Current Issue
This Month's Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

3 minute read

Bail-out or Build-out?

As Washington and Wall Street dicker over a financial rescue plan, everyone is missing the real opportunity to fix the problem. Some see the variously proposed plans as bailouts of dumb borrowers and dumber lenders, while others view it as a chance to restore liquidity to the marketplace so we can all have access to credit again, whether it’s for student loans or to finance the acquisition of industrial machinery.

But when the "Great Depression" struck America more than 70 years ago, we didn’t just make more money available and hope people would borrow it to jump start the economy. President Roosevelt put us back to work, building bridges, highways, schools, and water projects. All of that infrastructure has served us well over the years, although at the time it must have looked like a lot of pork barrel spending designed to keep workers off of street corners and out of soup kitchens. What if we could do something like that again, but this time, make it a build-out that had fantastic economic, environmental, and social return on the invested capital?

In 2003, President Bush spoke about hydrogen cars in his State of the Union address. Shortly thereafter, the American Petroleum Institute (API) warned that building a hydrogen fueling infrastructure that could reach all Americans would cost $140 billion. Although I’m sure the API had no reason to use scare tactics and biased estimates (well, OK, maybe I’m not THAT sure), let’s assume that’s an accurate figure.

If we built those fueling stations, we would also need vehicles that run on hydrogen. It takes about $5,000 to retrofit a car or truck to run on hydrogen. Yup, almost any car or truck (or bus or train for that matter) that currently runs on gasoline or diesel fuel will also run on hydrogen gas. It’s not the most efficient use of hydrogen (a fuel cell, which converts hydrogen to electricity and thereby powers an electric motor in an all-electric car is far more efficient), but anything is more efficient than digging oil out of the ground and making it into transportation fuel. Let’s say we convert 50 million cars and trucks nationwide to run on hydrogen - - that’s $250 billion more.

So for just under $400 billion, we could eliminate the need for all of the oil we now import (and a lot of the domestic supply for that matter). We would have given tens of thousands of Americans jobs in the design, building, and servicing of hydrogen fueling stations; and tens of thousands more would be working in the new retrofit business. Detroit could now start making new hydrogen powered cars, knowing that the marketplace accepts these products, so we would simultaneously revitalize our domestic auto industry.

We could recoup 100% of this investment when retailers sell hydrogen fuel with a few cents per unit sales tax, just like the gasoline tax. But we would recoup it even faster with the payroll and business taxes generated from all of the new employment and businesses created with this program.

So there you have it - - a domestic jobs program that will kick the oil addiction, solve global warming, create new industries and jobs that can’t be outsourced to India or China, eliminate billions in annual subsidies to oil companies and billions more that we now spend on defense costs to protect our oil supply. For half what we will spend on Wall Street and 20% of what we have spent securing oil in Iraq so far, we will have social, economic and environmental prosperity for as far as the eye can see.

This build-out sounds crazy at first blush until you realize that we already produce 3 trillion cubic feet of hydrogen in America every year, but use the majority of that to strip sulfur from petroleum to make gasoline instead of just putting the hydrogen right into our cars. How crazy is that?! No, make no mistake, we can do this and reap all of the benefits.

Now if we just had another Roosevelt around to get us started…