David Room: This is David Room for Global Public Media interviewing Dr. Joseph Romm on December 16th, 2005. Tell me about your background in energy?
Joseph Romm: Well, in the early 1990's I worked for Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute on energy efficiency. And then for five years I was at the U. S. Dept. of Energy where I helped oversee the U. S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which is a billion dollar program that does research and development and deployment of clean energy technology; wind, photovoltaic, fuel cell, hydrogen, energy efficient lighting and heating and cooling and that sort. And then, I left to write a book, "Cool Companies" which is about a 100 case studies of about how companies cost effectively reduced green house gas emissions. And then in 2004 I wrote a book "The Hype about Hydrogen" for Island Press which explains why the hydrogen economy which had gotten so much attention particularly because President Bush featured it in the 2003 State of the Union Address, why hydrogen cars are not really likely for many decades. Recently it came out in paperback with an afterward that talks about what the car of the future is. I think it's not going to be hydrogen.
DR: Can you explain why hydrogen was chosen to be the fuel of the future?
JR: When I was at the Department of Energy in the early mid 1990's there had been some breakthroughs at Los Alamos National Lab and elsewhere that had brought down the cost of the fuel cells that were viewed as most likely to be usable in a car. These are proton exchange membrane or PEM fuel cells that operate at a low temperature. And the benefit of operating at a low temperature for a fuel cell in a car is that it doesn't take very long time to warm up. A lot of the fuel cells that had been developed and that are being used today are high temperature fuel cells and they just are not practical for cars. So, in the 1990's we increased funding for hydrogen and for these PEM fuel cells as well as spending a lot of money developing hybrid vehicles and other alternative fuel vehicles.
There was with the big run up in the stock market and the NASDAQ in the late 1990's these clean energy technologies also ran up. There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for them. Then in 2003 President Bush announced in the State of the Union that he was calling on the nation's scientists and engineers to develop a car so that a child born today their first car would be run on hydrogen and be pollution free. All of that set off a lot mass of spending by the federal government and investment by the stock market and private companies in hydrogen and fuel cells. And the excitement about hydrogen was that in a fuel cell which doesn't use combustion like a normal engine but is electro chemical conversion, you take hydrogen and oxygen and you convert it to electricity, heat and water and there's no pollution at all. If - there's no pollution in making the hydrogen which is a very big caveat. Since the vast majority of hydrogen today is made from natural gas so it does release carbon dioxide which is the principal green house gas. But nonetheless there was a lot of excitement in the possibility of having a very efficient way of running your car with zero tailpipe emissions and that was the excitement about hydrogen. When I was at the Department one of the reasons we were excited about hydrogen is because we were pursuing a possibility that you could convert gasoline to hydrogen onboard the car. This was called onboard reforming. But it became increasingly clear in the 1990's that it wasn't practical for a car and DOE was pretty much given up on that notion but they failed to realize the implications of giving up on that notion which was that it was going to be much, much more difficult to build a hydrogen car that was practical than anybody realized. And when I started researching my book, originally I was going to write a primer. But as I read the literature and talked to the experts in and out of government and did my own analysis it just became increasingly clear that hydrogen cars were a very difficult proposition and my book came out in 2004 and at the same time the National Academy of Sciences came out with a study which was, I think, somewhat sobering also. And the American Physical Society came out with a study that was very sobering. And I think the past 18 months has made clear to those who follow this that hydrogen cars are many decades away and might never be practical.
DR: Hydrogen fuel cells are not a new technology. Can you give us a brief history of the technology and also I'd like to get in layman's terms some understanding about why it is going to be a difficult proposition to transition to a hydrogen based economy.
JR: Well the first fuel cell dates back to the late 1830's. And interestingly that's 40 years earlier than the internal combustion engine was perfected. And the research and development interest in fuel cells waned and waxed over the years. There was a fair amount of rejuvenated interest after World War II because of the space program. Because there's no extra air in outer space for combustion so an electro-chemical process was seen as quite attractive. And hydrogen also has a great deal of energy per unit weight so NASA became quite interested and a lot of money went into fuel cells for that reason. And there was also interest in large scale power generation. But, other than use to NASA, there was not successful commercialization of a single fuel cell until we got to the 1980's and 1990's. And then United Technologies developed a stationary fuel cell derived from their work for NASA. But even that fuel cell never really was commercial in the sense that it required large government subsidies to get people interested. And it had some very narrow niche applications but it's sort of barely a commercial product even. So 165 years after fuel cells were discovered there are hardly any major mass market uses for it yet.
