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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Take to the Hydrogen Highway

Air Date: Week of

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As part of his environmental platform, California Governor-elect Arnold Schwarznegger has announced plans for a hydrogen highway. Host Steve Curwood discusses the scheme with Terry Tamminen, director of the Environment Now Foundation and advisor to the future governor. They are joined by Jim Motavalli, a transportation expert and editor of E Magazine.


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Arnold Schwarzenegger is set to become governor of California on November 17th. And while we don’t know a lot about his plans for the environment, we do know that during his campaign he promised to make California a leader in promoting cars that run on hydrogen. The governor-elect pledges that by the year 2010 he’ll build a “Hydrogen highway,” an interconnected system of two hundred hydrogen fueling stations.

Joining me to discuss this ambitious undertaking is Terry Tamminen. Mr. Tamminen is executive director of the Environment Now Foundation and serves as an advisor to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Also with us is Jim Motavalli, editor of E Magazine and author of “Forward Drive: The Race to Build Clean Cars for the Future.”

I understand the idea for these hydrogen filling stations is based on a blueprint your foundation created, Terry Tamminen. How ready is California for a hydrogen highway?

TAMMINEN: There’s been a great deal of work, a lot of money invested in developing hydrogen vehicles of the future. And the constant chicken or the egg situation that we keep hearing is, well, no one is going to build a network of filling stations for hydrogen until there are vehicles, and no one will mass produce the vehicles until there are filling stations. So, this is an attempt to try to break that conundrum and to lay down a basic network of hydrogen fueling stations and allow the auto-makers to make good on their pledge, which we’ve heard many of them say, including General Motors, that they can have tens of thousands of competitively priced fuel cell, hydrogen-powered vehicles on California roads by 2010 if the fueling infrastructure is in place.

CURWOOD: Tell me about these 200 stations. Where will they be located? Will they be part of existing gas stations?

TAMMINEN: In some cases, yes, in some cases they might be stand-alone. There are a number of interstate highways that criss-cross California. And the notion was that if you placed stations 20, 25 miles apart all along these interstates, that you would then have created a network that would allow a consumer to feel comfortable that if they had a hydrogen vehicle they could move anywhere in the state and still find refueling. In some cases, they would be a fueling stations that already exist. In some cases, we’ve been talking with big-box retailers about putting solar panels on their roofs and then making the hydrogen via electrolysis of water, and having the fueling station in the parking lot of the big-box retailer. There’s also 300 natural gas filling stations in the state of California already, and these are very logical places to co-locate hydrogen.

CURWOOD: Jim, how practical does this sound to you?

MOTAVALLI: Well, I think it is a very good idea to do what Terry Tamminen is talking about. I do think we need a hydrogen infrastructure in California, and I think the plan that they’ve outlined is fairly practical. We have to keep in mind that right now there are no hydrogen-powered fuel cell automobiles available for sale to the public, so the infrastructure will come before the cars are actually available.

CURWOOD: Alright – Terry?

TAMMINEN: Just to correct one thing Jim said, there’s a company called Anewview, it’s one word, Anewview. And they sell a fuel cell Nissan station wagon which they’ve actually converted into a fuel cell, it has about a 200 mile hydrogen range. And you can buy it today. It’s $100,000 but you can buy a commercial, fuel cell, warranteed product, hydrogen-powered product today. BMW has told us that in 2007 they’re going to be introducing internal combustion hydrogen vehicles. Ford has said that in 2008 they’ll have Escape, a small/midsize SUV in an internal combustion hydrogen vehicle. And the Governor-elect is actually in the process of converting his Hummer, which is an internal combustion engine, to operate on hydrogen.

CURWOOD: Jim, what do you think of – what about the Governor-elect’s Hummer?

MOTAVALLI: Well, I think the problem with the Hummer is you’re starting with a very fuel-inefficient vehicle. It weighs 6,400 pounds. Our biggest challenge with fuel cells, and even, also, with internal combustion hydrogen, is getting enough range out of the vehicle. When you start with something big and heavy like that you’re already at a disadvantage.

CURWOOD: Terry, I want to come back to you. How do you answer the big question about the production of hydrogen? As I understand it, at the moment, I think that the bulk of hydrogen will be created from non-renewable sources, such as reforming oil, or using a coal-firing plant to electrolyze water. How much does this affect the overall impact of switching to a hydrogen system?

TAMMINEN: Well, you know, there’s clean ways of doing everything. And certainly, in California, it’s unlikely we’re going to be gasifying coal, for example. In other parts of the country that is a concern. Again, even there, it can be done and the carbon can be sequestered, although it’s certainly not the preferred method.

