B.C. Officials Have High Hopes For Alternative Fuels, But Experts Say Major Challenges Remain
Globe & Mail
May 26, 2007
Original article (Note: links often expire after 7-14 days).
When California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger visits Vancouver next week, he and Premier Gordon Campbell will be touting the "hydrogen highway" as a key initiative in the pursuit of a more environmentally sustainable transportation sector.
Mr. Schwarzenegger has long been a hydrogen enthusiast, adding a hydrogen fuel cell model to his fleet of Hummers three years ago.
Mr. Campbell is an unrestrained booster. He has an Olympic-sized dream that, in three years, Californians who want attend the 2010 Winter Games will be able to hop in hydrogen-fuelled cars and drive all the way from San Diego to Whistler, fuelling up along the road.
But environmental experts - and even hydrogen proponents - are eager to inject an air of realism into the expectations. They play down the likelihood that a string of hydrogen fuelling stations will soon extend the full length of the Pacific Coast, and suggest the alternative fuel will not be widely used in North American vehicles within the next two decades.
British Columbia is doing its part to prove them wrong. As a world leader in hydrogen technology and with financial backing from the federal government, the province is installing hydrogen fuelling stations at key spots around Whistler, Vancouver and Victoria; is buying hydrogen-fuelled buses that will operate in Whistler; and plans to promote the use of the alternative fuel aggressively during the 2010 Games when the world's spotlight is on B.C.
The Premier recently announced that the province would spend $45-million for 20 hydrogen buses and develop hydrogen fuelling stations in Whistler and Victoria to complement the existing stations on the Lower Mainland.
"This funding will ensure that the hydrogen highway that will run from Whistler to Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria will become a reality," Mr. Campbell said at the time. "We will continue our work with our partners in the U.S. to extend the hydrogen highway from Whistler to San Diego by 2010." Those partners, however, are not nearly as enthusiastic, despite their commitment to combat global warming through reductions in auto emissions.
In California, Mr. Schwarzenegger's government is working with North American auto makers, which are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into research into the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, with the goal of having showroom models by 2015. But his passion for hydrogen has been waning, as it becomes clear that the ambitious vision for a hydrogen future faces serious delays and ongoing hurdles. Mr. Schwarzenegger is now promoting a "low carbon fuel standard" that would peg hydrogen as just one of several technologies manufacturers could use to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and other pollutants.
But at least California has 24 hydrogen filling stations - 15 accessible to the public - and 11 more planned. Oregon and Washington have yet to commit to a hydrogen future, leaving a 1,400-kilometre gap between the last hydrogen fuelling station in British Columbia and the most northerly one in California. And unlike B.C. and California, those two states don't have indigenous fuel-cell industries to promote.
Daniel Kammen, an environmental researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and adviser to Mr. Schwarzenegger, says hydrogen fuel cells could play an important role in transportation in the future, but expectations have to be tempered with a clear-eyed view of the challenges.
"It's serious in the long term, but none of these people are going to be in office when it is anything more than an R&D [research and development] project," Prof. Kammen said.
In a report to the regulatory California Air Resources Board last month, a panel of experts said the state government will have to reduce its expectations of early commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
"Most major [auto] manufacturers have made significant investments in research, development and demonstration of the technology," the report noted, "but while substantial progress has been made, simultaneously achieving performance, durability and cost objectives continues to be a difficult challenge."
On a more optimistic note, the panel concluded that the massive investment in the technology ensures that fuel-cell vehicles "remain a promising candidate for future, mass market, true zero-emissions vehicles." The U.S. government is also funding research into a hydrogen vehicle, promoting it as the FreedomCar.
Critics of the hydrogen option argue that consumers will more likely turn to ethanol-powered cars, hybrids, and plug-in electric hybrids, which are more commercially viable at the moment but don't deliver the same environmental benefits.
The hydrogen fuel cell vehicles emit no carbon dioxide or smog-causing pollution; only small amounts of water vapour come out of the tailpipe. Companies like Ballard Power Systems Inc. of Vancouver have already marketed the fuel-cell technology in niche commercial markets such as forklifts.
Ford Motor Company has produced 30 Ford Focus cars using Ballard's Mark 902 fuel cell, including five that are being operated in B.C.'s Lower Mainland. General Motors Corp. is touting its Sequel concept car as the first fuel-cell vehicle to achieve 0-60 in under 10 seconds, and a range of more than 480 kilometres (300 miles) on one tank.
But while technically feasible, the hydrogen car still faces some major challenges, not the least of which is the cost of manufacturing. The fuel cell typically lasts about a tenth of the lifespan of a traditional internal combustion engine. Fuel-cell vehicles themselves are prohibitively expensive because they are made of high-end materials like platinum and because the electrochemical process that creates the hydrogen is not as efficient as it could be. And then there's the vexing issue of producing, storing and dispensing the hydrogen.
Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, but typically occurs in combination with other elements, including with oxygen as water, and with carbon in fossil fuels. As a result, the hydrogen has to be manufactured, typically using electricity produced from a variety of sources including emissions-heavy coal, but also emissions-free hydroelectric.
Alexander Stuart, chairman of the Canadian Hydrogen Association, argues that the hydrogen economy can work well with North America's existing power infrastructure. The production of hydrogen can be timed, he said, to low-demand hours when utilities typically have an excess of capacity and would therefore not require additional generating plants.
An equally daunting challenge for the hydrogen vehicle is the need for fuelling stations that essentially replicate the vast fleet of gasoline stations across North America.
Alison Setton, manager of the B.C. hydrogen highway, said the focus of her program is to build up the infrastructure so that when the car companies are ready to produce large volumes of hydrogen vehicles, consumers will have fuelling options. At the same time, the project - which gets funding from B.C., Ottawa and the private sector - is promoting the use of hydrogen in other applications, including backup stationary power, to speed the commercial development of the fuel.
B.C. Energy Minister Richard Neufeld said he doesn't expect hydrogen to become a mass transportation fuel in the near future, but that it will be an important option in highly populated centres like his province's Lower Mainland, particularly for urban transit companies.
"It's not the silver bullet and everybody understands that, but it certainly is part of the picture," he said. "There are some huge hurdles yet. ... What we're saying is that it is part of a larger process."
CAR OF THE FUTURE?
Substantial progress has been made in recent years on hydrogen fuel cell technology, but many challenges remain before these vehicles will be safe and affordable enough for the mass market.
One or more tanks store either compressed gaseous hydrogen or liquid hydrogen fuel.
Hydrogen fuel cell stack:
The hydrogen fuel, along with compressed air, is fed into the stack, creating a chemical reaction that produces electricity.
Regulates the flow of electricity to the motor.
The only emissions are water vapour and heat.
Electricity creates the mechanical power used to propel the vehicle. The motor runs quiet, with none of the vibration or exhaust noise of a gas-powered vehicle.
SOURCE: CALIFORNIA FUEL CELL PARTNERSHIP
How is hydrogen used as a fuel?
Hydrogen is not a primary fuel itself but can be manufactured from fossil fuels and even water to power fuel cells or internal combustion engines. Most hydrogen in North America is produced from natural gas, but there are refrigerator-sized units that can produce hydrogen from water through electrolysis.
What is a fuel cell?
A fuel cell is a device that produces electricity without combustion. Hydrogen is combined with oxygen in a chemical process to produce electrical energy. The conversion process is environmentally benign: Only heat and water are emitted as byproducts.
What would a fuel-cell vehicle cost?
Given that no commercial vehicles are being produced, it is difficult to gauge eventual retail prices. A small California company produced hydrogen vehicles at a cost of between $100,000 and $150,000 (U.S.). British Columbia is expected to pay well in excess of $1-million (Canadian) per bus for its 20 hydrogen-powered vehicles, compared with $800,000 for a diesel/electric hybrid.
How is hydrogen used today?
Although its role as a transportation fuel is in early stages, hydrogen has many commercial uses today. Some 60 per cent of hydrogen produced in North America is used to make ammonia for fertilizers, and it is also used in the oil industry to upgrade heavy oil and remove sulphur in the refining process. Fuel cells are being used to replace batteries in applications such as forklifts and even powering laptops and cellphones.
Isn't hydrogen unstable and dangerous?
For many people, the idea of using hydrogen as a transportation fuel calls to mind the Hindenberg, the hydrogen-powered airship that famously burned over Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937. But hydrogen is no more dangerous than gasoline, and is much lighter than air and dissipates quickly at accident sites. Storage tanks at fuelling stations and on-board tanks have been tested and certified as safe.
When is the fuel-cell car going to be widely available?
Car companies like Ford and General Motors say they could be ready to market fuel-cell vehicles by 2015, depending on the availability of fuelling stations. Expert panels have told the California and federal governments that target is optimistic. Hydrogen critics, such as former U.S. Department of Energy official Joseph Romm, say: "Not in our lifetime."
Vancouver has its "hydrogen highway," and Toronto is countering with the "hydrogen village," although in fact there is neither a highway nor a village.
As part of the hydrogen village project, the Canadian National Exhibition will feature the "eco condo" - an environmentally friendly dwelling that will draw its electricity from hydrogen fuel cells that ultimately are powered by a wind turbine that is already providing electricity at the CNE grounds.
Adding to the "wow" factor, the project organizers will use four John Deere Gator hydrogen fuel cell utility vehicles as the immediate source of electricity for the condo; the Gators, in turn, will be fuelled by hydrogen manufactured on site at the base of the three-bladed, 750-kilowatt wind turbine.
Ry Smith, manager of the hydrogen village, said its various projects are meant to be commercially viable, although in some cases, they are subsidized by corporations or government.
Among other end uses, the hydrogen from the "village" provides heat and power for 12 student townhouse units at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus, fuels a Purolator delivery van and provides backup power for a Bell Canada switching station in Burlington.