That alone should be sobering evidence to people that it's clearly a major technological challenge. Because you know, historically it is worth pointing out and energy technology is sort of what I spent a lot of my time doing. Historically technologies that are going to be viable in the energy business tend to do so relatively quickly after they're invented. Like Photovoltaics were invented in the late 1950's. And they steadily improved in technology and steadily widened their market and now after three or four decades they became commercially practical in a lot of different places. And obviously the internal combustion engine had the same experience. So it is unusual that something that would have been invented 165 years ago and has had little commercial success since then would suddenly take over the market place.
Let me talk a little bit about why this has proved so challenging. I think you can divide the problems into ones that have to do with technology and ones that have to do with just the practicality of the very challenging task of breaking into the vehicle market. The first problem with transportation fuel cells is that they are very expensive. Even today a hydrogen fuel cell car costs like a million dollars. And the vast majority of that cost has to do with the fuel cell. And they are typically more than 1,000 dollars a kilowatt whereas an internal combustion engine is about 30 dollars a kilowatt. So, a fuel cell has to come down by a factor of 50. Historically that takes a very long time to do. Wind, Photovoltaic took 20 years to come down by a factor of 10. So that alone would provide some caution that this is going to take a while. And it should be pointed out there really hasn't been built a single demonstration car that can have the durability, the endurance, to be viable over the 150,000 mile, ten year type warranty in all weather conditions. So, you know, problem number one; can one build a cheap, practical durable fuel cell? Most independent experts would say we're gong to need a major technology breakthrough. The incremental improvements over existing technology won't do it. So I would call that breakthrough number one.
The second issue is storage. This has been a problem which has bedeviled all attempts to replace gasoline with another fuel. Gasoline has very high energy density. That is to say the energy it carries per unit volume is high. It is very easy to transport because it's a liquid. It's very easy to store in a small space on board your car. And it delivers the energy very quickly. Hydrogen is the most diffuse gas known to humankind. Squeezing enough on board your car to give you the kind of range that people have come to expect from their car has proven basically impossible to do with existing technology. The vast majority of cars on the road, the demonstration fuel cell vehicles cars, use very high pressure storage of hydrogen. And by very high storage I'm talking about 5,000 pounds per square inch. Some even use 10,000 per square inch. Atmospheric pressure is about 15 pounds per square inch so these are very high pressure canisters and widely considered to be impractical for a mass market consumer car because I don't think most consumers want to drive one or two feet away from a super high pressure canister of gas. And not only that, even at very high pressures, you just don't get the kind of range that people expect in their car. Plus it costs a lot of energy to compress to that pressure and the canisters are quite expensive.
So everyone is trying to pursue a major breakthrough. This is sort of breakthrough number two; a relatively cheap way of storing hydrogen on board your car in some material that you can quickly cram hydrogen into and quickly discharge hydrogen out of. And that's going to require the development of a whole new material not known to humankind. That is a tremendous research challenge. There's a lot of money to being spent on it. It could happen at some point in the near future. Or it might never happen. And I think that it is certainly the most difficult technical challenge. So far you need these two major breakthroughs just to make the car viable.
The third issue is the cost of the fuel. Hydrogen does not exist in nature by itself. If it did it would just float away because it is lighter than air. It's bound up relatively tightly in hydrocarbons like natural gas and it's bound up incredibly tightly in water (H2O), and you know, natural gas is CH4. One carbon and four hydrogen atoms and you can use a device called a reformer to get the hydrogen out. The problem of course is that - I think you can call that dirty hydrogen because replacing gasoline oil with hydrogen from natural gas is hardly anybody's idea of an exciting revolution that gives you pollution free power. Our top environmental problem is global warming and carbon dioxide is the principal heat trapping gas and nobody is going to want to spend hundreds of billions of dollars that are needed to bring about a hydrogen economy if the hydrogen's going to come from natural gas. So you need a way to make the hydrogen from a pollution free source of energy and a typical way of doing that is to take renewable electricity and use that electricity to electrolyze water into its constituents, hydrogen and oxygen. But that is a very expensive proposition. Today it would be exceedingly difficult to deliver substantial quantities of pollution free renewably generated hydrogen to the tank of a car for under the equivalent of $6.00 a gallon of gasoline equivalent untaxed. So we're talking about something that is a very expensive proposition. There is a great deal of money being put into the possibility of finding a much cheaper pollution free source of hydrogen, but the challenges are enormous. Again I think it is widely believed that we're going to need a major breakthrough in electro-chemistry or bio-hydrogen processes.
