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#252 - Some Good News: We Could Give Up Oil, 24-Sep-1991

Our addiction to fossil fuels (oil and coal) is killing us. Oil alone
is responsible for smog, nitrogen oxides and fine particles--in sum,
urban air pollution--which is killing an estimated 30,000 to 60,000
Americans each year.[1] To these deaths we must add the regional and
global consequences of oil and coal-related pollution: regional
destruction of forests, crops and fish by acid rain, and the mounting
threat of severe floods, harsh droughts, devastating storms, large
forest fires, and ruinous declines in crop yield--which are the most
likely consequences of global warming.[2] Other, lesser, consequences
of our oil addiction include massive oil spills, wildlands devastation
by oil exploration activities, and occasional small wars.

Now technical developments during the past eight years have made it
realistic to say we can end our use of fossil fuels in the U.S. and
worldwide. All we have to do is decide to do it.

A realistic alternative to oil and coal is hydrogen fuel produced by
solar energy, according to a thorough study by the Center for Energy
and Environmental Studies at Princeton University, funded by the
National Science Foundation.[3]

According to the study, hydrogen fuel produced from water by the action
of electricity--particularly electricity created by the sun's rays
striking photovoltaic cells--offers a realistic substitute for all our
current fossil-fuel uses high-temperature heat in industry, low-
temperature heat for space-heating, and liquid fuels for
transportation. Hydrogen could do it all, the study's authors say, and
solar cells are the best way to make the hydrogen.

For many years, photovoltaic cells ("solar cells") have been expensive
toys. A photovoltaic cell is a sheet of dark blue glass with a pair of
wires attached. When the cell is placed in direct sunlight, electricity
becomes available in the wires. There are no moving parts except
electrons moving inside the cell, producing the electric current. (You
can buy solar cells for as little as $4.00 from Edmund Scientific, 101
East Gloucester Pike, Barrington, NJ 08007-1380; phone (609) 547-8880.)

Technical advancements in the past 15 years--and especially in the last
eight years--have reduced the manufacturing costs for solar cells
steadily, and now such cells offer a realistic alternative to nuclear
power and to coal-burning power plants. Furthermore, data from a decade
of manufacturing now allows conservative estimates of continued
reductions in manufacturing costs that are very likely to achieved in
the next five years. The age of solar hydrogen is at hand.

As a fuel, hydrogen is almost an environmentalist's dream come true.
When hydrogen burns, it emits no carbon monoxide, no carbon dioxide
(the main source of global warming), no volatile organic compounds (the
main source of urban smog), no fine particles (the chief killers in
urban air), and no sulfur oxides (the main source of acid rain). The
only pollutant created is nitrogen oxides, which can be controlled by
various means (depending on the kind of combustion device the hydrogen
is fueling). The main byproduct of hydrogen combustion is water vapor
when the hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) combine into H2O.

The particular solar cell technology used as the basis for the
Princeton study is called amorphous silicon. Unlike older solar calls
which were usually round and an inch or two in diameter, amorphous
silicon cells are now manufactured by spraying a thin film onto sheets
of regular plate glass 4' x 4' or even larger. The main raw material in
such cells is silicon derived from sand, so no raw material shortages
stand in the way of large-scale production.

Nuclear power stations and coal-fired power plants make best economic
sense when they are built large (1000 megaWatts [one gigaWatt] is the
average power plant today); each such plant requires an investment of
billions of dollars. In contrast, there are no economies of scale to be
achieved in solar-hydrogen plants beyond a 5-to-10 megaWatt facility
that would cost only $4 to $10 million to manufacture. These modular
units could be combined to give power output of any desired size to
meet any foreseeable need. Furthermore, the modular nature of solar-
hydrogen plants makes them ideal for construction of demonstration-
scale units to show that real alternatives to oil are within reach.

To achieve the necessary efficiencies to make solar-hydrogen plants
affordable as a total substitute for oil, they would have to be sited
where the sun shines most; the world's deserts would be the best
candidates for location of such facilities. The hydrogen would then be
piped to consumers through gas pipelines. The land area needed to
produce hydrogen equivalent to all U.S. oil would be 24,000 square
miles--about 0.5% of total U.S. land area, or 7% of U.S. deserts. The
land area needed to collect solar energy to produce hydrogen equivalent
to the world's entire oil production in 1987 would total 205,000 square
miles or about 2% of the world's desert area.

