Fuel is one answer to foreign oil at conference

Speakers at town hall forum say it is real, it is safe and it is a long way off from daily use

jwilkinson@thestate.comApril 3, 2009 

It didn’t take long for the question to pop up in the town hall forum held at the National Hydrogen Association conference and expo in Columbia.

If the United States switched to cars powered by hydrogen, wouldn’t the gas have to be produced from nuclear power?“And doesn’t that mean more spent fuel rods coming to South Carolina?” Leslie Minor of Columbia asked.

The answer was fielded by Rolf Nordstrom, executive director of the Great Plains Institute in Minneapolis.

Whether cars are powered straight from the electrical grid or from hydrogen, it is more than likely that either coal-fired power plants or nuclear plants will be the source of the energy.

“The nuclear question has to be addressed,” Nordstrom said. “We’re going to have to green the (electrical) grid and we’re going to have to green hydrogen production.”

That was the stickiest question leveled at panelists at the forum, entitled “Hydrogen: The Good and the Bad.”

At least half the mission of the national conference, which drew a record 700 attendees and 2,000 members of the public this week, was education.

And Thursday’s forum, moderated by state Rep. Joan Brady, R-Richland, and featuring a panel of experts from Maine to California, was the ultimate question and answer session.

About 150 people attended the public forum, and it was a good sendoff for the conference, which ends today.

Among the issues addressed:

• Will people choose more expensive hydrogen cars if less expensive alternatives like plug-in hybrids become available?

• Is the technology safe?

• Can the technology really produce jobs for Columbia and South Carolina?

• Doesn’t hydrogen require more energy to produce than it generates?

The answers from the panelists were that the technology is real, it is as safe or safer than gasoline and the technology is still a long way off from daily use by everyday Americans.

The main issue raised was that hydrogen is one answer, not the answer to diminish the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

“But the important thing is to have a conversation about hydrogen,” Hydrogen Association spokesman Patrick Serfass said.

The event was attended mostly by those who have bought into the technology. But the biggest applause line came not from a hydrogen-boosting pronouncement, but a shot at S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford.

Sanford did not attend the conference and has been critical of the state’s and region’s public spending for it, which is more than $40 million.

And attendees, including people from around the globe, watched all week with some mystification at Sanford’s battle with the Legislature over accepting $700 million in national stimulus money, which would mostly be used for education, an issue near and dear to the academics and researchers in the room.

“I just want everyone to know,” said businessman Ken Carey of Columbia, “that I am running for governor and I will take the money.”

The room erupted.

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