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Hydrogen: powering the energy revolution

Hydrogen: powering the energy revolution

From storing renewables like solar and wind to powering vehicles, factories, and entire cities, hydrogen packs the potential to unleash an energy revolution. For Shelley Tabor and John Michael Parkan, the team of filmmakers behind the documentary At War With The Dinosaurs, promoting the hydrogen economy is not just about leaving the planet in better shape for future generations, it is also a question of humanity’s survival in the face of the existential threat posed by climate change. Slated for release end of 2018, the documentary takes an ambitious look at air pollution, energy independence, and fossil fuel dependency, while positing hydrogen fuel cells as the most feasible, scalable, and efficient path to a clean, sustainable future. All it takes is the political will and funding to install the necessary infrastructure and make hydrogen — the most abundant element in the universe — the next step in the natural evolution of energy.

 

What does the documentary’s title mean?

John Michael Parkan, Director of the documentary At War With The Dinosaurs

Shelley Taylor: It’s a multi-layered title. At a basic level, it conveys the sense that we are at war with an old way of thinking in terms of how we currently exploit energy. There is a quote in the documentary that says, “Mankind has been burning things for energy since the dawn of civilization.” But that’s not working anymore, and we don’t want that for our future.

On another level, we’re at war with ourselves in that we don’t want to become the dinosaurs. We both have two daughters and we want to leave the planet a better place for them. We want them to have clean air and water. A hydrogen economy is the best way to achieve that future.

John Michael Parkan: I didn’t want to scare off the oil companies, so I wanted a title that wouldn’t paint them as the enemy. Ultimately, the point is that we could become the dinosaurs. We know that the Earth will survive, but will we?

My whole idea is that if we are the cause of the biosphere resetting, and if we suddenly realize that we may become the cause of our own mass extinction, then we should do everything we can to stop it before it happens. I don’t want to become just another part of the bedrock, our remains found in a stratum just above the dinosaurs. For me, that’s the essence of the title, though you could also see it as a call to wean ourselves off of burning oil from the dinosaurs.

Why did you pick hydrogen as a solution for the future?

JMP: Originally, we wanted to produce a documentary exploring various answers to fossil fuel addiction, such as CNG, LNG, battery, bio, and hydrogen fuel cells. We wanted to find out how we get to energy independence and ultimately solve the issues surrounding climate change. At the same time, I attended a fuel cell seminar in Hawaii and realized the full significance of hydrogen fuel cells, even though I had not heard much about them.

“We were open to any solution that could solve society’s energy problems and transition immediately from fossil fuels to a clean alternative. In our ten years of working on these questions, hydrogen fuel cells have stood out as the best solution.”

When I heard Larry Burns of General Motors speaking at the National Hydrogen Association in Sacramento in April 2008, as he was beseeching industry stakeholders for forty hydrogen stations concentrated in three counties in Los Angeles to continue Project Driveway, to continue learning, and to target their next generation fuel cell vehicle at a specific metropolitan area, I knew I had a story.

Did you face any challenges while filming the documentary?

JMP: Our biggest challenge was financing the project, especially since we filmed in ten different countries and for most of the film we were entirely self financed.

ST: Another challenge we faced was the lack of conversation about hydrogen in the public sphere. People still don’t understand how hydrogen works, so they don’t realize that it’s not just about using energy, but also storing energy. Of course, you can power a vehicle or forklift with hydrogen, but you can also use hydrogen to capture and store energy from renewable sources like solar and wind. One of the biggest challenges we had was educating people about hydrogen fuel cells and everything they can accomplish.

At War With The Dinosaurs’ film poster

JMP: We were very fortunate while producing the film, since we were able to interview so many stakeholders in the industry, including policymakers in Washington, D.C. and the physicist Michio Kaku. Some of the things he told us are really powerful — for instance: “The atmosphere is like the skin of an apple. And yet that skin makes possible, life as we know it. And it wouldn’t take much for that skin of the apple to rot. It wouldn’t take much for us to create a dead planet.

However, we also encountered a lot of opposition to hydrogen from skeptics and other parties who had their own vision of the future of energy, such as CNG, LNG, and biomass. In our view, these solutions are not scalable and still rely on burning material for energy. Batteries have been the flavor of the month for quite a while, with many battery proponents feeling that in order for batteries to win, hydrogen and fuel cells have to fail. For Shelley and myself, we were open to any solution that could solve society’s energy problems and transition immediately from fossil fuels to a clean alternative. In our ten years of working on these questions, hydrogen fuel cells have stood out as the best solution.

How so?

JMP: We quickly realized that batteries cannot scale. They fill a niche, but they also force people to change habits ingrained for the last hundred years. Batteries are now being overtaken by the hydrogen fuel cell revolution in applications like forklifts, medium-size vehicles, and eventually in larger vehicles like class 8. While you can make the argument that the hydrogen fueling infrastructure is not there yet, it’s also true that the battery charging infrastructure is not there either.

