Monday, March 01, 2004

Hydrogen Dreams

It is this kind of a language that gets me upset about all of the Hydrogen hoopla.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's top environmental aide told state lawmakers the governor's vision of a "hydrogen highway" that would usher in an age of cleaner cars is realistic by 2010, and won't even cost the state much money.

Schwarzenegger pledged to build hydrogen fueling stations every 20 miles along major highways, allowing motorists to buy clean-burning hydrogen-fueled vehicles without fear they will run out of gas.

He chose 2010 because that's when automakers have said such vehicles will be affordable and readily available, said Environmental Protection Secretary Terry Tamminen.

"California does invent the future," Tamminen said. Though there are plenty of unknowns, "there are no show-stoppers. The only area where some of us disagree is on timing."

I am not doubting Arnold or California's committment to the Hydrogen dream. However, production ready hydrogen cars are not even on the horizon. The technology in hydrogen fuel cells is improving rapidly, but nobody wants to buy a $500,000 vehicle with an unproven technology. So, the actual number of hydrogen powered cars sold by 2010 will be actually hundreds (at the most a few thousands). Which bozo is going to invest in hydrogen refueling station every 20 miles along the highway for the convenience of a few thousand fuel cell cars?

Both, the cost and the "chicken and egg problem" with the hydrogen infrastructure are potential show stoppers. How we decide to get hydrogen is the single most important question in my mind. As always, I keep asking "So, what color is your hydrogen"?

UPDATE : I think that I need to revise my statement about number of fuel cell powered cars on road by 2010. How about a maximum of couple of hundred hydrogen fuel cell cars by 2010? That sounds more reasonable. Why do I say so? Don't believe me, read this. GM says that it will have production ready vehicles ready by 2010 which means that commercial launch will be at least another three to five years away.
Burns says GM is not necessarily saying it will have a fuel cell vehicle on dealership lots by 2010 -- only that it will have a commercially viable vehicle ready. GM can't control the regulatory and infrastructure issues that have to be resolved to provide a supply of hydrogen fuel, he said.

In a recent speech, Jeffrey Shane, undersecretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, offered a less optimistic timetable than GM's. Developing global standards for fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen storage probably will mean that "we can develop a marketable technology by about 2015 and achieve widespread commercial availability by the year 2020," Shane said.

Thankfully, people are talking sensible things about realization of hydrogen powered cars. Considering that the penetration of new technology in fleet and its impact takes at least 10-15 years, we shouldn't really be counting on fuel saving benefits from fuel cell cars until about 2030. That brings us to a point where we should be talking more seriously about what we are going to do with the ever increasing fuel consumption in the meanwhile. Of course, the question about the color of hydrogen still doesn't go away!


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