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What Is Greenwashing?

Although a corporation, product or alternative energy source seems ecofriendly, it is always best to look behind the "green" facade to get the facts



JOHN MAHOWALD VIA FLICKR

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Green: Your Place in the New Energy Revolution by Jane and Michael Hoffman.

Greenwashing is what happens when a hopeful public eager to behave responsibly about the environment is presented with "evidence" that makes an industry or a politician seem friendly to the environment when, in fact, the industry or the politician is not as wholly amicable as it or he might be. We touched on this concept when we talked about the Christmas tree-growing industry presenting partial evidence of its ecobenefits—tree farms as carbon sinks—while neglecting to mention the polluting pesticides or harvesting helicopters. Greenwashing is a marketing strategy, and one the public might grow ever more susceptible to as our need for energy expands and the CO2 in our atmosphere continues to accumulate. As we grow ever more anxious for answers to our energy problems, we need to foster a healthy skepticism and understand that some of the answers that result won't be wholly reliable.

Let's use the commercials for hydrogen-powered cars that are starting to make appearances on television as an example. BMW, Honda, Ford, and Mazda are some of the carmakers whose research and development of hydrogen-fueled cars was begun early on. Therefore, these companies are likely to be the leading manufacturers in bringing this new technology to the market.

So far, so good. Few people dispute the potential benefits of hydrogen technology. Hydrogen-powered cars produce no tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases or other pollutants, which augurs well for climate change concerns, and using hydrogen as a replacement for oil speaks eloquently to the need and desire for energy security. What's more, engineers are optimistic that these cars of the future can offer the consumer roomy interiors, sleek design, high efficiency, and good performance. Even better, right? When can we take delivery? Commercials even now seem to prepare viewers for the imminent introduction of these hydrogen-powered cars; the commercials are, however, at best misleading.

First of all, let's talk about the process of making hydrogen fuel. There is no "alchemy" involved in hydrogen technology, as one carmaker claims. It is a function of hard science that isolates hydrogen molecules and allows them to be transferred into the energy needed to run a car. Although the idea of car emissions amounting to no more than pure water and steam may seem like magic—and, indeed, that's all emissions from hydrogen-powered cars amount to—dirty work happens in isolating the hydrogen molecules in the first place. Making hydrogen fuel takes energy, and right now that energy comes from—you guessed it—coal or oil or natural gas.


This doesn't mean that in time the power needed to isolate hydrogen molecules can't come from wind energy, or solar energy, or energy from biomass. It does mean that hydrogen technology isn't yet mature enough to allow energy that originates from these sources to make the production of hydrogen fuel truly renewable, environmentally friendly, or cost efficient.

How much time do we need to do that? A commercial I saw last night for a hydrogen car promised that the vehicle is ready for the world, as soon as the world is ready for it. But according to Joan Ogden, a professor at the Institute of Transportation at the University
of California, Davis, it will be "several decades" until the world is ready.

Why such a long time? A little Googling and it's easy to find out that hydrogen cars aren't exactly ready for the world either. Honda, for instance, isn't planning on selling its hydrogen car any time soon. It will be three or four more years until a version of its hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Honda FCX, will be rolled out, and then it will be available only in Japan. The car will make its debut there because that country already
has a dozen or so hydrogen fueling stations. Along with offering the consumer reliable performance from a reasonably priced hydrogen- powered car, you see, a hydrogen refueling infrastructure has got to be built so that the fellow in Cleveland who buys a Ford hydrogen car, and the gal in Madrid who buys a BMW hydrogen car, and the guy in Tokyo who takes delivery of his Honda FCX each has got a place to go to fill up the tank conveniently and at a competitive price.

Honda is taking an original tack to address the lack of hydrogen fueling stations around the world. It's developing what it calls a "Home Energy Station." Hydrogen car buyers would, in theory, purchase one of these stations along with their car and use it to make hydrogen fuel right in their own garage.

A fuel station right in my own garage? It seems too good to be true!

Well, it is.