“With fuel cells, you can generate energy when the sun shines and the wind blows, store that energy for twenty years, and still have almost the same amount of energy, which you can use whenever you want. I think that’s the secret power of hydrogen and fuel cells.”

Trying to get that infrastructure to scale will be a tough uphill climb, especially in the United States where there are 250 million vehicles and half of people live in apartment buildings. Though batteries have improved in the last century, they still present a number of constraints, such as weight, size, scarcity of components like lithium or cobolt, battery age, outdoor temperature and humidity, driving speed and incline, event using air conditioning on extremely hot or cold days — all these factors affect the performance of electric batteries. Moreover, when it comes to future developments over the next fifteen years, battery electric vehicles are not projected to offer any of the same benefits promised by hydrogen fuel cells.

What are some of the facts you discovered when researching fuel cells?

JMP: We had a major revelation when we visited Enertrag in Germany. We realized that hydrogen’s superpower lies in its capacity to store energy and decouple energy production from energy usage.

With fuel cells, you can generate energy when the sun shines and the wind blows, store that energy for twenty years, and still have almost the same amount of energy as when you started, which you can use whenever you want. I think that’s the secret power of hydrogen and fuel cells. In Texas, we are already giving away terawatts of wind power every night, just zapping it into the ground, because we have nowhere to put it. Ultimately, hydrogen’s magic power is that it will enable us to capture and capitalize on the clean energy we already have at our disposal.

What are the main factors limiting the expansion of hydrogen infrastructure?

JMP: I think we have to convince the people holding the purse strings that this revolution is happening. We need to show them that this is the direction we want to move in. I noticed that New York is jumping on the electric bandwagon, but hydrogen fueling infrastructure can service many more vehicles than battery-electric infrastructure.

I don’t understand why people are not comparing how many hours it takes to charge a battery electric vehicle to how many minutes it takes to fuel a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

Many documentary filmmakers talk about being driven by a sense of responsibility. Do you feel like you have a mission to pursue?

JMP: Absolutely. I think it will be apparent by mid-century that we’re not going to survive the dramatic changes in climate that we have inflicted upon ourselves. As we look at an ever-warming Earth, we need to find a way to escape the runaway greenhouse effect, or Venus effect. By 2050, there could be 8 to 10 billion people on the planet, so the question is whether or not the current system is sustainable.

“It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing solution. We can take a multi-layered approach combining hydrogen, electric, natural gas, wind, and solar. We can all work together.”

I don’t think burning fossil fuels is sustainable, so we need to find an alternative fast. If more people were aware of hydrogen, I think they would see that we can solve this issue without significantly changing the way we do business today, in terms of how we drive, transport people or goods, and power our homes. I think they would see it as a natural evolution, like the shift from a CD to a DVD. People were willing to replace their VHS tapes with DVD’s because they already understood the CD. It’s the exact same situation with moving from fossil fuels to hydrogen.

John Michael Parkan

ST: One question we kept getting throughout the process was: “How come we haven’t heard about this? Is it real?” We want to let people know that the hydrogen economy is real. All it takes is the will of the people telling their governments to implement the infrastructure. It also takes some dialogue with proponents of other alternative energies.

One thing we have consistently said is that it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing solution. We can take a multi-layered approach combining hydrogen, electric, natural gas, wind, and solar. We can all work together, but hydrogen is the one solution that no one is supporting or talking about yet.

What would make this a successful documentary in your eyes?

ST: There are many ways to define success. Since our target audience is adults who want clean energy and to leave the planet a better place, true success for us is making a difference. We’re not looking for financial success or awards. It means bringing hydrogen into the mainstream and getting people to contact their representatives and senators in Congress. We want our government to support fuel cells and a hydrogen economy.

JMP: Just to take one example, while working on the documentary, two of our film editors ended up purchasing fuel cell vehicles for themselves. I think that’s a real testament to the power of the hydrogen revolution.

Do you plan to continue exploring this topic in the future?

ST: Just like cH2ange, we think it’s important to have a social presence that continues to educate people about the relevance and potential of the hydrogen economy. We would like to keep doing small videos to show people what’s happening in hydrogen.

“We need people to ask their representatives to implement the hydrogen economy. I think it’s a matter of pressuring representatives so we can get the funding to build more fueling stations.”

We want our film to serve as a catalyst for conversations about hydrogen, so we would like to do short films exploring different parts of the world that are now implementing a hydrogen economy. For example, one segment in our film talks about Japan’s intent to power the Olympics with hydrogen, so we would love to do a follow-up video during that event.

What steps can ordinary people take to get involved in the hydrogen economy?

JMP: I think it’s extremely important to get people talking about hydrogen as an alternative to batteries. We need people to ask their representatives to implement the hydrogen economy. I think it’s a matter of pressuring representatives so we can get the funding to build more fueling stations.