When the Earth Policy Institute announced last November that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCV) were hitting the market ahead of schedule, an eco-economy seemed a little bit closer. Then Toyota said it would start leasing them in Japan and the United States in December. Excitement increased, until we saw the price tag.

These cars lease for about $16,000 a month and would have access to a total of only twenty-two refueling stations in both countries. How was this going to change the world?

“I don’t believe I’ll ever have a fuel-cell car in my lifetime. There just isn’t enough distributed infrastructure,” says David Scott, Canada’s hydrogen visionary and founder of the Institute of Integrated Energy Systems (IESVic) at the University of Victoria. Besides, why worry whether fuel-cell cars or generators will be the first to market when neither is likely to entice consumers away from existing, affordable systems?

The irony here is that Scott is a prime candidate for a FCV (more accurately described as an electric car, where the electricity is produced by fuel cells.) He believes firmly in the need to move to a hydrogen economy because of the twin towers of carbon-fuel-induced climate change and a growing threat to existing supplies of crude oil.

But he’s having none of it, and this pretty well sums up why the media’s current infatuation with hydrogen is simply superficial and sensationalistic. They understand that the industrialized world’s current energy path is moving no more quickly toward hydrogen than it is toward equitable access. Besides, FCV stories are sexy and easy to write headlines for.

This will change in the not-so-distant future because of economic necessity (keeping the oil-producing world destabilized is an increasingly expensive service industry, as is cleaning up the after-effects of burning fossil fuels). How that change occurs will depend on how quickly these nations can get their heads around two notions: producers and consumers aren’t going to alter habits willingly, and the real potential of alternative energy lies in making it part of economic system, not something on a Fuel Cells ’R Us retail shelf.

Which is why Scott and others like current IESVic director Ned Djilali believe hydrogen research and development must first stumble through a bunch of intermediate stages. This means creating hybrids of hydrogen and existing technologies like fossil fuels and nuclear power to help build the economies of scale needed to bring it into the commercial mainstream. The problem is, these intermediate stages aren’t really sexy, don’t offer short-term solutions and, at best, are politically tenuous in countries more concerned with stock-market fluctuations than energy footprints.

But without them the private sector won’t believe hydrogen technology can work. It’s like the telecommunications industry trying to find that “killer application” that everyone has to have. As the equity markets continue to show, the industry is still searching.

In Canada, transportation systems and domestic oil supplies offer the best shot for experimentation. Jet turbines are easily converted to (internally combusted) hydrogen, which is a third lighter than jet fuel and costs about half as much to produce. Ontario’s GO trains, with diesel engines convertible to fuel-cell drivetrains, according to the National Research Council, can be fueled at the nuclear plant at nearby Pickering where copious amounts of hydrogen can be produced through the electrolysis of water during off-peak generation of electricity.

The same theory holds for the Athabasca Oil Sands, which contain billions of barrels of crude oil that need to be upgraded with hydrogen to make economically viable. Siting a nuclear reactor in the region would provide hydrogen for upgrading, heat for extraction and electricity for processing.

Except, these paths include further use of fossil fuels and a growing reliance on nuclear power. Neither seems consistent with the promised reality of clean energy from hydrogen.

“Reality! Reality is that the jump from carbon to no carbon is too big to take at once. Unless we are willing to introduce hydrogen technology through hybrid stages, we’ll never develop the courage to truly consider it,” Scott says. “It wouldn’t take giga-bucks for the government to regain the lead in infrastructure development.”

There’s a bigger imperative to this reality. Forget the fact that with only about five per cent of the world’s population North America consumes and pollutes like a creature ten times its size, countries like China and India, with thirty-five per cent of earth’s people, are catching up fast. Their demand for energy is growing at about twenty per cent a year. This equation is not supportable for the next generation let alone the next century, for current availability as well as environmental reasons.

North America’s inability to take even a Kyoto-Protocol baby step toward energy planning leaves no doubt that our culture is patently, and fearfully, unable to look responsibly at the future.

“I think it’s obvious that the driver for [hydrogen energy] is not the environment. Without a viable commercial orientation, alternative energy will only be accepted very, very slowly. Perhaps too slowly in a geo-political sense,” says IESVic’s Djilali. “The only way to accomplish change is to introduce this technology at the point of new demand rather than getting into competition for existing demand.”

In other words, trying to get FCVs to compete with SUVs may not be the smartest way to wean people off fossil fuels, unless politicians here impose vote-killing control measures, which they won’t. And you can forget about asking leaders in China and India to tell their citizens that they’ll have to wait another twenty years before they can have cheap, abundant energy because the West is not willing to change the status quo.

It’s not just about vehicles either. All aspects of industrialization require power — to say nothing of the future energy needs for water desalination, almost certain to be the biggest political issue by 2020.

The impending energy crunch throughout the world is one huge octopus of a dilemma — like Polio and Smallpox and Cholera were until advanced research discovered ways to control them. Without denying the obvious arguments about access to medicine, sanitation and clean water, the solutions to these diseases could only have come through a whole set of intermediate steps, including injecting an untested substance into a human being.

While there may also be some ethical questions associated with the intermediate stages of a hydrogen economy — such as nuclear power and subsidized technology transfer — there doesn’t seem to be much of a choice for an addicted world, according to macro-thinkers like Scott and Djilali.

“It’s a phase we have to go through, and once it happens it will be contagious. Someone, somewhere will finally figure it out. And it should be us,” Scott says. “The indigenous wealth for Canada is huge, and this can drive what everyone really wants, to get away from our reliance on fossil fuels.”

North America seems to have the whole alternative-energy scenario ass-backwards, Scott believes. “First you use hydrogen technology to make conventional fuels and chemicals, then infrastructure, then consumer products. You can’t crack the world’s big problems with a micro-fuel-cell in a mobile phone.”