So you see right away that just on the pure technology challenge side you're going to need probably three breakthroughs before a hydrogen economy is going to be possible or desirable. But then you would still have the practical issues, which is, that we don't have any hydrogen fueling stations in this country. You know we have a couple dozen demonstration stations. But the point is we have 180,000 gasoline stations in this country and if people are going to buy these hydrogen cars they're going to want to know that they can be fueled wherever they want them fueled. And this brings the famous chicken and egg problem. Who is going to build these fueling stations until there are a lot of cars on the road? So that the people who invest the money in the fueling stations know that they're going to get their money back. So, it's very unlikely that the fuel providers are going to build the fueling stations first. But who is going to spend a lot of money building cars and who is going to buy those cars until the fueling stations are out there? So this is the chicken and egg problem. Who is going to go first? And no one has been able to solve that problem for any alternative fuel vehicles. It is one of the main reasons that we don't drive alternative fuel vehicles today. And I think it is worth noting that the U. S. Government, the State of California, Canada, Europe, have been trying for three decades to get people to drive cars that run on something other than gasoline and all efforts to date have failed. So it's clearly hard to do and I think it's harder for hydrogen than for any previous alternative fuel.
So those are some of the practical issues and then the last issue is the incumbent technology. Cars that run on gasoline have gotten steadily better over the past two or three decades, raising the bar for any alternative. And with the introduction of hybrid gasoline electric vehicles like the Toyota Prius and the Ford Escape, if you will, the bar has been seriously raised for anybody who wants to compete with an alternative. People ask me "if you care about oil imports or greenhouse gas emissions, what should you do in terms of transportation?" And the answer is if you need to buy a car buy a hybrid car. That will reduce your greenhouse gas emissions and your oil consumption and increase the range of your car and cut your fuel bill without sacrificing any performance or safety. So you can go out now and buy a very green, practical, affordable car. And that makes it that much harder for something like a hydrogen fuel cell to compete.
DR: General Motors Corporation is spending millions in R&D for a hydrogen fuel car that they think is going to be available in the near term. After reading your book it is apparent that this is at best a long term investment. What are they thinking?
JR: Yeah, it's a good question. Everybody asks me that question and I ask everyone else that question. I think that there are a couple of answers to that. The first is that General Motors is not known for making very good business decisions in the automobile realm. Their investment in hydrogen is not large, it's 100-200 million dollars a year maybe. That's a lot for you and me but for a company with a hundred billion dollars in revenues it's not a lot of money. I think that as a business decision they have just gone terribly wrong or awry by focusing on fuel cells for the last five or six years while their number one competitor Toyota has focused on hybrids. And I think the marketplace is passing judgment on those two companies as is… the consumers are and I think the stock market is also. So, answer number one is their just making a serious business mistake.
Answer number two is that I think while there are some people at General Motors who do truly believe that hydrogen fuel cells are viable. I think that there are some who just see the promise of hydrogen fuel cells as a way of arguing against fuel economy regulations. In fact you see General Motors quoted in the press all the time saying that fuel efficiency in hybrid vehicles are halfway measures. Don't force us to build efficient vehicles. We'll have to waste money on that, money that we should be spending on the future pollution free car - hydrogen fuel cells. That's their argument. I've heard them deliver that argument in presentations and you can find it in articles in newspapers and magazines. So they are using it to stave off being required by the federal government to build fuel efficient vehicles, which for me is a very painful irony because if they had built fuel efficient vehicles, their market share wouldn't have been steadily collapsing over the last two decades. But they've insisted that the future is big, heavy sport utility vehicles. Again the double irony is that you can make a hybrid sport utility vehicle as Ford has done, as Toyota is doing.