But if you take a look at what’s likely to happen in California, the initial supply of hydrogen is most likely to come from two sources. One would be natural gas, where a steam reformation process is used to extract the hydrogen. And on a well-to-wheel basis, in other words, if you measure the impacts on the pollution and greenhouse gases from the moment that the product is taken from the well – if you’re comparing, say, gasoline to hydrogen – if you look from the well all the way to the wheel and the tailpipe, all of the studies that we’ve looked at show that you have a net benefit by even this system of converting natural gas into hydrogen. The other way to do it is with electrolysis, as you mentioned. And the ideal way, of course, is to use solar or other renewable forms of electricity.

CURWOOD: Now, we’re talking about, really, future technologies. I mean, the technology is here but implementing something is in the future. And some folks are lamenting the passing of an existing technology. Over the years California has had this mandate for a certain percentage of zero emission vehicles on the road. And that was originally interpreted as being battery operated cars. Your plan, and other steps that California has taken, would make it appear that the state is going to leave electric vehicles and focus on hydrogen. And I’d like to bring in a guest we have with us on the line. His name is Paul Scott, and he owns an electric vehicle. Paul Scott, I’d like to give you a chance to ask our guests a question of your own.

SCOTT: Oh, sure. It’s been an interesting conversation, so far. And I guess, you know, you’re talking about the future, and what can be done in 10 years or 20 years. And I’ve been driving an electric car for about a year now. And I power it from solar panels on my roof. And it does everything that I need it to do. I drive all over the LA freeways everyday. And I know friends who have driven electric cars for seven or eight years, and commutes of 70 or 80 miles a day – no problem. Given that these technologies are already in existence, and have been for such a long time, I don’t understand why we’re not doing more electric cars. I don’t fault you for trying to build new technologies and go into fuel cells, but EVs are phenomenally efficient ways of moving people around town. So I guess my question is, why aren’t you going toward building more electric cars as well as fuel cell cars?

CURWOOD: Terry, I want you to answer this, but Jim, first, comment on the question and then we’ll throw it to Terry to take both of your views here.

MOTAVALLI: Well, the problem is that consumers in California have had the option of buying EVs, as he describes them, electric vehicles, for some time. And they have not actually taken that option. The General Motors EV1 was on the market for four or five years and California consumers only leased approximately 600 of them. The Honda EV Plus, which I think is a very good battery vehicle, actually leased even fewer than that. The thing is that true blue environmentalists are willing to go with this technology but very few consumers, all told, will actually do it. And the problem is range, and also the inconvenience of having to plug vehicles in. I’m not saying that it’s the hardest thing in the world, but people seem unwilling to do it. And they’re unwilling to have vehicles that have a range of 100 miles or less. In terms of actually eliminating pollution, in the few years that they were on the market, electric cars did not achieve that.

SCOTT: Can I respond to that?

CURWOOD: Sure, go ahead.

SCOTT: First of all, the new batteries, the lithium ion batteries, are giving ranges in excess of 300 miles per charge. They can be fast-charged in minutes instead of than hours, so there’s no reason to wait around overnight for a charge. And as far as no consumer demand, all of the OEMs produced several thousand electric vehicles over the last several years. Every single one of them was either leased or sold, and there was an extensive waiting list for more. And this is without any marketing whatsoever.

CURWOOD: Alright, Terry, here your are now advising the new governor. A question comes about electric cars – why not go for them now? We can have them today.

TAMMINEN: Well, I think the answer is we have. And I think, perhaps, the truth lies somewhere between Paul’s question and comment and Jim’s answer. I certainly agree with both of them to some degree. First of all, the Governor-elect owns two electric cars himself, so he already understands this technology and realizes that there is a market for it. And I was particularly disappointed that General Motors actually withdrew their EVs. They didn’t just sell a certain number, or lease a certain number. When those leases are up those people have to return those cars. So I would agree with Paul that there is definitely more of a marketplace out there than has been tapped. That said, Jim is right that given the longer time to charge, some of the other inconveniences on range and so forth, that they’re not for everyone. But I go back to the point about the AB 2076 Report and the fact that we just cannot continue to rely on one fuel. We must diversify our fuel portfolio or we are not only in for environmental damage that we already have, but tremendous economic damage if we can’t move our goods and services and ourselves around our rather large state. So I think we must promote the electric vehicles where possible and build this bridge toward hydrogen, which – again I tend to agree with Jim – even if it’s 2010, that’s only seven years away.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with me today. Paul Scott joined us earlier. Speaking with us now has been Terry Tamminen executive director of the Environment Now Foundation, and an advisor to the Governor-elect of California, and Jim Motavalli, who is editor of E Magazine. Thank you both for taking this time.

TAMMINEN: My pleasure.

MOTAVALLI: Thank you.




Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hydrogen Highways plan

Environment Now Foundation

E Magazine


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