The "Home Energy Station" is designed to be powered with—here it comes!—natural gas!


The problem of how to create clean hydrogen fuel without the use of dirty fossil fuel is just one of the ongoing technical issues carmakers face. While hydrogen cars currently are part of experimental fleets for some government agencies—the state of New York has been using them on a very limited basis since 2004—other obstacles that stand in the way of commercial versions of the vehicles include where to put the cumbersome onboard tanks needed to store the hydrogen fuel and how to assure reliable cold weather startup in a vehicle that produces water as one of its by- products—water that turns to ice when the temperature dips below 32F!

As Professor Ogden says, hydrogen-powered vehicles could be an important part of the "larger trend toward decarbonization of energy and more efficient use of resources." But that will take time. And it will take money.

Real money.


In January 2003, President Bush announced his Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. The president, according to a White House press release, "envisions the transformation of the nation's transportation fleet from a near-total reliance on petroleum to steadily increasing use of clean-burning hydrogen." But as we've just seen, there are barriers that prevent this vision from becoming a reality in the near future. Let's review.

The first barrier we've already talked about. Hydrogen won't be a "clean-burning" fuel until its technology allows us to stop using a fossil fuel to produce hydrogen fuel. As it stands now, that's just transferring using fossil fuel in cars to using it at some earlier point in the transportation chain.

The second thing we have to question is the amount of money being committed to the development of a "hydrogen economy." Depending on how you break down the numbers cited, the U.S. commitment to the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative is anywhere from $2.9 to $3.6 billion over a period of five years. Now, any one of us, our whole large extended family, our five dearest friends, our closest neighbor, and the horse he rode in on could live exceptionally well for five years on $2.9 billion. But let's put $2.9 billion into perspective as a reasonable amount of funding for a project that is supposed to build the foundation for a whole new economy—reverse climate change, avert an energy crisis, and enhance national security by removing our dependence on foreign oil: The United States currently spends $195 million a day fighting a war in Iraq, blowing through several billion every few months. In a little less than two months, more funding is poured into this military action than is devoted to a solution to our energy crisis in over five years. In contrast, California, one individual state, has pledged to spend $3 billion to develop its solar power capacity, just one type of renewable energy. If we intended to be serious about the dream of a hydrogen economy, we'd have to equip researchers with serious money so they could work more efficiently, and more expeditiously, to develop the technology to its maturity.

Now let's consider one final problem with the hydrogen economy, the third obstacle we'd have to surmount to make a hydrogen-fueled world possible: The president's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative doesn't call for the consumer to have a choice about juicing up a hydrogen car until 2020. That timeline fits in well with the estimates of researchers and carmakers for bringing hydrogen technology to maturity. But we can't wait until 2020 to start making the changes that will reverse climate change, avert an energy crisis, and enhance national security.

Hydrogen technology, for all of its real potential benefits, is not a near-term solution to our energy challenge. We need to be able to make realistic choices now while planning for our long-term energy future.

Our first choice has got to be to pass legislation that increases fuel efficiency standards for cars. Plain and simple. Without question, that is the first step that will provide us with immediate and important relief.

Next, we need to form meaningful collaborations among governments, industry, and private partners to develop and implement the renewable technologies that will provide us with clean energy as our sources of fossil fuels dwindle. This means a sustained conviction to supply consumers with electricity generated with the power of the sun,  home heating generated with geothermal power from the earth, fuel for  our cars made from plants that grow, as well as the ability to manufacture hydrogen fuel using the power of the wind.

Focusing myopically on hydrogen technology as the sole answer to our energy challenge is wasteful of time, of the finite resources we do have in hand, and of the mature renewable technologies that already exist. Meeting our future energy needs will require a variety of strategies. Fortunately, we have a real abundance of viable alternatives. In the next three chapters we talk in depth about why it's necessary to pursue diverse strategies, and just what all of those strategies are.

Excerpted from Green: Your Place in the New Energy Revolution by Jane Hoffman and Michael Hoffman. Copyright © 2008 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’'s Press, LLC.

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