Amory Lovins

Hydrogen’s True Believer

Amory B. Lovins is research director and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a diverse think tank founded in Snowmass, Colorado in 1982 that works with industry to pursue what it calls “soft” or sustainable energy paths. In a highly prescient 1995 article in The Atlantic Monthly, Lovins sketched out the auto industry’s future before the industry itself knew what was coming. Writing with his wife and partner L. Hunter Lovins, he predicted, “Well before 2003, competition, not government mandates, may bring to market cars efficient enough to carry a family coast to coast on one tank of fuel, more safely and comfortably than they can travel now, and more cleanly than they would with a battery-electric car plus the power plants needed to recharge it.”

The Lovinses were talking about what they call “hypercars,” ultralight and super-aerodynamic vehicles made of composite material and powered by efficient hybrid electric drivetrains. Battery electrics, they noted derisively as GM was struggling to bring out its EV1, have to “haul a half ton of batteries down to the store to buy a six-pack.”

E: Automakers seem intent on using fossil fuels in hydrogen-powered cars. That approach requires a heavy “reformer” to extract the hydrogen. It’s a complicated solution that seems to contradict your “hypercar” approach.

Amory Lovins: We find it very hard to understand why anyone would want to carry a reformer around in a car. I think the automakers are hung up on the idea of needing to use a liquid fuel, like gasoline. And if you start with an inefficient car that’s heavy and has high drag, which is true of all their standard production platforms, then even with a fuel cell the tank does start to become awkwardly large. But in an ultra-light, ultra-low-drag hybrid, such as the hypercar, the tank would be a from quarter smaller to half bigger in volume, and three to five times lighter in weight than the normal gas tank.

The automakers started out with gasoline reforming just because that infrastructure exists. It took a while to realize all the drawbacks of the liquid reformer concept. It basically gives up all the reasons for wanting the fuel cell in the first place. Our conclusion is if you have a good reformer, it would work a lot better out of the car.

Ford has put a fuel cell in its ultra-low-weight concept vehicle, the P2000. Have they built a “hypercar”?

It’s over halfway there. The P2000 is about 40 percent lighter than a standard sedan. The hypercar would be about 60 to 70 percent lighter, which makes it a lot easier. And we would be even more aerodynamic, but they’re certainly going in the right direction.

You see a synergy between fuel cells in transportation and in the home. How would it work?

The building market is rather large. Buildings use two thirds of all the electricity in the United States, so you could build very large fuel cell production volumes. Actually, both the building and vehicular fuel cell markets are potentially so big that when either of them starts to happen, it makes the other one happen, too, by building volume and cutting costs. It could go either way.

Once you put a fuel cell in an ultralight car, then you have a 20- to 25-kilowatt power station on wheels, which is driven about four percent of the time and parked 96 percent of the time. So why not lease those fuel cell cars to people who work in buildings where you’ve already installed fuel cells? [It would work like this: Commuters drive their cars to work, then plug them into the hydrogen line coming out of the reformer installed as part of the building’s fuel cell. While they worked, their cars would be producing electricity, which they could then sell back to the grid, at a time of peak power demand.] It does not take many people doing this to put the rest of the coal and nuclear plants out of business. The hypercar fleet will eventually have five to six times the generating capacity of the national grid.

You envision old hydroelectric dams being put to work producing hydrogen.

The extra efficiency in the hydrogen justifies producing it at the dam, shipping it through a pipeline and distributing it. The hydrogen equivalent of $1.25-a-gallon gasoline is nine to 12-cent-a-kilowatt electricity. The people who run hydroelectric dams would love to sell their energy for nine to 12 cents because all they can get in the Northwest market is 1.6 cents and falling. With more fuel cells around, the electricity prices will fall even more. Dam owners can make enormously more profit selling hydrogen than selling electricity.

Do you think the automakers are on the right path?

Abba Eban said that people and nations behave wisely once they’ve exhausted all the other alternatives. But I’m 100 percent certain that we’ll convert to a hydrogen economy.