wider in the search for sustainable answers to our energy needs, instead of pinning too much on a single technology that could take years and a great deal of money to get right. While fuel cells are hailed as the future, other potentially important alternatives suffer from a lack of funding and interest.

And please get real about nuclear power. We should be looking at the expansion of nuclear power as one of the most significant strands of energy policy, as it carries the potential to deliver an environmentally friendly and low-carbon alternative to gas-guzzling power stations. It’s just that nuclear power isn’t as new and shiny – it doesn’t sound as great to voters or go down as well with the reactionary green lobby as the wonderful, miraculous, ridiculously over-hyped fuel cell.

Fiona Harvey is technology writer for the Financial Times.