Perspectives on hydrogen

Here’s something that struck me as interesting this morning. Did you read the op-ed piece by my friend Kevin Dietrich, arguing — as you would expect someone at the S.C. Policy Council to argue — against our state’s investment in hydrogen research? An excerpt:

In the past few years, taxpayers have poured tens of millions of state and local tax dollars into hydrogen research even though multiple experts question how viable the technology will be in offsetting U.S. reliance on foreign oil or reducing carbon emissions.

“A hydrogen car is one of the least efficient, most expensive ways to reduce greenhouse gases,” said Joseph Romm, a physicist in charge of renewable energy research during the Carter administration. Asked when hydrogen cars will be broadly available, Romm replied: “Not in our lifetime, and very possibly never.”

The Los Angeles Times was blunter in assessing the future of hydrogen-powered vehicles: “Hydrogen fuel-cell technology won’t work in cars…. Any way you look at it, hydrogen is a lousy way to move cars.”

What struck me about it was that, without naming the author, Kevin was quoting the very same L.A. Times column by Dan Neil that I was praising yesterday. (Now I know why Cindi Scoppe happened to run across the Neil piece and bring it to my attention yesterday — she was doing her due diligence as an editor in checking Kevin’s source material, and recognized the piece as something I’d be interested in.)

The difference, of course, lies in the degrees to which Kevin and I considered the full text of the piece to which we referred. I was up-front with y’all about Neil’s arguments against hydrogen as a fuel source for cars. I didn’t blink at that at all. But I also emphasized the very positive things he said about Honda’s hydrogen car project, on my way to making some positive points about why hydrogen research is worthwhile.

Kevin, in standard S.C. Policy Council “if it involves the government spending money, it’s bad” style, cited ONLY the negative. Kevin’s a good guy, and he’s completely sincere about the things he says. But I ask you — given what I got out of the Neil piece and what Kevin got out of it — who has his eyes completely open? Who explored the full implications of the piece (which I again invite you to go read for yourself)?

I raise this point not to criticize Kevin, but to praise our state and community’s commitment to this research. From what I’ve seen and heard, the hydrogen researchers are very realistic about the limitations of H as a fuel source for cars from where we stand at this moment. But their eyes are open to what this research DOES offer South Carolina, Columbia and the nation.

15 thoughts on “Perspectives on hydrogen

  1. Lee Muller

    Taxing profits away from individuals and businesses, in order to give it to risky research by academics, advocacy groups, and companies shunned by private investors, is a waste of resources.

    If you like government research, realize that funding projects based on political fads diverts money from more promising research in other areas.

    Automobiles are a commercial product. Let the experts in the automobile industry decide where to invest their money.

    In a few years, these projects will all be shut down, and USC will be chasing the next fad that promises to bring in tax money. That is not the way to run our universities, or our economy.

  2. Brad Warthen

    And I couldn’t disagree more. Government should only do things the private sector can’t or won’t. And one thing the stressed automobile industry won’t do (unless its arm is twisted by such market-distorting actions as California’s demands that have led Honda to develop a hydrogen car, or — once again California — the situation that produced the electric car celebrated in “Who Killed the Electric Car?”) is produce cars it cannot sell in the near term.

    Therefore if discoveries are to be made that would point the way to FUTURE opportunities for entrepreneurs that are not currently apparent, government either must do it, or reshape the market the way California has in order to give private enterprise the motivation that it lacks in the near term if you rely solely on the market.

    Here we go again, huh — another pointless debate (convincing no one) between the market absolutists on the one hand and me on the other, one in which the market absolutists will again paint me as some sort of big government guy who just loves to spend tax money. Which is not what I am; I just SOUND that way sometimes because the people I’m arguing with are so extreme that I have to pull against them pretty hard in the other direction.

    The thing is, I simply believe that there are things the private sector should do, and things the public sector should do. And the public should confine itself to things that need doing that the private can’t or won’t. And one thing the private sector will NEVER do on its own is transform South Carolina into a center of hydrogen or biotech or nanotechnology innovation and investment, so that we’ll have a chance to turn our economic backwardness of the past 140 years around and go in a new direction.

    If public research universities concentrate resources in promising areas of research — areas that are NOT fully established or proven, else some other part of the country would already have an insurmountable advantage over us — and gather talent and establish clusters of expertise and encourage and nurture startup businesses in those areas, then there is a chance for the state to become the center of vast new industries, PRIVATE industries that all our private sector fans will celebrate for their job-producing and wealth-producing prowess. But those things will NOT happen here on their own. And it is in South Carolina’s decided interest to try to get those things to happen HERE.

    To suggest that states can’t nurture the private sector successfully in this way is ridiculous in the extreme. That is obvious even if one doesn’t look further than the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, where long-term, determined investment by the STATE helped create the conditions in which private-sector miracles could occur.

