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EU parliament says yes to hydrogen cars

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Members of the European Parliament have voted overwhelmingly in favour of a plan to bring in common standards for hydrogen cars and hydrogen filling stations across the EU.

EU Observer reports that 644 MEPs in Brussels voted in favour of a report on hydrogen vehicles, with just two against and 11 abstaining. The report calls for EU-wide standard procedures on hydrogen vehicles and filling stations, ensuring that there would be a single market for the technology.

"With the adoption of EU-wide criteria, the European Union can establish itself now ahead of global research and ensure investment security for market access of this future technology," the report says.

Though the document was drafted by centre-right politicians, it gained solid backing from left-wing parties.

"Petrol prices in Europe have doubled," UK socialist MEP Arlene Mccarthy told EU Observer. "With ever growing concern about the effects of climate change it is clear we need new hopes for future fuels."

But green hardliners pointed out that hydrogen is just a means of storing energy, not an energy source.

"If you use coal-fired power plants to separate the hydrogen, then this is not very clean at all," said Jerome Verheuven of Friends of the Earth.

In fact, most industrial hydrogen is currently made by reforming natural gas, not by electric separation from water. In general, one would use less gas and emit less carbon by simply running a diesel vehicle using liquefied-gas tanks.

However, the idea of hydrogen transport is to use electric power to produce hydrogen from water. The fuel can then be used in conventional combustion engines - which has performance, cost and flexibility advantages, but is highly inefficient - or in an electric fuel-cell (usually hybridised with a battery).

According to EU Observer, Euro Enterprise Commissioner Gunter Verhuegen drives a BMW Hydrogen 7 - an example of the more profligate internal-combustion tech.

"It's a huge car, very inefficient," said the FOE's Verhueven. "That's the key - energy efficiency."

Verheuven has a point - the 'leccy to make the clean hydrogen of the future has to come from somewhere. Generating it by burning gas or coal would seem a tad pointless as a way of avoiding fossil-fuelled transport. But hardline Greens like Verheuven will have no truck with nuclear, either; and most people don't think renewables could deliver enough juice for normal electric demand and transport.

Then, of course, there are those who argue that a hydrogen car is basically just an electric one when you get down to it - doubly so in the case of a fuel-cell hybrid - so why not simply use a battery car? Fast-charging batteries, now approaching a few UK dealers in the Electric Lightning supercar, would seem to remove the last really major advantage of hydrogen over batteries - that of being able to fill up quickly.

All of which does seem to offer reasonable grounds for scepticism regarding hydrogen as a panacea for EU carbon emissions and/or energy security. You don't need to be a hardline green to doubt the technology - far from it* - and in any case the Brussels parliament contains plenty of avowed Greens, definitely no friends to hydrogen.

So the near-unanimous vote in favour of smoothing hydrogen's path in Europe seems mildly remarkable, in a way. That said, the vote wasn't for hydrogen exclusivity - merely for keeping it open as an option.

Read all about it at the EU Observer here. ®

*Robert Zubrin is a spacecraft engineer who has spent years designing nuclear propulsion systems. Unlike many pro-nuclear types, he favours methanol (not ethanol) for car fuel.

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