Will Hydrogen Power Suck the Lakes Dry?

Questions are accumulating about how water demand needed to supply a hydrogen vehicle industry might affect large water bodies like the Great Lakes.


Even as political leaders in the auto-making Great Lakes region tout hydrogen-powered vehicles as a potential catalyst for an economic turnaround, questions are accumulating about the impact of the technology on water use.Β  While potentially clean and renewable, are hydrogen powered vehicles (and hydrogen energy generally) sustainable given their water impact?

Early studies of one of the most promising hydrogen-creating technologies, electrolysis, indicate it would require dramatic increases in U.S. water withdrawals.Β  Large, concentrated supplies of fresh water — such as the Great Lakes system, which contains almost one-fifth of the world’s available surface fresh water — could be attractive or necessary to creating the power. NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland is developing a prototype of a commercial hydrogen fueling station that uses wind and solar power to produce hydrogen from Lake Erie water.

A 2007 study estimated “that up to 143 billion gallons of water would be directly consumed as a [hydrogen generating] feedstock, with a total consumption including evaporation of cooling water at power plants of 0.5–1.7 trillion gallons annually.” But the Hydrogen Association says that conversion of the current U.S. light-duty fleet (some 230 million vehicles) to fuel cell vehicles would require about 110 billion gallons of water per year and that the U.S. uses about 300 billion gallons of water per year for the production of gasoline.

Michigan, the traditional automaking capital of North America, is one of many jurisdictions scrambling to capture leadership in hydrogen powered vehicles and other alternative fuel vehicles.

Definitive studies on the sources and volumes of water needed to power hydrogen vehicles and a hydrogen economy are urgently needed.

Photo credit:Β  Great Lakes National Program Office, U.S. EPA.

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