    Argue the particulars of a given research initiative if you will. But to suggest that the government should not be involved in such things, but leave it all to the magic of the private sector, is to doom South Carolina to be an economic and technological backwater. The market alone simply will NOT make it happen HERE.

  3. Lee Muller

    If the technical and financial experts in the private sector reject a project, what makes politicians and journalists think they are qualified to select it for funding with taxpayer money?

    It is not the business of government to do the things that business refuses to do. Government is not the Wal-Mart or Walgreens of last resort, to provide all the things that don’t make good sense, or that a few people want very badly, but not enough to pay for them.

    I have worked in RTP off and on since 1984, as well as PARC and Cambridge Biotech Park. These are mostly private initiatives – HP, IBM, Cisco, Boston Scientific, and hundreds of little R&D companies.

    The industrial and research parks in South Carolina are failures because they are just political projects, providing jobs for a few people running through grant money. Most of the tenants in our research parks are just office work, or maybe a manufacturer. SC Research Authority did not have the dedication to stick to strict criteria, so they just partially filled the parks with the same businesses as any other industrial park, and there is no symbiotic intellectual relationships to fuel innovation.

    The fuel cell research at USC and its surrounding publicity stunts, like the new city bus that doesn’t run, have produced nothing, and have little chance of doing so. Dr. Sorensen just picked some exciting buzzwords for USC to go after grant money. That’s all.

  4. Doug Ross

    Maybe we could start with a list of successful projects that local universities have developed into viable business entities to demonstrate that the capability exists. There has to be a reasonable expectation of return on investment before any taxpayer dollars should be allocated to such projects. Or is it your belief that we should just spend the money and hope for a positive result? If it doesn’t work, no big deal. It was other people’s money anyway.

    Let’s start with Innovista. Good idea badly implemented or bad idea badly implented?

    I think we’d have a better shot with giving out a bunch of grants of $250K-$500K to the top students at the schools with no strings attached aside from owning a piece of whatever business they happen to develop.
    Even if one or two are successful, the ROI will be worth it.

    Instead, we will see millions of dollars spent on overhead, committees, consortiums, etc. with bloated staffs, extended schedules, and hooks into politically connected lobbyists to make sure the tax dollars keep flowing in.

  5. Brad Warthen

    Actually, I’d call Innovista a good idea that is way too early to judge. Right now, it’s not doing much because of a lack of capital. And the redevelopment of the area, including the riverfront park, has scarcely begun. The larger VISTA to which it will adjoin is actually an excellent example of an idea promoted by local government — and given a push here and there with public funds — that has been highly successful. It took a generation, but it worked.

    And while I don’t have handy a list of the names of the companies, I do know that 25 startup companies have been started by USC faculty since the endowed chairs program started, which ranks USC 19th out of 155 research universities nationally in the number of start-ups created — tied with Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Northwestern Universities. I gleaned that from materials I collected when I was working on this piece several weeks ago.

  6. Lee Muller

    Innovista was done bass ackwards. They had no idea what they were going to do there, no idea of what science they would try to leverage into commercialization, no idea of what companies would be tenants, or what facilities they might need. So they built some buildings, no one showed up, and now they will rent to anyone that has a computer on a desk. Companies doing web sites for USC are not “high tech”.

    That lack of commitment and perseverance is the same thing that killed the USC research park off I-77, designed in 1986, built in 1987, still without research tenants, but millions spent on management, marketing, advisory boards, and all the other template stuff people do when they try to copy success without understanding it.

    There is plenty of science and engineering research going on at USC and Clemson that have commercial applications. But it is not going to be a big splash, big headlines, ballyhoo about $5 billion or some other ridiculous figures. It is going to take plain old engineering and market development across 100 different projects, knowing that many of them will not pan out. But even the ones that fail will be valuable to the students, faculty, and administration in learning what not to do, how to do things right, and how to learn from things that were just not viable. That cycle of experience is not going to occur the way things are structured at USC and in SC public innovation efforts today.

  7. H

    the new city hydrogen bus is not to be delivered until July, BTW.

    In other news, I can’t believe I read any of lee’s post.

  8. Lee Muller

    H, I doubt you did read my posts, or that you understand anything about this topic, if all you can post are personal insults.

    Do you want to take bets on when the new “hydrogen bus” goes on line?
    What is an acceptable premium to pay for it, and its operating costs?
    What is an acceptable downtime?

  9. Bart

    There is a place for both, private and government to be involved in supporting research and technology advances.

    The space program, a government sponsored entity is responsible for many of the innovations and improvements in micro-technology along with medical advances that were developed in the private industry through prudent and judicial use of government funding. Not to say that abuses were absent but overall, we made great leaps during the space race era.

