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Wanted: “Alternative Fuels Highway” – Not “Hydrogen Highway”

Original Article

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell meet tomorrow in Vancouver to strategize on greenhouse gas reductions. The Governator has made climate change Priority One for his administration, winning new state goals to lower carbon dioxide emissions in coming decades, and recruiting other Western U.S. governors and Campbell to commit to similar targets. Campbell and Schwarzenegger have also been talking up a so-called “hydrogen highway” stretching from California to B.C. The idea is that in the future, lower-polluting cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells will become prevalent, and an infrastructure of hydrogen fueling stations will be established along major north-south corridors such as I-5 and Route 99. Campbell has announced plans for such a network within B.C., and says he hopes one day to see that extended the length of the West Coast.

Let’s back up for a quick minute here. A growing number of political conservatives have joined with moderates and liberals to push for cleaner, greener transportation to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and control risk of further acceleration in global climate change. But in “green transportation” there is as yet no one silver bullet solution. Expanded mass transit is part of the puzzle – if it’s convenient, speedy and pencils out, cost-wise. Congestion pricing including tolls, plus car-pooling and telecommuting all figure in, as well.

But behavioral change can only accomplish so much. People are still going to drive cars and trucks. Abundantly, as nearly all urban region traffic studies predict. To reduce the carbon footprint that results, what’s needed is continued research, development and deployment of a portfolio of clean transportation technologies, including biofuels, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and hydrogen fuel cells. The true economic and environmental costs of each need more scrutiny.

In the national Canadian daily The Globe and Mail, Sean McCarthy reports:

Mr. Schwarzenegger’s….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.

….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.

…the hydrogen car still faces some major challenges…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…Hydrogen…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.

In the end, the alternative fuel commercial infrastructure will have to follow market decisions made by motorists, and businesses which invest in vehicle fleets. It’s probably not too far-fetched to predict that biofuels and electricity are going to figure into North America’s alt-fuel future at least as prominently – if not more so – than hydrogen fuel cells; and that operators of truck stops and fueling stations along major interstate corridors will figure out ways to respond to those choices.