So you know it's kind of ironic that their refusal to build fuel efficient vehicles and I would say, their mono-maniacal quest for this silver bullet technology which really is wildly impractical has created a culture in GM that has undermined the possibility of being a leader in hybrid vehicles. And during the 1990's when I was at Department of Energy we had this program called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles or PNGV, which was a program with all three then of the US automakers to develop hybrid cars. We spent a huge amount of money doing it. The irony is that the minute Clinton left office and Bush came in General Motors walked away from hybrid cars and now they tell us, "Oh well we should have a major research program for hydrogen cars because we'll build those when we solve the problems." Well, they didn't build hybrids after a ten year government program and hybrids run on gasoline. Why would anybody think that they're going to be able to deliver a hydrogen fuel cell car that anyone would buy when they don't even control the ability to get hydrogen fueling stations built. So I just think that as a matter of business they've made what will be seen historically as one of the great blunders in the automobile industry by pursuing hydrogen at the expense of hybrids.
DR: How realistic is it to think that hydrogen might be used for some of the essential uses that oil is today. Railroads, ships, heavy equipment, airplanes?
JR: I think that hydrogen doesn't make a lot of sense as a transportation fuel in part, because in a mobile device, your constraints on a technology are much greater. It's got to be relatively lightweight and compact. And hydrogen, as I say, is the most diffuse gas. So it's exceedingly difficult to make it compact. There aren't going to be hydrogen powered airplanes for instance. And hydrogen trains don't make a lot of sense. And the other problem with fuel cells is that while fuel cells are somewhat more efficient than internal combustion engines, they're not more efficient than a lot of other engines that you could run a vehicle on, such as an electric motor, which is highly efficient and when you combine a battery and an electric motor you end up with a system whose overall efficiency is three or four times that of hydrogen. So I don't think that hydrogen is likely to replace oil.
I do think that these high temperature fuel cells which I mentioned earlier…they can be very efficient as a stationery power generation source. Particularly if you can capture the waste heat that they generate and use that waste heat either in an industrial setting or perhaps to heat a building. So that's called cogeneration. That can be very efficient. And I talk about this in "The Hype about Hydrogen". I think that stationary fuel cells do have some long term promise. But I think it will become increasingly clear over the next few years that what's going to happen in the vehicle realm is a two phase transition. We're going to have a transition in this country to hybrids over the next - I think, let's say - 15-20 years. The speed of that transition will be driven in part by what the price of gasoline is and in part by technology advances and business decisions by the car companies. But I think it's kind of inevitable. Because Toyota has said they're going to introduce hybrids in every popular model. And their CEO has said they want to cut the extra costs of hybrids in half. Ford has said they're going to introduce hybrids as an option on their popular models. And of course the price of gasoline, it will go up and down. But over the next 10-15-20 years it's more likely to go up.
The point is more and more car companies will introduce hybrids. Their cost relative to regular cars will come down as technology improves and you get economies of scale. At the same time I do expect gasoline over the next 15 years is going to go back up to the $3.00 level and perhaps beyond that. So hybrids will look more and more attractive and they will take a larger and larger market share. That's sort of phase one in the transition.
Once a substantial number of cars have a big battery on board, then it makes a lot of sense to replace that battery with a battery that can actually be charged off the electric grid. So you would have a hybrid that would still have a gasoline engine. But it would be what is called a plug in hybrid or an e-hybrid and that vehicle can make very efficient use of electricity. And even with only a 20 mile range, all electric. So you travel 20 miles - it would then revert to being a regular gasoline powered hybrid until you charged it again. Since most people don't commute 20 miles a day. You could drive it to work. Charge at work, charge at home, and for the vast majority of travel, you'd be running on electricity and you'd have no tailpipe emissions. Your cost per mile would drop by a factor of two or three compared to gasoline. And I think that plug-in hybrid after…in the 2020 time frame will become more and more attractive. You're starting to see plug-in hybrids appear on the road. Daimler Chrysler's introducing a Sprinter van which has a 20 mile all electric range. And there's a group out in California called Cal-cars which is promoting the conversion of the Toyota Prius into a plug-in. So I think you're going to hear more and more about the plug-in hybrids. I think that that's the car of the future.
