The report is too pessimistic on the hydrogen economy and ignores several exciting new advances that could move things along much faster. The discovery of gas hydrates, for example -- frozen masses of hydrogen energy found on the ocean floor -- could radically accelerate progress. We've even seen technology that could store these gas hydrates at liquid nitrogen temperatures, making storage and distribution far safer than toting around highly compressed hydrogen gas.
There's also the development of microbial fuel cells, which turn residential sewer waste into hydrogen and then electricity. Also notable are advances in the production of low-cost solar cells, which will soon be manufactured at a fraction of today's price. Solar cells can produce hydrogen gas with nothing more than water (a process called electrolysis). Cheap solar cells provide a reasonable basis for a solar-hydrogen economy.
On top of that, there is also tremendous demand for cleaner fuels, cleaner vehicles and cleaner cities. In fact, I believe the extent of this demand is typically underestimated in the scientific community. For example, Toyota can't keep its hybrid vehicle -- the Prius -- in stock. Lexus' upcoming hybrid SUV is already creating a storm of consumer demand. People want cleaner vehicles, and they're almost fanatical about doing whatever it takes to get them.
In fact, the success of hybrid vehicles paves the way for hydrogen-powered cars in the future. Here's why: hybrid vehicles have a small gasoline engine that charges the batteries and provides supplemental power. Thanks to the design of such vehicles, the gasoline engine could easily be replaced with a fuel cell running off hydrogen. The basic design of the car stays the same; only the engine needs to be retrofitted.
The emergence of the hydrogen economy is no longer a technology issue -- technology exists right now to make it a reality. Rather, it is a political issue. And as long as there's plenty of money to be made from an oil economy, it's unlikely that federal regulators are going to promote hydrogen. It also doesn't help that the Bush Administration remains suspiciously interested in global oil supplies. Clearly, oil is going to be around for many decades to come, yet hydrogen can coexist with oil much quicker than the National Academies suspects. The key is public demand, and that stems from public awareness.