April 4, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
U.S. cities hot for hydrogen
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Many of the issues that prevent hydrogen from becoming an effective fuel source for consumers can be worked on through municipality test programs.
Most cities and towns in the U.S. don't have the solar power of Las Vegas and have to contend with how to import or make hydrogen for fuel. This leads to efficiency and safety questions surrounding production, transport and distribution of compressed hydrogen fuel versus making hydrogen at the station. Options being considered include constructing a hydrogen pipeline and distribution system mimicking today's gas distribution model, closed renewable systems for making hydrogen from chemical reactions, hydrogen produced from nuclear energy waste and on-board hydrogen generators for vehicles.
And while the Department of Energy has a big initiative to research hydrogen as an alternative fuel, it arguably does not have the jurisdiction to force other government agencies to establish safety standards so that hydrogen can be used. The Department of Transportation regulates fuel truck transport and hydrogen fuel use in vehicles. States and cities adopt their own codes for local filling stations based on recommendations by the International Code Council and National Fire Protection Association. The Environmental Protection Agency has yet another layer of standards for protecting people.
But solving these technical hurdles for municipalities doesn't guarantee companies will embrace hydrogen in the greater market.
"Those applications are nice, from one standpoint. It can help to establish the tech, and on a contained basis that can be economical. But you are not going to solve dependency just with those applications," said Davis.
Two-thirds of U.S. oil is used in transportation, and two-thirds of all transportation is light duty--the cars and trucks that we all drive--he said.
"You could replace every bus fleet with hydrogen and not do a lot about petroleum dependency if that's where you stop. It's only when you get into the mass market that you can drive petroleum out of the economy," he said.
"A company in the business of making membranes for the fuel cells...Will they establish a high-volume facility in the hopes of building hundreds of buses? Maybe not, but they will with the hope of doing buses and the larger vehicle market," said Davis.
The pilot programs seem to have done more in terms of educating the public than influencing the market toward moving into hydrogen, he said.
Anecdotally, the managers of both Las Vegas stations, as well as Kurani, think the pilot programs are changing people's attitudes toward the element previously known for an exploding dirigible.
Part of Kurani's work on the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways project, a comparative study of hydrogen, biofuel, electric and fossil fuels, is studying public perception.
"The perception of hydrogen is still fairly uninformed and not sophisticated enough to deal with this distinction between hydrogen from coal versus hydrogen from clean electricity and electrolysis of water," Kurani said.
Hybrid vehicle owners expect hydrogen fuel cell cars to be an option when they make their next purchase, said Kurani, and any doubts expressed are more about hydrogen's efficiency than its safety.
For those hydrogen skeptics who still have visions of the Hindenburg in their heads, the DOE's Davis offers this answer:
"We are spending a great deal of time making sure hydrogen can be used as safely as conventional fuels are used. The companies that have to put their reputation on the line are not going to put out a product that they don't think is as safe as those today," he said.
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