DR: You talk about this being the global warming century. Please explain how you see global warming playing out over this century and the major milestones with respect to ramifications and national responses.
JR: I have, and in fact I'm actually just starting a new book on global warming. Because I think the situation is considerably more dire than the vast majority of Americans understand and I know for a fact it's more dire than the vast majority of politicians in Washington, D.C. understand.
Right now the earth has a blanket of heat trapping gases that keep the temperature 60 Fahrenheit warmer than it would otherwise be and make life as we know it possible. We are adding to these gases at an extreme level since the industrial revolution. Carbon dioxide is the principal human introduced greenhouse gas and it comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. We currently, because of the burning of coal oil and natural gas, have put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than has been in the atmosphere for probably about 50 million years. As a result the temperature of the earth has started to warm considerably. It was just announced that 2005 was either the warmest year on record or it was tied with 1998 as one of two warmest years on record. We've warmed in the last century about 1 degree Fahrenheit. Unless we very quickly turn around our use of fossil fuels, it is projected that concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by mid-century will rise to a level that will dramatically warm the planet. So I expect that by mid-century the temperature of the earth, the temperature of the United States, will be warming by maybe a degree Fahrenheit by maybe a decade. If we warm the earth another degree and a half, two degrees centigrade, we will hit a temperature - the last time we were at that temperature was 125,000 years ago. Greenland was melted and sea levels were 20 feet higher. We're going to pass the point at which it would be very difficult to stop that amount of warming within about 10 to 15 years.
People think that global warming is this very long term problem which has a very long term solution. Those two statements aren't false, they're just incomplete. It is a long term problem with a long term solution. But if you don't start reducing emissions now it becomes increasingly harder and harder to get back to the level of emissions that you need to avoid warming. I mean the key point to realize is that our current level of greenhouse gas emissions, right now, keeps increasing greenhouse gas concentrations around the planet. We actually need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50-60-70% lower than current levels just to stop concentrations from rising. And yet the U. S. Government, the Bush administration, absolutely refuses to support any controls on U. S. carbon dioxide emissions. And in fact, the Montreal meeting of all the countries that are negotiating limits to greenhouse gases just finished. The United States spent two weeks trying to stop all negotiations on mandatory controls on CO2. The good news is that they failed.
The bad news is they have thwarted so far, any further controls, both at home and abroad. So we are rather than starting to reduce emissions in this country, we're just going to keep rising emissions and because we take no action, we allow other countries that don't want to take action like China and India, to get a free pass.
So I'm afraid that emissions of greenhouse gases are going to be maybe 50% higher in two or three decades rather than 50% lower. At that point in time your listening audience is going to realize that we are on the horns of an extreme dilemma if we don't take much action over the next 10 or 15 years. Because then our choice will be accept catastrophic warming, and by catastrophic warming, I mean warming that is going to melt the great ice sheet on Greenland and possibly the great ice sheet in West Antarctica and raise sea levels 25 - 35 feet. Which I think we can all agree would be pretty catastrophic.
Or, now I'm talking about, we've kind of woken up in the year 2020. Now we have to take very radical reductions where we don't have five decades to reduce 50% but we have two decades to reduce 80%. That's just - that would represent a traumatic change in all of our lives in a very short order.
There's been a brilliantly successful, I would call, disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry, and by conservative politicians, to convince the public that the science is uncertain, that this is a slow changing problem that's mainly going to affect other countries, and we have many, many decades to act. And none of those statements are true. The science has gotten firmer and firmer and firmer. Now I don't think there any reputable climate scientists who have any doubt as to what is happening. And I personally think that the impact of global warming is going to be much more serious to the United States than to almost any other country. A - Because we have so much of our wealth on our sea coasts. The 20-40 foot sea level rise will be devastating as will the steady rise in intense hurricanes. If you thought that hurricane Katrina was catastrophic, over the next few decades we'll be seeing many, many Katrina like hurricanes hit the United States. And then as temperatures rise in the inland U. S., I expect the average temperature by the end of the century is going to be 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit higher. A very different country than the country we now live in. And with multi-decade droughts and extreme intense weather events like tornadoes becoming quite common place. It is absolutely, positively not too late for the country to act. But we have five to ten years to get serious about global warming or else all the next hundred generations will curse us.