Photovoltaic panels need not block out the sun and kill desert
vegetation; long rectangular panels on stilts, spaced appropriately to
allow sunlight to strike the desert beneath them as the sun moved
across the sky would allow vegetation, wildlife, and even domestic
animals to thrive beneath them.

To replace all U.S. oil used today, the water needed to produce the
hydrogen would add about 2% to U.S. per capita water usage. The water
would not be destroyed, of course, but it would be moved from the place
where the hydrogen was made to the place where the hydrogen was burned.

The Princeton study considers each of the competing alternatives and
concludes that hydrogen is the best fuel and that solar cells are the
best way to make the hydrogen. The study considers biomass (growing
vegetation and burning it for fuel), nuclear energy, natural gas
(methane), and synthetic fuels from coal. Each of these competing
technologies has benefits and costs. Biomass requires 10 times as much
land as solar cells and a great deal more water. Nuclear power--even if
the nuclear waste problem could be solved--suffers from one unsolvable:
each year a single reactor creates enough plutonium to manufacture 20
nuclear bombs, and we have seen in recent days that even facilities
being actively inspected by the international atomic police can extract
plutonium from reactors right beneath the policemen's nose.[4] Coal-
based fuels produce carbon dioxide that promises without doubt to heat
up the planet sooner or later, causing major disruptions of atmosphere
and related systems (such as rain and food production). Natural gas
suffers from the same unsolvable problem.

The German automobile firm, Daimler-Benz has produced a hydrogen-
powered automobile already. The Billings Energy Corp. of Provo, Utah
has manufactured a hydrogen-powered bus. Several countries (Italy, New
Zealand and Canada) have already demonstrated the feasibility of a
gaseous-fuel infrastructure for transportation (in other words,
pipelines, tanks, filling stations, and so forth).

People fear hydrogen, principally because of the Hindenburg airship
disaster at Lakehurst, NJ, in 1937, which killed 36 people. However,
analysis of natural gas, gasoline and hydrogen reveals that each fuel
has particular hazards associated with its manufacture, storage,
transportation and use and that for each fuel procedures and
precautions can be developed for safe handling.[5]

The final chapter of the Princeton study offers a scenario for shifting
from an oil-based economy to a solar-hydrogen economy. Even a speedy
transition would take several decades; the pace of the transition will
depend upon our willingness to make the necessary investment in new
facilities. Our willingness to invest depends upon our concern for the
wellbeing of the planet and the services it provides to humankind.

--Peter Montague


[1] The higher estimate is from recent unpublished work by U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency scientist Joel Schwartz reported in the
WASHINGTON POST May 13, 1991, pg. A13.

[2] These effects are the ones we should expect as the buildup of so-
called greenhouse gases continues, according to Stephen Schneider of
the National Center for Atmospheric Research (a federal research
laboratory); see chapter 1 in Schneider's book GLOBAL WARMING (San
Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1989).

[3] Joan M. Ogden and Robert H. Williams, SOLAR HYDROGEN: MOVING BEYOND
FOSSIL FUELS (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 1989). 123
pgs.; $12.50 plus $3 shipping from WRI Publications, P.O. Box 4852
Hampden Station, Baltimore, MD 21211. Phone (800) 822-0504 or (301)
338-6963; Visa, Mastercard and purchase orders accepted.

[4] "Atomic Regulators Seek Safeguards Against Bombs," NEW YORK TIMES
Sept. 24, 1991, pg. A17.

[5] The safety of hydrogen is considered in detail in J. Hord, "Is
(1978), pgs. 157-176.


The third annual Scientific Assembly for Environmental Health is coming
up October 11 and 12 in Columbus, Ohio. We highly recommend this
conference to our readers. There are three series of workshops: one for
physicians, one for lawyers, and one for activists. The basis of the
grass-roots movement for environmental justice is concern for our
health and the health of our children. This conference is where the
rubber meets the road. High-quality, focused presentations abound. For
more information contact Linda King, Environmental Health Network, P.O.
Box 1628, Harvey, LA 70058; phone (504) 362-6574.

Descriptor terms: fossil fuels; oil; coal; energy; hydrogen fuel; solar
energy; nuclear power; daimler-benz; automobiles; transportation;
billings energy corp; renewable energy sources; global environmental
problems; petroleum industry;