Daniel Emmett, co-director of the nonprofit advocacy group Energy Independence Now (EIN), would like nothing more than to upend the world’s fuel market. In part due to EIN’s efforts, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to help commercialize hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. In time, Emmet hopes all politicians will embrace hydrogen and give automakers incentives to develop the technology. With California’s Governator in his corner, he might just get his way. 

Plenty: You and the Governator both had acting careers. You’ve appeared in shows like The X-Files and in a Jay-Z video. How did you make the transition into environmental advocacy?

Daniel Emmett: This was my original career, actually. Environmental advocacy was my “waiting tables” job to pay the bills while trying to get the acting up and running. I studied environmental policy in school and worked for Conservation International in Washington, D.C., Panama and Costa Rica doing microenterprise development and small-scale conservation.

What is Gov. Schwarzenegger’s involvement with the Hydrogen Highway?

If Governor Schwarzenegger hadn’t made this a personal issue, it would have been dead in the water. If you have cars and no stations, or stations and no cars, you’ve got nothing; so [Schwarzenegger] bridged the gap. The California state legislature granted him $65 million in 2005, and it looks like he’ll get the same amount for 2006 and 2007. Nineteen stations are already open.

Does EIN have a political agenda or platform?

No. What we do is nonpartisan. Saving ourselves and our country from environmental ruin is apolitical. But ironically, the hydrogen movement has taken some flak from within the enviro community for being associated with President Bush. He mentioned a hydrogen initiative in his 2003 State of the Union address and wants to make hydrogen from nuclear and coal energy. As a result, some people have backed off, wanting nothing to do with “black hydrogen” or Bush.

Let’s talk about this so-called black hydrogen. Right now the vast majority of hydrogen is extracted from natural gas, a process that produces carbon dioxide. The best solution seems to be producing hydrogen from  ater at the fueling stations where hydrogen will be sold. But this process still uses electricity, and much of this electricity is generated by polluting power plants. How do you propose making green hydrogen?

We propose that California get 20 percent of its energy to produce hydrogen from renewable resources by 2010 — wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, etc. We also call for no increase in particulate pollutants, like diesel fuel emissions from transporting hydrogen. Hopefully these measures will be put into effect, but that’s unclear at the moment. 

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because making 100 percent green hydrogen is not possible does not make it a poor energy solution. Making hydrogen from natural gas is still better than making and using gasoline in terms of global warming and smog-forming emissions. No single fuel for our vehicles will save us. Hydrogen is just one answer. Battery and biofuels are also viable. It’s about near-term solutions and incremental improvements.

What are the biggest problems with fuel cells as a technology?

There are definitely safety concerns with storing explosive, pressurized hydrogen. But with smart design solutions, these safety issues are manageable. Arguing against hydrogen as a fuel source is a waste of breath, because the technology is sound. We just need to figure out how to make it affordable. Manufacturers are working to reduce costs by reducing the amount of expensive precious metals in the fuel cell membrane, and economies of scale will [also] bring costs down.

In terms of public perception, the range of hydrogen vehicles is a problem. At this point, fuel cells can get about 150 miles per filling. The next generation in development will get closer to 250 miles per filling, but manufacturers need to up that to 300 or 350 miles to meet consumer expectations.

Story by Philip Armour. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2006. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.

Giving hydrogen the hard sell
Fuel-cell advocate Daniel Emmett on why wary greenies should embrace new technology.