DR: How does the very real possibility the near term peak of global oil production play in your thinking?
JR: Let me give a couple of responses to that. I do worry some about peaking in oil. I think that clearly we're probably going to peak in oil sometime in the next 25 years. Some people think it's going to be this decade. I'm not quite so much in the pessimist camp. What I think personally is going to happen is that the price is going to tend to ratchet up. The ratcheting up of the price is going to get a supply and a demand response. So what I think will happen is that oil consumption will kind of plateau over the next ten to twenty years. That's my personal view based on talking to a lot of people and reading a lot of literature.
I think people need to understand that a lot of the peak oil calculations have tended to be done on conventional oil. There are a lot of unconventional ways of making oil. (For instance) the Canadian Tar sands, the heavy oils. You can convert coal to oil and the Chinese are. In fact West Virginia and Montana are pursuing that. The unfortunate thing from a global warming perspective is that all the unconventional forms of oil release a lot more greenhouse gases per gallon of gasoline. So they're really bad from a global warming perspective. I think it's also important to understand that if oil peaks in the next ten to fifteen years that doesn't solve the global warming problem. Peaking of oil doesn't mean that we've run out of oil. It means that we've just used half the oil. So there is more than enough oil to keep global warming going. The bigger problem for global warming than oil is coal. Unfortunately, absent strong efforts to control greenhouse emissions. The most obvious substitute for oil is coal, either in one of two ways. Either you convert coal to oil in a couple of different processes. But you can convert coal to Fischer-Tropes diesel very easily. During WWII Germany got half their liquid fuels from coal. So it's a very old process. You know at current oil prices it makes a lot of sense. At some point oil prices will be around $80 a barrel. It will make even more sense. So that's problem number one.
Problem number two is that if oil becomes constrained - and I've read so many different books on peak oil - books by authors who are somehow convinced that the peaking of oil is going to ruin society because there's no substitutes for oil in transportation. So then our suburbs will be depopulated. I think there's a book called "The Long Emergency" by Kunstler, and books of that ilk. And the problem is that in fact there's a very obvious substitute for oil which is electricity. And if you knew for certain that we were going to run out of - start running out of oil - peaking in oil in a few years, the most obvious thing to do is to begin a conversion towards plug in hybrids that replace gasoline with electricity. And I expect in fact that that's what will happen. Electricity is much cheaper per mile as I said before, than oil so that's the obvious thing to do. We already know how to run cars on electricity. And electric motors are very efficient. The only reason we're not running cars on electricity is because when electric vehicles were introduced you had to have enough batteries on board the car to run the entire car the whole duration of your trip on electricity which meant that you need a huge amount of batteries. That was costly and added a lot of weight. And if you ran out of electricity you were screwed. You couldn't drive anymore and it took to long to recharge. With a plug-in hybrid you can have a car that does the vast majority of its travel - like I said - you can travel to and from work and never use any gasoline at all. So as it becomes clearer that oil is not the transportation fuel of the future, for cars, it will become clear that electricity is. Unfortunately, the U. S. gets half its electricity from coal. And in China and India which are having the biggest growth of transportation. They've got the most amount of coal. So again, if we don't have global constraints on carbon dioxide emissions, then I'm afraid that the peak oil won't solve our global warming problem and could conceivably just contribute to it.
That said, if the world were to adopt a strong greenhouse gas regime then, as it became clear that oil was peaking you could, in concert, make a double switch away from coal based electricity or at least from electricity that releases greenhouse gas emissions to electricity that doesn't release greenhouse gas emissions which could be renewable electricity. It could conceivably be nuclear, if that proves to more economically practical and feasible than it currently is. And it could be coal where you turn the coal into hydrogen and CO2 and you bury the CO2 and you convert the hydrogen to electricity.
