James S. Cannon

China at the Crossroads

James S. Cannon’s 1995 book Harnessing Hydrogen was one of the first to explore the potential of this element as a sustainable energy carrier, and his 1998 report for INFORM Inc., China at the Crossroads, was a groundbreaking investigation of the potential for fuel-cell development there. Cannon heads the Colorado-based Energy Futures, Inc., which publishes the journals EV News, The Clean Fuels and Electric Vehicles Report and Hybrid Vehicles. As a consultant and journalist, Cannon has visited 23 countries.

E: China’s car population is growing at 19 percent a year, and the Chinese are dramatically curtailing bicycle use in favor of the private automobile. China has evolved a significantly large middle class that can afford cars, and automakers from all over the world are opening plants there. Aren’t we looking at an incredible increase in global warming gas unless the Chinese take a serious look at a hydrogen energy economy?

James S. Cannon: In the U.S. now, American automobiles release about 30 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) every second. In China, the figure is much lower, but the projections for the Chinese automobile population have it surpassing the U.S. numbers, 200 million, within 10 to 20 years. At the current pace, you have China quickly becoming a larger CO2 emitter than the U.S., which is now the world leader. It took the U.S. a century to get to where it is today, and China only started having private automobiles five or 10 years ago. This is a very large threat to any attempt to mitigate global warming effects around the world.

I know there’s a national hydrogen association in China, but are the Chinese really looking seriously at fuel-cell automobiles?

Yes, they are actually making great strides. They only started to work on the issue five to 10 years ago, so they’re not yet seriously competitive with Japan, Germany or the U.S. in terms of producing prototype hydrogen-powered vehicles. When I visited China as part of a hydrogen delegation in 1997, we were hard-pressed to find more than just basic research into the chemical and physical properties of hydrogen. But since that time China has made very rapid progress in building a well-coordinated national hydrogen program. China is looking both at hydrogen production and the development of vehicle prototypes to use that hydrogen. There are several fuel-cell cars now, and plans for larger numbers.

Unlike the U.S., China does not have a multi-billion-dollar investment in a fossil fuel infrastructure. Could the Chinese leapfrog over the need to make such an investment and go directly to a hydrogen energy economy?

They could, and it’s a very ambitious undertaking. The field is wide open because China doesn’t have an integrated transportation system for any fuel today. Hydrogen fuel would be the most cost-effective approach China could take. You can see this now in Beijing. I attended the opening of the first natural gas pipeline in China five years ago, a big event that was not then attached to any transportation purpose. But now China has 5,000 natural gas buses tied in to that pipeline, the largest such fleet in the world. The government has realized some of the energy security issues associated with oil, and they’re seriously considering bypassing oil in favor of something better.

China already has some of the world’s worst air pollution—even without a big private car fleet.

That’s correct. China has always realized that auto pollution was an issue, but a much bigger problem was the massive emissions from coal-burning power plants and uncontrolled industrial operations. Now the statistics show that in urban areas like Shanghai and Beijing, the automobile has emerged as the number one source of air pollution. The percentage of urban pollution from cars is now about the same as in the U.S.

Is China worried about its energy security, as it becomes, like the U.S., a net importer of oil?

The energy issue goes hand-in-hand with the burgeoning demand for vehicles in China. Until 1993, China was self-sufficient in oil. That year, China began to import oil, and it took only three years before the country was importing 20 percent of its petroleum. The U.S. was similarly self-supporting in oil for a significant part of the 20th century, but it took us 20 years to reach 20 percent foreign dependency. Today, China is 32 percent reliant on outside oil, and that is a critical number because the U.S. was 32 percent dependent at the time of the crippling Arab oil embargo. Until recently, China imported oil from Indonesia and other Pacific Rim nations, but now there’s a major reliance on unstable Middle Eastern countries, including Yemen and Iraq.

Are you ultimately optimistic that China will develop a hydrogen energy economy?

Yes, China has become very sensitive about this, and is grappling with it early on. They’re hitting some of the dramatic warning signs about oil dependence. It’s fortunate that so much is now available in demonstration programs and in the literature about the true potential of the hydrogen economy. So it’s happening much quicker than we were thinking 10 or 20 years ago. Between the push and the pull of these issues, China is waking up very quickly. The natural gas bus program is creating the infrastructure for using gaseous fuels, and that could speed up the timetable and accelerate the work on hydrogen.