Week of March 22, 2004
Snapshot from the Field
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by JACK LYNE, Site Selection Executive Editor of Interactive Publishing
SACRAMENTO, Calif. The "hydrogen highway": It's the environmentally responsible road to ride, some clean-air champions have long maintained.
Now, the age of hydrogen highways carrying clean-fuel-burning cars may be heaving into view in our collective rearview mirror. That seems the case, at least, judging from recent developments in California.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) backed a California-wide hydrogen highway during his debut State of the State address. The new-fuels roadway was one of the governor's campaign pledges. Now, making it a reality is part of the solution to the state's well-documented power woes, Schwarzenegger declared in Sacramento.
"Closely connected to energy is the environment," he said. "While we are promoting jobs and promoting California, I'm also going to promote our commitment to the environment. I'm going to encourage the building of a hydrogen highway to take us to the environmental future. . . . I intend to show the world that economic growth and the environment can coexist.''
But Schwarzenegger provided no specifics on California's hydrogen highway. Nor did he say how the project would be funded.
But that was somewhat understandable. After all, the State of the State's money shot lay in urging voters to approve Proposition 57, empowering California to issue up to US$15 billion in bonds to refinance its $9-billion deficit and cover future budget shortfalls.
"We cannot give what we do not have," Schwarzenegger cautioned in his speech, most Californians' first chance to see him in full gubernatorial mode. "If we continue spending and don't make cuts, California will be bankrupt."
(Proposition 57 in early March was approved by 61 percent of state voters, who also endorsed the Schwarzenegger-backed Proposition 58, which outlines procedures for balancing future state budgets.)
Plan Takes Shape: 200 FuelingNow, though, the specifics of Schwarzenegger's pro-environment highway have taken solid-body shape. The plan's particulars emerged during recent hearings before the California General Assembly's Select Committee on Air and Water Quality.
Stations at 20-Mile Intervals
What the governor has in mind is building a series of hydrogen fueling stations at 20-mile (32-kilometer) intervals along that state's major highways, Terry Tamminen, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency (www.calepa.ca.gov), told the committee.
"California does invent the future," asserted Tamminen, the architect of Schwarzenegger's hydrogen highway design.
The system's frequent pit stops could certainly fire up the future for fuel-cell-powered cars. Hydrogen-driven fuel cells offer energy efficiencies two to three times greater than those of conventional internal combustion engines. And fuel cells produce no emissions.
Ah, but there's a major rub for fuel-cell cars: the dearth of existing hydrogen fueling stations. That scarcity has left many drivers too leery of running out of fuel to even consider a fuel-cell-powered car.
The hydrogen highway, said Tamminen, would resolve that chicken-or-egg dilemma for California drivers by installing 200 hydrogen fueling stops. By comparison, that's only some 2 percent of the state's total number of retail gas-fueling outlets.
Almost 30 hydrogen fueling stations in California are either now operational or in development, Tamminen noted. And auto manufacturers, waste converters, and secondary educational institutions are all potential candidates to build new stations, he said, with most funding the projects from their own pockets.
State's Price Tag Modest,But what is the hydrogen highway's price tag for the state?
But Is Timetable Realistic?
The cost, Tamminen averred, would be modest, a political necessity given California's fiscal struggles. Some $100 million in both public and private funds would be sufficient to spur a range of enterprises to build hydrogen stations, he explained. And California, Tamminen added, might get $20 million to $30 million of that from the $1.7 billion in the federal budget that the Bush administration has earmarked for the Freedom Car program and Hydrogen Fuel Initiative.
"There are no show-stoppers," said Tamminen. "The only area where some of us disagree is on timing."
Timing is indeed one hydrogen highway component that's at issue. But so, too, are others.
Schwarzenegger wants the hydrogen fueling stations in place by 2010, Tamminen explained. That timetable, he said, is based on 2010's being the year in which many automakers say that hydrogen-powered vehicles will be reasonably priced and readily available.
But it ain't necessarily so, Toyota Motor Co.'s Bill Reinert later told the California committee. The hydrogen highway, he said, may be trying to invent a future that's too far off.
Numerous auto firms have been researching fuel-cell-powered cars for 10-plus years, allowed Reinert, U.S. manager for Toyota's Advanced Technologies Group. But numerous hurdles remain in producing small, affordable fuel cells that provide high-level efficiencies and longer product life spans, he said.
"We're not even close yet to solving storage technology issues," Reinert told the committee. "We still have significant challenges along the way."
Study Claims Hydrogen 'Has Major Shortcomings,'On the other hand, the committee heard a different concern voiced by a former top energy adviser to Gray Davis, Schwarzenegger's predecessor: where the hydrogen will come from. Cars must be powered by hydrogen from renewable energy sources like solar or biomass, contended S. David Freeman, now president of the Hydrogen Car Company. "Otherwise," said Freeman, "we're just putting coal in the tank."
Recommends Ethanol System as Less Costly Option
Similar concerns spurred an entire study that took the hydrogen highway plan to task. "The hydrogen highway is too expensive and would reduce oil consumption much less and more slowly than an ethanol highway," asserted the study from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR at www.ilsr.org). "Hydrogen [has] major shortcomings: astonishingly high costs, low overall energy efficiency and a reliance on non-renewable fuels," contends the report, written by ILSR vice president David Morris.
"For a hydrogen economy to have any impact, the nation would have to change virtually every aspect of its energy system, from production to distribution to the design of our gas stations and our cars," asserted Morris, an advisor or consultant to energy agencies during the Ford, Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
Costs might run as high as $50 billion, he predicted, to put in place the necessary pipelines, refineries, storage systems and stations.
"Why spend billions of dollars over the next 20 to 25 years," Morris asked, "to completely redesign our transportation system from the ground up when we could build a high-efficiency ethanol transportation system for a fraction of the cost and time?"
Highway's 'Master Plan' Could ReflectUndaunted, the Schwarzenegger administration is pressing on with its hydrogen highway design. Tamminen told the committee that he expects to finish an "overall master plan" sometime in the summer or fall of this year.
Administration's Idea to 'Blow Up Government Boxes'
That ensures yet more lively environmental debate. And after all, it would be totally out of character if brainpower-rich California didn't generate such a rush of articulate counterarguments. In fact, perhaps that's actually very much in tune with a state administration created by a populist rebellion wielding a recall.
"Every governor proposes moving boxes around to reorganize government," Schwarzenegger challenged listeners in his State of the State address. "I don't want to move the boxes around. I want to blow them up."
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