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Peter Hoffmann's newsletter in nucleus of hydrogen energy field. (Publisher Profile).

On February 4, President Bush announced his fiscal year 2003 budget--which included an increase by more than one third the requested funding for the U.S. Energy Department's Hydrogen Program--and Peter Hoffmann, editor-publisher of The Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Letter, had a detailed article on its ramifications posted on his web site the next day.

The newsletter's a monthly ($295/year), but when news hits Hoffmann treats it like a daily. That probably comes from his 30 years as a reporter, correspondent, and bureau chief--mainly with McGraw-Hill World News but also with Time magazine, the Associated Press, and the Washington Post.

Hoffmann was born and raised in Berlin, Germany, but he spent a year in Tucson, Arizona, as a high school exchange student and he graduated from the State University of South Dakota.

Bilingual in German-English, Hoffmann quickly rose through the ranks of international reporting in postings in Frankfurt, Washington, D.C., New York, Detroit, Ecuador, Columbia, Bonn, and Milan, Italy.

While McGraw-Hill World News bureau chief in Bonn in the late 1970s, he initiated coverage of the then small socialist countries of Eastern Europe, principally for Business Week. But it was years earlier, as deputy bureau chief in Milan, that he began focusing on the environment and how its political issues affect the construction, architecture and engineering industries.

When the oil crisis hit in 1973, Hoffmann became interested in hydrogen as an alternative to fossil-fuel sources of energy.

"I interviewed an Italian scientist in a research center in the north of Italy," Hoffman told NL/NL. "Alternate energy was an important subject at the time, and this scientist really got me going on this stuff. I was fascinated. The interview lasted more than two hours."

He suggested a monthly feed on hydrogen fuel to McGraw-Hill, and his articles on alternate fuel sources began appearing in a number of McGraw-Hill magazines and on the McGraw-Hill News general business wire.

Newsletter lanuch

In 1986, Hoffmann, on his own, started The Hydrogen Letter (as it was called originally), with McGraw-Hill's reluctant permission. ("Keep it low," he recalled being told.) His mailing lists were gathered the old-fashioned way--name by name--mainly from conferences he attended.

"Some academics, some research types gave me $3,000 for 50 subscriptions," Hoffmann said. "But that was enough in those days. The newsletter was only four pages and we photocopied it at Kinko's."

Like many neophyte newsletter publishers, he was "very surprised" at the meager response to his first mailing. "I expected 1,000 subscribers! That isn't the way it works. And the $165 price tag bombed; we cut it back to $105."

He finally paused from his rapid-fire delivery during our interview. "The newsletter grew very, very slowly."

His problem is easily identified. "The big interest all over the world" in alternate fuels during the '70s oil crisis plummeted once oil prices dropped. During the '80s the U.S. federal budget for alternate fuel research and development was less than $1 million (compared with the $39.9 million that Hoffmann wrote about earlier this month).

In 1989, "McGraw-Hill World News folded, and I left. I kept freelancing articles on clean fuel, though, and producing the newsletter," Hoffmann said.

"Things really got going in the early '90s--93 and '94. Daimler-Benz got into the act, so every other car manufacturer had to pay attention.

"There was a general change in the mindset. Industry types-- industrial gas companies--banded into groups: nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen."

Hoffmann is passionate on the subject of hydrogen as a clean, non-polluting, efficient, renewable fuel. He gave me a stack of recent issues of The Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Letter to illustrate the wide range of its coverage. They featured articles on fuel cell-powered automobiles competing for endurance (how long they can go before recharging) and for speed, articles on pure technology, auto design, politics, and concepts such as a hydrogen-powered fuel cell scooter as well as aviation applications. ("The Soviets experimented in 1988, but nothing since then," he said.)

Hoffmann is now one of the world's foremost authorities on hydrogen-at least the foremost journalist.

And he hasn't let up on his world travels, attending seminars and conferences in Germany, Canada, Italy, and Argentina.

Last spring the government of Dubai invited him to witness its launch of "a six-month tour of a fleet of BMW 750hL liquid-hydrogen-powered sedans halfway around the globe designed to stir interest and drum up support for this zero-emission transportation technology," in the words of his March 2001 report in the newsletter.

"Dubai?" I countered. "They're oil people."

"That was my reaction, too. But they say they're going to run out of oil in about 15 years." The country's goal is to remain in the forefront as a technology and distribution center of energy carriers and fuel sources--whatever the source.

At the start of the world tour, the United Arab Emerates' defense minister, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, drove one of the top-of-the-line, liquid hydrogen BMWs in a show of how serious the emirate of Dubai is on this project, Hoffmann reported.

He has also been invited to Cuba for interviews next month with government people involved in hydrogen and fuel cells and to give a lecture at the Center for Priority Programs and Projects.

The book

Hoffmann recently published what is likely to become the book on the subject, Tomorrow's Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet. Published in hardcover by The MIT Press, the $32.95, 320-page book is immensely attractive, with a cover featuring a symbolic representation of the hydrogen atom fused with the yellow-gold sun at the center.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), the leading supporter of hydrogen in the Senate, wrote the foreword.

The book has already received many favorable reviews, including mention in the prestigious magazine Foreign Affairs. It's also going to be translated into Chinese simplified characters.

The book is advertised prominently on Hoffmann's web site, with links to MIT Press, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com.

The web site

Hoffmann said he originally "got on the internet in 1994, piggybacking on the site of CREST, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology. Then we lodged for a while on the site of the National Hydrogen Association and we got our very own site in 1997."

The site, www.hfcletter.com, offers visitors access to the current newsletter's lead story plus one feature per month from previous issues going back to 1997. Visitors also see the all of the headlines from the current issue but cannot access them. At this point, Hoffmann is still just thinking about an electronic version of the entire newsletter.

"I think the web is the greatest thing going. We get an average of three to four subscriptions a month from the site."

He said he uses Amazon.com to process online credit card orders. "They charge a small amount-six or seven bucks a month-and work fast and can handle orders from practically anywhere in the world."

Maverick

For all his success and prominence in the hydrogen fuel cell community, Hoffmann still runs a mom-and-pop operation-literally: he and his wife, Sarah Briggs Hoffmann, handle everything including producing the newsletter, feeding the web site, running off labels, and stuffing envelopes.

He's also somewhat of a newsletter maverick. He doesn't belong to NEPA, and-if you can believe it-he doesn't even subscribe to The Newsletter on Newsletters. And for all his years with McGraw-Hill, he had virtually no contact with its once-famous Newsletter Publishing Center.

Such independence has its price, I pointed out to him when he revealed that his renewal series consists only of one-third-page notices included with two issues and then a "Last Call" renewal notice with "See Notice Inside" stamped in bright red on the envelope.

He was quite surprised to learn that most newsletter publishers send out as many as six, seven or eight renewal notices.
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Author:Swift, Paul
Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Date:Feb 21, 2002
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