States Start Building Hydrogen Highway
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
Three states are racing to make hydrogen the clean-car fuel of the future and to attract the high-tech companies developing that emerging auto technology.
Citing concern over air pollution and skyrocketing gasoline prices, the Republican governors of California, Florida and New York are pledging state money and partnering with major automakers to test electric automobiles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The states also are working with the federal government and energy companies to build a new network of hydrogen re-fueling stations for the cars, which emit little more than water vapor.
The thrust to promote hydrogen is winning applause from environmentalists, though they caution that hydrogen-powered cars may be decades away from becoming affordable and practical. Although some state and municipal fleets use experimental vehicles, hydrogen-powered cars are not commercially available. Meanwhile, some transportation officials charge that other alternative fuels, such as ethanol and natural gas, still have potential that states haven't fully used.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched a $90 million program a year ago to build 24 hydrogen fueling stations across the state by 2010. The project is a partnership of state agencies, California universities, commercial automakers and energy companies and will receive at least $35 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.
In February, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced that his state was committing $15 million in cash and tax credits for eight hydrogen-fueled vans from Ford Motor Co. and a fueling station, sharing the cost with the carmaker and energy companies. The vans will be used by Hertz to shuttle passengers from the Orlando airport, starting early next year.
Gov. George Pataki of New York has pledged more than $1.4 million in state money to help build a fueling station, convert the engines of several conventional gasoline-powered engines on state vehicles to run on hydrogen and train mechanics to work on the special cars. The state also is leasing two hydrogen-powered cars from Honda.
The states are following the lead of President George W. Bush (R), the brother of the Florida governor, who has allotted $1.7 billion over five years to develop hydrogen fuel cells and related technologies. The fuel cells combine compressed hydrogen with oxygen to create electricity. Cars powered by hydrogen give off just water and heat from their exhaust, unlike conventional gasoline engines that emit smog-forming pollutants and carbon dioxide blamed for global warming.
Leaders of the three states say they're looking out for the environment but also see a boon to each state's economy in the long run.
"Our continued investment in hydrogen-powered fuel cells ... is creating new jobs and economic opportunities for New Yorkers while helping to clean our air and reduce our dependency on foreign oil," said Pataki in December 2004.
Linda Long, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said her state's goal is to become the "Silicon Valley" of hydrogen fuel-cell technology, like the California region that became the hub of lucrative computer technologies in the 1990s.
But the reality of a hydrogen highway could be decades in the future, said a spokesman for the nonprofit Sierra Club Federal and state governments and carmakers can achieve better air quality in the short term by requiring cleaner emissions from conventional autos and promoting newer hybrid-electric cars, he said.
George Douglas, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy's Renewable Energy Laboratory, acknowledged that scientists still have not figured out an affordable, efficient way to store and transport hydrogen around the country. Plus, the current hydrogen cars can cost more than $100,000 and travel only 150 miles on a fuel cell, he said.
In the meantime, record-high gas prices may lead states to promote more electric-gasoline hybrid cars or vehicles that use ethanol or bio-diesel -- fuels produced from organic materials and usually blended with gasoline, he said.
Joe O'Neill, executive director of the National Conference of State Fleet Administrators, said states have a poor track record promoting alternative auto fuels such as natural gas, liquid petroleum, ethanol and methanol.
For example, state governments largely have sidestepped a federal requirement that 75 percent of new fleet vehicles run on something besides gasoline, he said. Instead states mostly have bought cars and trucks that are capable of running on ethanol, but have fueled them with ordinary gasoline, he said.
Switching the focus to hydrogen makes it even less likely that states will support other fuel types in the short term, he said. "Everybody's waiting for hydrogen fuel cells," he said. "There has to be a long-term commitment to one technology before anybody is going to invest."