An Absurd “Plan”

Another of my letters-to-the-editor that will never be published, so you can read it here. This one was sent to Scientific American regarding their November 2009 issue.

In September 2006, you published a special issue on “Energy’s Future” with a well-reasoned mix of articles on energy conservation, renewable energy, and nuclear power. I’ve referred to that issue frequently. It was a quality piece of work on a topic that is frequently demagogued.

Imagine my dismay, therefore, when this month’s issue arrived with a cover article promising “A plan to get all energy from wind, water, and solar power by 2030.” This is nonsense. One can be strongly in favor of greatly expanding renewable energy resources without supporting this illogical and impossible “plan.”

Just to take two issues:

(1) The authors have “assumed… that most fossil-fuel transportation can be replaced by battery and fuel-cell vehicles.” This is unsupported by any engineering reality. I suspect battery-powered vehicles will do a good job of replacing the four-door sedan for urban commuters. But without a fundamental breakthrough in battery technology, batteries will not be powering over-the-road trucks, or locomotives, or oceangoing vessels. Confusing “the transportation sector” with “automobiles” is an amateur error, and I would have expected better from these authors.

(2) In a single sentence, they declare that hydrogen, generated by electrically-driven hydrolysis, will fuel aircraft. No, it won’t. Even tossing aside the incredible inefficiencies in manufacturing, transporting, and storing liquid hydrogen, the energy density of liquid hydrogen is only one-seventh that of gasoline or jet fuel. Ask today’s airlines if they could survive with vastly more expensive fuel, but flights limited to only a few hundred miles.

It is certainly possible to greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels — especially through a renewed commitment to clean, safe, abundant nuclear energy — but the authors are not making that argument. By promoting an absurd vision for deriving “100% of the world’s energy, for all purposes… from wind, water, and solar resources,” the authors have actually done the clean-energy movement a disservice.

Which is nothing compared to the self-inflicted loss of credibility suffered by Scientific American. You should be ashamed of yourselves.


  1. The gravimetric density of hydrogen is over 3 times that of gasoline. That is why hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the space program. Nothing beats hydrogen when it comes to energy density on a per kg basis.

    You say that nuclear energy is clean, safe, and abundant. Well, the waste is neither clean nor safe, and uranium is not abundant. The Rocky Mountain Institute has a lot of good research on this.

    You shouldn’t call a plan “absurd” just because it is optimistic.

    • Jjpro — thanks for commenting, but I disagree with you on every point.

      The gravimetric density is meaningless. What’s important when designing a vehicle is the density PER LITER, not per kilogram. Liquid hydrogen is “fluffy.” Indeed, there are more hydrogen atoms in a liter of gasoline than in a liter of liquid hydrogen!

      Hydrogen has been “the fuel of choice” for one very visible portion of the space program (Space Shuttle Main Engines)… arguably one of the least affordable mechanisms built in the history of mankind. Irrelevant for mass transportation needs (airliners, ships, locomotives). Denser fuels (alcohol, kerosene, solids) are increasingly more popular for space launchers.

      Nuclear waste isn’t a problem if you reprocess. All of France (80% nuclear? that’s from memory) generates a couple of cubic meters of nuclear waste per year.

      There’s plenty of uranium in the ground… and, if not, we can build thorium reactors.

      And I’m allowed to call a plan “absurd” when it IS absurd. Which this one is. Misleadingly absurd, because it comes with the imprimatur of an occasionally-authoritative magazine.

  2. Hydrogen has tremendous potential to become the fuel ofthe future. It can be produced from viable and sustainable sources and can contribute to meeting the growth in global energy demand. Hydrogen power, the greenest of all energy sources, could be used to support transport, home, and business energy needs.

  3. Donna — it would be so pretty if that were true. Unfortunately, it’s not. I recommend you take a look at my presentation on “The Hydrogen Myth” at .

    Believe me, I would love to be looking forward to a hydrogen-powered future, but it’s just not going to happen.


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