    It can work, government and private industry acting as partners if each will remember their role and not step over the boundaries. There is nothing wrong with a capitalist system being involved with government funding again, as long as each side respects the other. Unfortunately, in the past few weeks we have witnessed a complete obliteration of those lines and we have a government dominated auto industry who has capitulated to the unions and the private side of the industry has been given the proverbial “drive shaft”. The same goes for the banking industry.

    The auto industry was in trouble before the financial market collapsed under the weight of toxic loans but the collapse did nothing but add to the problem. Chrysler has always been a troubled company and learned nothing from the first time they needed a bailout.

    With all of the new technology across the board being touted as the be all, end all answer, if we don’t stop and ask ourselves the question, “at what price?”, we will get whatever the government decides and have to live with it. Is that what we really want? Are we prepared for the economic devastation that will result in rushing into too sudden changes without benefit of due diligence? Do we actually trust elected, self-serving politicians to provide us with answers or have we lost our way and have become the herd of pigs feeding on the free acorns while the government builds an enclosure around us?

    If we don’t keep the clear lines of separation between government and private industry, we will become the socialist country we all fear.

  10. Lee Muller

    NASA has always been, first and foremost, a mililtary effort. It was created and run by the US Air Force. The military is one of the few appropriate functions of our federal government. No all activities of every military program are appropriate, and NASA has gotten carried away, in an effort of the bureaucracy to invent new jobs for themselves.

    No, Bart, I do not trust politicians to run the automobile companies, the banks, or any other commercial business. The know nothing about it, and do not have the proper motives.

    GM and Chrysler are going to go under as long as the Democrats try to prop up bloated wages and benefits for union workers and retirees.

  11. martin

    Check this out from NYT:

    SCIENCE / ENVIRONMENT | May 08, 2009

    U.S. Drops Research Into Fuel Cells for Cars


    The energy secretary said fuel cells, once hailed as a pollution-free way to reduce the nation’s independence on foreign oil, will not be practical over the next 10 to 20 years…

  12. Lee Muller

    Poof! Just like that, Obama cuts off the fuel cell research begun under President Bush. Obama believes in ethanol, because lobbyists like Mrs. Tom Daschle do, too.

    This offers a good lesson in why political control of commercial research is not good. This offers a lesson in why universities should not try to artificially decide to make a name for themselves in one field, and put all their eggs in to one basket, especially a political basket.

  13. Bart

    Bush I did something that has gone unrecognized that bore great fruit and allowed us to leap forward in one research area critical to understanding human development. He declared the 90s the “Decade of the Brain”.

    He didn’t just make a declaration but backed it up with funding. If I remember correctly, it was in excess of $8 billion. The University of Florida was one of the major centers for research and the breakthroughs were amazing.

    In a few short years with the proper funding, over 80% of what we accepted as facts about the human brain were disproved and today, 96% of what we know to be true has been discovered since the mid 90s. The research at UF and other universities across the country has been successful. This is what can be achieved with the proper balance between government, private industry, and educational institutions. Bush I approved the funding and then left the universities alone.

    Bush II tried to do some of the same things. As Lee mentioned, fuel cell research, alternative energy research and development, AIDS relief, and many others he will never get credit for.

    He made enough mistakes to last a lifetime just as other presidents have done but to propogate the notion he was anti-science and development is BS. Just because he tried to include the impact on humans while embracing new technology gave cause for his critics to brand his as being environmentally unfriendly and owned by big oil. If anyone is even interested or cares, check out his home in Crawford and compare it to the energy monster Al Gore occupies.

    Ethanol will prove to be the bane of combustion engines before it is over with. My vehicle has not run well and the mileage has decreased since ethanol has been added to gasoline. Most pumps will let you know if it is in the mix but some do not. When possible, I avoid using ethanol enhanced fuel. Before ethanol was added, my vehicle was getting 24 to 26 mpg in town and 32 to 36 on the road. Now it is closer to 22 and 30. I have always maintained the engine and kept the tires balanced and at the proper pressure. Ethanol is the only thing different.

  14. Lee Muller

    Good post, Bart, and all so true.

    President G.W. Bush tried to increase funding on all sorts of alternative energy by 1,000%, but Democrats blocked it, knowing the press would cover for them as they smeared Bush and Cheney as “oil men”.

    I have posted at length on Brad’s old blog and elsewhere on the failings of ethanol, but it has a cult following due to lobbying by the corn states for subsidies. Democrats were especially big on handing out the subsidy money and raking in the “donations”, and crowing about how they were “making us energy independent”. Hogwash. As you said, ethanol attracts water and dissolves plastics, ruining engines. It has 30% less energy per volume than low-octane gasoline, and costs more than twice as much to produce.

  15. slugger

    This discussion is a very good one with many good points being brought out. The bottom line is that congress should allow private enterprise to drill for oil with their own money (not taxpayer money) and we would solve all these problems concerning hydrogen, ethanol etc.

    Drill. Drill. Drill

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