What are the benefits of hydrogen-powered vehicles?

No more foreign oil dependency?

A new hydrogen-powered vehicle by Nissan is displayed during a Hydrogen Ride and Drive event at the Liberty Science Center August 13, 2008 in Jersey City, N. J.
A new hydrogen-powered vehicle by Nissan is displayed during a Hydrogen Ride and Drive event at the Liberty Science Center August 13, 2008 in Jersey City, N. J.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

More than half of the oil used in the United States is imported from other countries. This has a significant impact on the economy of the U.S. Two-thirds of this imported oil is used for transportation. Because so much oil comes from outside of the United States, changes in prices and supply are largely out of our control. Much of the oil comes from politically unstable regions in the Middle East. Attempts to free the U.S. from dependence on Middle Eastern oil date back to the 1970s; however, the amount of oil imported has actually increased since then. In addition, concern over U.S. oil dependency has grown even greater following the terrorist events of September 11, 2001.

Another problem with our dependency on oil is that rising oil prices have an effect on the entire U.S. economy, increasing the price of almost any product that uses oil in its manufacture or that requires oil to reach the marketplace. Oil prices have risen sharply in recent years, with the price of gasoline and diesel fuel hovering in the $4 to $5 per gallon range throughout 2008.

Will hydrogen be cheaper than gasoline? The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that current generation fuel cells produce electricity at a price of approximately $225 per kilowatt. Unfortunately, prices will need to drop to about $30 per kilowatt before hydrogen is competitive with gasoline as a fuel; however, the National Research Council predicts that the cost of the hydrogen itself, measured on a per mile basis, could soon be as much as 50 percent lower than the current cost of gasoline. Obviously, this advantage will continue to increase steadily as the price of gas goes up. The efficiency with which hydrogen is converted to electricity also gives it a substantial advantage.

Can hydrogen vehicles help break our oil addiction? Hydrogen vehicles will help reduce this dependence, but it will probably be decades before enough hydrogen vehicles are in everyday use to make a significant difference on oil imports. In the long run, however, the impact of hydrogen cars could be considerable.

Hydrogen cars aren't just the cars of the future -- several fuel cell vehicles (or FCVs) are on the road right now:

  • The Honda FCX Clarity: This is the only fuel cell vehicle that can actually be leased by private individuals, but only in parts of California where hydrogen fueling stations are installed. Honda charges $600 per month for an FCX lease. The first FCX was delivered to a California family on July 25, 2008.
  • Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell SUV: Fleets of fuel cell-powered Equinox SUVs have been touring California, New York and Washington, D.C., to demonstrate the technology. This vehicle is not currently available for lease or purchase.
  • Volkswagen Tiguan HyMotion: Like Chevrolet, Volkswagen isn't ready to sell or lease this vehicle, but the HyMotion was part of a National Hydrogen Road Tour that ran from Portland, Maine, to Los Angeles, Calif.
  • BMW Hydrogen 7: Although not yet available to the general public, BMW has been giving this vehicle to celebrities -- beginning with actor Will Ferrell -- for extended periods of use.