NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 2, 2005

Fuel cells are gas batteries that consume hydrogen for fuel. While the burning of hydrogen is clean (it emits only water vapor and heat), what is often ignored are the financial and environmental costs needed to produce hydrogen, says Donald Anthrop of the Cato Institute.

Using electrolysis, the most common and attractive way to produce hydrogen, coal-fired plants are required to supply the necessary electricity for the process. Anthrop finds that not only is this process inefficient, it also produces far more pollution:

  • It takes 140.8 kilowatt-hours of energy to produce 17.4 kilowatt-hours of electricity from a hydrogen-powered fuel cell in an automobile, a conversion efficiency of 12 percent.
  • To fuel the entire U.S. vehicle fleet, replacing gasoline-fired energy with fuel cell energy would result in a 2.7-fold increase in carbon emissions.

While renewable energy sources (instead of coal-fired plants) could possibly supply the needed electrical energy to produce hydrogen, it is unlikely given that hydroelectric power has only a fraction of the capacity necessary and solar and wind power would be prohibitively expensive.

Source: Donald Anthrop, "Hydrogen's Empty Environmental Promise," Cato Institute, December 7, 2004.

For text:


Browse more articles on Environment Issues