So then you could envision replacing electricity that produces greenhouse gas emissions with electricity that doesn't. And gasoline powered cars with more electric powered cars. Again the electricity could be produced from non polluting sources. So I do see that if somehow the world got its act together - and I know that is a very big if - in the next ten to fifteen years on the climate front, then we would simultaneously be able to deal with the peak oil issue. If we don't, I mean if we just keep blithely sleepwalking to disaster which is our current strategy. Then it's going to be the worst of both possible worlds. Because when oil peaks it's just going to create havoc. And when we wake up to global warming and what we need to do there it's going to create havoc.
DR: Have you reviewed the Hirsch Report?
JR: I have read the Hirsch Report.
DR: I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on that report and especially about the implications of the recommended mitigations for global warming.
JR: The Hirsch Report is a report that was done by SAIC and some others. The Hirsch Report did not attempt to say when oil would peak. It basically said since oil is going to peak sometime in the next few decades, possibly very soon, possibly a bit longer. What strategies are we going to need to deal with that fact? And I think the key point of the Hirsch Report as I read it, is that whenever the peak comes, if you haven't planned ahead you're going to be in a lot of trouble. I think the thing to kind of bear in mind when you think about the peak, again, is that peak doesn't mean we're out of oil. It just means that we've have peaked on production and production is going to start declining at a certain rate, maybe a few percent a year. The problem of course is that population growth, GDP growth, urbanization…these things keep growing so that, demand for oil, all things being equal, would have itself, increased a couple percent per year for the next multi decades.
So you now end up in a situation where instead of having demand increasing and supply increasing, you have demand increasing and supply decreasing. And that's a recipe for very large spikes in the price of oil and rather enormous economic shocks and dislocations. Which last an extended period of time because I think the key point in the Hirsch Report is that you can't reverse course quickly. There are no measures to dramatically reduce the oil consumption of a country that don't take a while to put in place, whether it's fuel efficiency standards, or biofuels or even the unconventional oil that I mentioned. So, if oil were to peak in five years and we've done nothing, then you know, we're going to end up with ten or twenty years of misery. This is not a report - this report by Hirsch and SAIC - is not about global warming. So as a result, the solutions that it puts on the table are blind to global warming. So they include massive expenditures on unconventional oil like the tar sands and coal to oil. But those are terrible from a global warming perspective. And I'll be honest with you, the vast majority of studies and books written on peak oil, with the exception really of Jeremy Leggett's new book, don't talk about global warming at all and I actually consider that to be a huge failing of them.
In some sense global warming compounds the problem of peak oil because half the solutions become very bad. But in another sense, global warming isn't bad for peak oil in the sense that what you need to do to solve global warming is precisely what you need to do to address peak oil. You just need to embrace fuel efficiency and zero carbon sources of oil, which could be biofuels that are made from - not from corn - but ethanol, and could be electricity from zero carbon sources. So I think that if there are any peak oil people out there listening they really need to start reading the literature on global warming because global warming is frankly a far more real and dangerous threat to our way of life than peak oil. And I know people out there who believe peak oil may find that hard to believe. But the world can get through peak oil even if we sit on our hands because the dislocations will be economic. But if we fail to take action to stop global warming and sea levels end up rising thirty feet there's no economic solution to that except a triage on the coasts of the world.
DR: What are your recommendations for responding to global warming?
JR: Well, I think the first thing is we need to very quickly put in - the word is not liked by the current political establishment - but we need mandatory controls on CO2, like we have mandatory caps on sulfur emissions. If we did that, I think people would find out that reducing emissions is far cheaper than most people realize. But we need to do that immediately. The second thing we need is tougher fuel economy standards. And the third thing is a much bigger increase in research and development. We're going to have push efficiency and renewables very hard for the next few decades but then we're going to need newer technologies after that. So I would say that there's a misimpression that there's a silver bullet to global warming. There's a very nice piece a year ago in Science Magazine called "Stabilization Wedges" which you can find online. Basically its whole point is that we need to do about eight to ten things much bigger than anybody has ever conceived of in history to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at reasonable levels. So I don't want to single out any technology. It's much better to single out policies. We need a price for carbon dioxide...that is the most important thing. Once there's a cap on emissions and a price in the marketplace, the free market will figure out the most cost effective strategies. There are certain technologies that I'm a big fan of like plug-in hybrids and wind power and electric efficiency, co-generation, biofuels. But we're going to need them all. We're going to need sequestration. We're going to need carbon capture and storage. I wouldn't rule out anything.
