Everyone loves San Francisco, including the US Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office. The city wants to cut its greenhouse gases by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2017 and 40 percent by 2025. How?
It’s doing a lot of things but it will now be ramping up the deployment of fuel cell electric vehicles and a hydrogen infrastructure — funded by the Energy Department and the city as well. To that end, San Francisco will try to triple its zero emissions vehicles by 2025. That would equal to 15 percent of the cars on the road there, including fuel cell vehicles.
How doable is using hydrogen in fuel cells to run cars, buses and trucks? Right now, hybrids are the in-thing among “green motorists.” All-electric is coming up. But fuel cell-powered vehicles are still around the bend. Still Daimler, Hyundai and Toyota are working on such projects, with Toyota saying that it wants thousands of those vehicles on the road in 2020.
“People understand the appeal,” says Susan Hock, who had been the director of electric and hydrogen technology systems for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in a previous conversation with this reporter at her Golden, Co. office.
Hydrogen is abundant, renewable and non-polluting. While it is one of the most plentiful elements in the earth’s surface, it is found mostly in water. To be useful in energy applications such as fuel cells, however, a pure hydrogen source is required. If the hydrogen economy is to become a reality, then cheaper and more efficient methods of stripping the hydrogen from water must be developed. Today’s technologies are costly and tend to consume large amounts of energy.
Right now, filling vehicles with the equivalent of one gallon of gasoline takes about 14,500 gallons of uncompressed hydrogen, says Sandia National Laboratories. Meantime, the production of hydrogen is inefficient. But the National Energy Renewable Laboratory says that hydrogen has nearly three times the energy content of gasoline, which more than compensates for the efficiency losses.
It is also difficult to store hydrogen — something the U.S. Department of Energy has said is the top priority when it comes to commercializing fuel-cell vehicles. Beyond storage is the need to develop a pipeline infrastructure that can deliver the product. Pipelines that move hydrogen are said to be 30 percent more expensive than those that carry natural gas.
“We could wean ourselves from fossil fuels and become more energy independent to power cars and homes — and the only emission would be distilled water. But you have to produce, distribute and store hydrogen,” says Hock.
She goes on to say that hybrid vehicles will serve as a bridge to the hydrogen economy. Hybrids will decrease oil consumption, she notes. But, because the demand for oil is expected to increase, any long-term solution must rely more on petroleum substitutes. Companies are working toward this.
And so is the US government, which is funding projects to the tune of at least $35 million in multiple states to support fuel cell vehicles. FedEx Express, for example, received $3 million to build a hydrogen fuel cell delivery truck with a range of 240 kilometers on a full tank.
The know-how to create a new hydrogen-powered auto sector now exists. But the cost remains prohibitive, along with some technological hurdles. That’s why the San Francisco experiment will be worth watching.