Energy and Climate

From the Foundation's 1995 Annual Report


The year 1995, a year now known to be the warmest ever measured, marked a turning point in scientific understanding of the relationship between human beings and our atmosphere. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that a scientific consensus had been reached within the world’s community of climatologists and atmospheric scientists: human activity is altering the Earth’s climate. Greenhouse gases produced by the economic engines of humankind are warming the planet. Sufficient data now confirm that this warming trend is real, that it is outside of the normal range of climatic variability, and that its principal cause is the gaseous byproducts of our human economy, especially the burning of fossil fuels.

The IPCC consensus also warned that the consequences of these impacts may be far from benign. The warming itself will stress natural ecosystems, force agriculture to shift locations, flood coastal lands, and expand the geography of tropical diseases. And in addition to warming, the effects will also include increased climatic instability, with regions suffering more frequent episodes of weather extremes—longer droughts, more intense storms. Indeed, studies released by the National Climatic Data Center in the United States indicate that extreme weather events have already begun to increase.

A surprisingly wide array of environmental, economic, and even national security problems emanate from a single basic human need and the means by which it is met—energy provided by the combustion of fuels. Since the first primitive human being learned that the energy in fire could heat food or lend warmth on a cold night, combustion has driven the course of human progress, from the earliest smelting of metals through the steam power of the Industrial Revolution and beyond. Today, the industrial world hungers voraciously for combustion-based fossil fuel energy—74 quadrillion BTUs were consumed in 1990 in the United States alone, powering everything from bedside lamps to commercial furnaces and industrial machines to the cars and trucks that choke our nation’s expressways.

Combustion also lies behind many of the most noxious forms of atmospheric pollution, including urban smog, acid rain and, notably, the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere. Combustion is also linked to a host of related problems, from the ravages of coal strip-mining and super tanker oil spills to national security threats from an unstable but oil-rich Middle East.

It might seem that combustion and its dangers are inevitable parts of the destiny of both developed and rapidly developing nations. But new technology—the hydrogen fuel cell—that can extract energy from fuels with no combustion of fossil fuels and little or no related pollution, appears to be on the brink of widespread application. Known in principle to science for more than 150 years, this technology has already proven useful in some practical applications. Fuel cells have been used to provide electricity, for example, for all of the manned missions of the U.S. space program, including the current shuttles. Now they are poised to have a much broader beneficial impact.

Although fuel cells of varying materials have been devised, all work on some variation of a design that at first glance resembles an electrical battery. In a typical fuel cell, hydrogen (or a fuel rich in hydrogen) flows into one side, oxygen into the other. Ordinarily, atoms from the hydrogen and oxygen sides would have a strong chemical affinity for one another, forming water as they combine. But in the fuel cell, a sort of electrochemical wall called an electrolyte allows only the protons of the hydrogen to pass through to combine with the oxygen. Freed by this process, the hydrogen's electrons surge into a circuit as electrical energy before recombining on the oxygen side.

Using any of a wide array of hydrogen-rich fuels, fuel cells are highly energy efficient, effectively doubling or tripling the efficiency of burning these fuels in a conventional way. If in the year 2010 all cars and light trucks in the U.S. were equipped with fuel cells and powered by natural gas, they could all be fueled with the natural gas equivalent of less than 40 percent of the amount of petroleum needed to fuel internal combustion vehicles.

These devices are also extraordinarily clean. For instance, if fuel cells replaced conventional electrical generation, emissions of carbon dioxide in the U.S. would decrease by 40 to 60 percent, and oxides of nitrogen by about 90 percent. Using pure hydrogen as a fuel, an automobile engine would produce zero pollution—in fact nothing but electricity and water.

Although fuel cells have worked superbly in the manned space program, and although their potential has long been recognized by a small cadre of scientists and engineers, their widespread use has been hampered primarily by three factors: high commercialization costs, existing public subsidies for the conventional combustion industry, and lack of a mature infrastructure for fuel delivery such as already exists for gasoline. This situation is changing as a series of recent technological breakthroughs combined with the prospect of increasingly efficient production appear to be bringing fuel cells to the critical brink of marketability. In autumn 1996, a Vancouver-based company will deliver three fuel cell buses fueled by pure hydrogen to the Chicago Transit Authority, and has announced plans to scale-up fuel cell manufacturing rapidly for the world mass transit market. An 11-million-watt fuel cell electrical power plant is already operating in Japan, and smaller units are powering facilities ranging from a major hotel in California to experimental automobiles in Germany and in the United States. Hospitals, universities and other institutions needing highly reliable sources of electricity are already finding it financially attractive to consider using fuel cell energy.

The Foundation’s grantmaking on energy, while addressing a range of issues essential to protecting the atmosphere from pollution, increasingly emphasizes activities that will hasten the widespread deployment of hydrogen fuel cells. In 1995, major support went toward efforts to maintain zero-emission vehicle mandates in California and parallel measures in the U.S. Northeast. These mandates encouraged vehicle manufacturers to develop and sell automobiles without toxic emissions. The Foundation’s support for public education on this issue highlighted the public health and economic benefits of zero-emission vehicles, recognizing that clean cars will result in cleaner air and healthier people while also slowing the rate of accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, political pressure applied by sectors of the automobile and oil industries ultimately forced the State of California to weaken its mandates significantly, delaying production of the targeted number of zero-emission vehicles for several years. This delay will prolong the health burdens borne by Californians and slow the pace at which the United States moves toward solving the global climate crisis. Despite this setback, the Foundation continues to support work to promote an energy economy based on hydrogen fuel cells powered by renewable energy sources.

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