DR: How do you respond to people in less industrialized countries who believe that emissions trading is unfair?
JR: There's no simple answer to that question because the devil's in the details. Right now we have these measures where if you are a party to the Kyoto Protocol, you are a ratifier; you could do projects in developing countries and get credits for those emission reductions. But I can understand how people in those countries may feel that you are just buying their cheap production and using that to continue your own wasteful ways. I think it's more complicated than that. And frankly the developing countries are in a very tough situation too because, particularly China and India are going to become the fastest growing contributors to global warming even though on a per capita basis they are much cleaner than we are. And they need to develop because poverty is a great source of inequity in this world and suffering. There's no question that those countries need to develop. All I can say is if they develop the way we developed, then the world's climate will be destroyed. But we have to change ourselves. If we don't change ourselves we have no leg to criticize anybody else. It is incumbent on the United States to begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If we don't there will never be a global warming regime. Because obviously why would a country like China or India agree to constrain its greenhouse emissions if the richest, most polluting country were responsible for 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions from industrial sources even though we have 5% of the world's population. If we're not going to take action why would any poor country take action?
DR: You mentioned earlier, stationary power generating fuel cells as being a promising technology. I wanted to hear a little bit more about what that might look like.
JR: Well, there's a lot of work going on in high temperature fuel cells, particularly solid oxide fuel cells. Those fuel cells operate at very high temperatures. Some of them operate at 700 to 800 degrees centigrade and they're very efficient in converting mainly natural gas at this point. But they can turn other fuels into...electricity and hot water. In fact, steam - electricity and steam, and they can have overall efficiencies of 70 or 80%. Currently, they're quite expensive but they are a technology whose costs are going down and in stationary applications you don't have the big problems that you do in mobile applications of having to worry about storage of hydrogen. And mobile applications, you're really not using the waste heat so you're throwing away a lot of useful energy. So I am cautiously optimistic that stationary fuel cells could be quite useful in a decade of two.
DR: What do you think about using stationary fuel cells to store renewable energy?
I tend to think that's been oversold. Because renewable energy is pretty premium product and it is certainly true that if we used a lot more of it. It is intermittent. It would be good to be able to store it. The problem is that fuel cells are quite expensive and converting renewable electricity to hydrogen, storing the hydrogen, running it through a fuel cell and then converting it back to electricity…you've got to throw away over half the original electricity. Plus you have to buy probably two pieces of hardware; the device that converts the electricity to hydrogen, and the device that converts the hydrogen to electricity. It's possible some day you might be able to do that in one device. Currently it's two devices. They're both expensive. So you're paying a lot of money to buy two pieces of equipment and you're throwing away 50-60-70% of the original electricity. So I don't think there are a lot of situations where that's going to make a lot of sense. And once we get serious about global warming, then you're going to not want to waste any of your zero carbon electricity at all. So if you're going to store it you have to find a medium that stores it without throwing away a lot of the original electricity. That's why Austin Energy in Austin, Texas, one of the reasons they're interested in plug-in hybrids is that they're starting to bring a lot of wind power from west Texas onboard, and a lot of that wind that blows at night. They have this excess wind power at night and they would like people to charge up at night and use that excess wind power to charge their cars. In other words the storage then becomes the storage that's on board the car in the form of a big battery.
DR: You've spent a lot of time at the Department of Energy. I'm wondering if you are aware of any conversations at the DOE to develop a standard method for determining the energy return on energy invested for different energy technologies.
JR: I'm not. It's obviously an issue that various and sundry people have started to talk about. I've not seen anybody develop a consistent methodology. When you read papers they're often done by people who have a favorite technology. And not surprisingly - or technology they don't like. Either way the studies tend to reflect that. I have not seen a kind of definitive piece of work on that.
DR: Is your sense that the Department of Energy would at some point take that on so that they would be able to fairly evaluate competing technologies?
JR: Well having been to the Department of Energy I can tell you that I think they have as much knowledge about…they're very good at doing energy technology analysis. There's no question about it. Every where you go where there's a lot of work done in energy, people have their favorite technologies. I'm not certain who would be the best candidate to do such a study.
This has been David Room interviewing Dr. Joseph Romm on December 15, 2005.