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The Emperor's New Hydrogen Economy

A book by Darryl McMahon

Last updated 2006.12.16

Article in the Ottawa Citizen 2006.12.16

Hydrogen not viable alternative fuel

Shannon Lee Mannion

Darryl McMahon and Arnold Schwarzenegger are at loggerheads. Should they meet at a cocktail party and were a discussion to ensue about the use of hydrogen as an alternative energy source -- as it surely would, given both men's commitment to reducing society's dependence on fossil fuels -- canapes would fly.

Whereas the governor of California is a huge proponent of the hydrogen economy -- right down to his 2003 election promise, win or lose, to convert one of his Hummers to hydrogen power -- Mr. McMahon is on to him and reveals the ballyhoo at a 2004 news conference, at which a hydrogen-powered Hummer H2 was unveiled, was mostly poppycock.

Here are three reasons why. The H2 was a GM prototype and not the governor's. It was transported to the site, as it only had a range of 80 kilometres before having to refuel. It retained its internal combustion engine, which ran on hydrogen but did not use fuel cells.

In his 324-page paperback, The Emperor's New Hydrogen Economy, Mr. McMahon, an IT consultant who is a fervent proponent of sustainable development, says we're just not ready for hydrogen.

"Most is simply repackaging of old news or misleading hype intended to advance stock prices more than real technological progress," he says.

Could it be that North Americans are being promised a false panacea for our oil-guzzling? Is the much-anticipated use of hydrogen an empty promise, filled with hot air and explosive gases that, like the hapless hydrogen-filled Hindenburg dirigible in 1937, will come crashing to the ground?

Mr. McMahon's book outlines the many options available to us immediately -- electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles and human-powered vehicles -- because even though it is possible to make a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle or even a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, creating the supporting infrastructure will take decades.

The R&D and expense may not be feasible, because hydrogen is not a primary energy source but requires the expenditure of other sources such as electricity or natural gas or electrolysis for its creation. What this means is that we will continue to deplete our resources as we take upward of the next 50 years to make hydrogen workable.

Mr. McMahon does not pull his punches. "The hydrogen economy is a bad idea -- a really, really bad idea," he concludes. But he has plenty of good ideas about what each of us can do to create our own sustainable lifestyles, outlined in his book and also on his website. Especially useful for car drivers are fuel-saving tips at

Q: What was the impetus behind your book?

A: My interest is in electric vehicles, and I thought that if we can't have the advanced battery we want, maybe the hydrogen fuel cell is going to be the interim solution. But the more I dug into it, the more I discovered many issues around hydrogen. People are not getting the right answers, hence my book.

Q: What reaction has the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa had?

A: There's been a mixed reaction. There are people who are saying that hydrogen is the answer and we should be supportive and others who say that if there are all these problems and it's going to take 30 to 50 years to straighten them out, shouldn't we spend our efforts on more immediate solutions to get the results we need now?

Q: You suggest that we have a mature hydrogen industry in North America and, indeed, worldwide that's worth billions of dollars a year, but you say that the standard industry practice today is not the way the visionaries said the hydrogen economy was going to work. Why the disconnect?

A: It's because the industry has figured out how it works but the visionaries are thinking science fiction. The fuel cell has come so far but efficiency isn't there and there can be problems with explosiveness. People would have to stop smoking while driving.

Q: Darryl, where do you go to from here to get the word out?

A: I'll continue to speak to groups and to do book signings. I actually have one tomorrow between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. at the Topia GreenStop, where they sell ethanol and biodiesel, at 1621 Woodward Ave. just by Laperriere and Clyde.

Photo caption: Local author Darryl McMahon says hydrogen isn't yet the panacea that many people are touting, including California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mr. McMahon says as a technology, hydrogen 'is not ready for prime time.'

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