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UK: Hydrogen fuel for cars a ‘poor idea’

By just-auto.com editorial team | 28 November 2007

Hydrogen and fuel cells as an alternative to petrol or diesel have no immediate future according to a key player in the environmental debate in the United States.

Former CIA chief and now chairman of the Advisory Board of the Clean Fuels Foundation James Woolsey, said: "Hydrogen and fuel cells are not the way to go. The decision by the Bush administration and the State of California to follow the hydrogen highway is the single worst decision in the past few years."

Woolsey, in London as guest speaker at last night's Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders annual dinner, added: "Someone may find a way to make hydrogen cheaply available but that is still some time away.

"Our estimates put building a hydrogen infrastructure at one trillion dollars. In the meantime you have to bring down the cost of a fuel cell vehicle by a factor of about 40 or 50 to make it affordable. "Joining the hydrogen highway for families is a poor idea. For large fleets with a single filling facility it might work."

So what is the alternative to the conventional combustion engine? Woolsey believes the answer lies in opening up oil to competition.

"The key is to do to oil what refrigeration did to salt at the end of the 19th century. Refrigeration, with the aid of electricity, did away with salt as a means of preserving food. No one fights with their neighbour over salt mines anymore."

Woolsey sees an immediate future for 'plug-in' hybrid electric vehicles - using both electric motor and conventional petrol or diesel engines.

He added that 78 per cent of cars in the United States travel less than 40 miles a day - within the range of an electric motor. Such hybrid vehicles would reduce considerably the reliance on oil on a daily basis while having the flexibility go travel longer distance when required.

By using off-peak, overnight charging there would not be a need to increase the output of America's electric grid significantly. 

"The important thing is that there should not be a single solution or decision by governments. There should be a portfolio of ideas."

SMMT president Graham Smith added that from a European perspective there was no silver bullet solution to CO2 emissions.

"There will be continued evolution of existing petrol and diesel technology but a multi-path approach to alternative fuels is the only way to make progress."