Building better buses

Pub date March 30, 2010
SectionGreen City

By Adam Lesser

GREEN CITY To hear Jaimie Levin talk is to understand that his cause is larger than just promoting alternative fuels for public transportation. “We either pay the tax ourselves or we pay the tax of sending money to the Middle East,” he said as we walked through the noisy AC Transit bus yard in East Oakland. “There’s a human cost of lives lost in a foreign war.”

AC Transit uses 6.5 million gallons of diesel per year. As the agency’s director of alternative fuels policy, it’s Levin’s job to lower that number. He has experimented with biodiesel and gas-electric hybrid buses. But the passion that consumes him these days is hydrogen. He has spent the last 10 years testing and deploying three hydrogen fuel cell buses for AC Transit, and he’s ready for more.

The first of 12 new hydrogen fuel cell buses begin arriving from Belgium at the end of April, doubling the number of fuel cell buses operating in the United States. They will run on multiple lines, including the 57, 18, and the NL transbay route, which runs between San Francisco and Oakland.

Levin promotes a mix of energy sources, but he argues that hydrogen is the best way to go, even if there’s a big near-term problem: the price of a hydrogen fuel cell bus. The new buses cost $2.5 million each compared to a standard diesel bus, which runs $400,000. Levin describes the buses as research vehicles and works with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to monitor their performance.

“It’s not cheap. We understand that. These are still hand-made. We’re talking about making less than 20 vehicles,” he says. Levin is hopeful that if orders for hydrogen fuel cell buses could reach even 200, the cost of the fuel cells would come down by 45 percent. Levin has secured 16 different grants from federal, state, and regional agencies, ranging from the Federal Transportation Administration to the California Air Resources Board, to cover the $57 million program. The use of outside funds has been critical at a time when AC Transit is cutting service to deal with its budget shortfall.

The cost of the hydrogen fuel itself has caused some to ask if it’s a viable alternative to gasoline. A kilogram of hydrogen, which is equivalent to a gallon of gas in terms of energy content, typically costs $7-$8. But hydrogen fuel cells are twice as energy efficient as internal combustion engines.

AC Transit currently gets its hydrogen fuel from its own production facility that it built with Chevron, which is regularly criticized by environmental and human rights groups for everything from pollution to obscene profits to support for despotic regimes. “Chevron Hydrogen” billboards plaster the bus yard, and the logos are yellow and baby blue, a noticeable difference compared to the traditional blue and red Chevron insignia. There’s an ecofriendly, sunny quality to the branding.

But come September, Chevron will exit its collaboration with AC Transit, which will begin purchasing its hydrogen from a Linde plant in Southern California. Part of the reason is that the Chevron-designed system does not have the capacity to produce hydrogen for 12 buses. Industry watchers note that oil companies have scaled back initial forays into hydrogen, perhaps not wanting to facilitate the transition from fossil fuels.

“The big issue is the infrastructure side. What’s cooling it off right now is how far the oil companies have backed off,” said Tim Lipman, codirector of the UC Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center. “If you’re an oil company, you’ve got to figure you’re going to lose money for a while — and you’re making tons of money in your existing business. It’s not broken right now. They don’t see an advantage of being the first to market. We’re not running out of oil.”

Maybe not yet, but between the global warming impacts of oil and the increased cost of extracting oil after the most readily available supplies peak, there is a pressing need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels.

“The oil companies were getting all sorts of pressure to get off oil and carbon so they go out looking for an alternative that looks good and takes the longest to implement. Hydrogen is perfect,” said David Redstone, editor of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Investor, who has covered hydrogen for more than 10 years.

After studying hydrogen for so many years, Redstone has become skeptical about its real potential. “I was a believer when I started,” he told us. “I learned a lot. I knew a lot less when I started. I knew a lot less about the engineering and cost issues involved.”

For example, fuel cells require platinum, which acts as a catalyst to help burn hydrogen fuel. There is ongoing research to reduce the amount of platinum needed in a fuel cell, and exploratory work with less expensive catalysts like nickel. But for now and in the foreseeable future, hydrogen is still a very expensive technology. “They’ve been demonstrating these fuel cell buses for 20 years. It’s like the mentality at the companies involved is that it’s perfectly normal to be a demonstration technology forever,” added Redstone.

He believes that the realistic solutions to the overuse of fossil fuels lie in a mix of behavioral changes and economic incentives, not technological silver bullets. Stop suburban sprawl, get people to live closer to work, and start taxing carbon. Or in Redstone’s simpler terms, you’ve got to put an end to “assholes commuting 75 miles to work in a Hummer.”

The International Panel on Climate Change estimates that surface temperatures will rise 2 degrees to 11.5 degrees Farenheit in the 21st century. Greenhouse gas emissions are a major contributor to global warming.

The promise of hydrogen fuel is that its only emission is water. The major criticism of the move toward battery electric plug-in vehicles has been that the power to charge batteries comes from a power grid that is frequently a heavy greenhouse gas emitter. Half of the electricity generation in the U.S. comes from coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels.

But the hitch with hydrogen fuel is how to make it. You can’t drill for hydrogen, you have to create it in a process that requires energy. The predominant source for hydrogen fuel is natural gas, which emits less carbon than gasoline but is still a fossil fuel.

The holy grail of alternative energy is an efficient method for making hydrogen fuel from water instead of natural gas. The problem has been the significant amount of energy required to electrolyze water, to split apart H2O to make hydrogen fuel.

Levin believes he has the beginning of an answer. Before the end of 2010, AC Transit will complete its installation of a solar-powered proton electrolyzer in Emeryville. Solar panels will be built atop the roof of the hydrogen fueling station and the solar energy trapped will power the electrolyzer, in turn producing hydrogen fuel from water, hopefully about 60 kilograms per day, enough to power two buses. Levin received $6.4 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the project. The remaining 10 hydrogen fuel cell buses will rely on hydrogen fuel made from natural gas.

As important as the production of hydrogen fuel are the pump stations to deliver it. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s promised “hydrogen highway” hasn’t happened. The initial plans called for 50 to 100 stations by the end of 2010, and a station every 50 miles, but there are now just 21 stations clustered in urban areas. And with oil companies withdrawing their support and government agencies hurting for resources, the hydrogen highway remains as far off as ever.

“I see the power of corporations growing and the power of politicians actually waning,” Lipman said. “Who is really going to benefit the most? It’s society and consumers, but they’re not going to lobby for it.”

When it comes to lobbying, few can outgun the power of the Western States Petroleum Association. WSPA is consistently among the top few lobbyists in California, spending $10.5 million to influence the Legislature in 2007-08. Even with the push for alternative energy options, it’s oil that really governs the debate. Relatively inexpensive and easily storable, oil is still king even as gasoline prices hover at $80 a barrel.

“We will never run out of oil, but the question is, can we afford it?” said WSPA spokesperson Tupper Hull. Rising oil prices have helped proponents of alternative energy because the cost spread between gasoline and other energy options has narrowed. But they worry that momentum will be lost if the recession lingers and oil drops in price.

Proponents of the “peak oil” theory say we are approaching a point at which global oil production will start declining, necessitating a rapid and potentially painful transition to new fuels. But identifying the peak is difficult, complicated by events such as the 2007 discovery of more than 5 billion barrels of oil off the coast of Brazil. The oil field was found under 7,060 feet of water, 10,000 feet of sand, and another 6,600 feet of salt. What the oil industry is ultimately worried about is whether we will hit a point where extracting oil gets so expensive that the cost of oil starts to cripple the global economy. Drilling four miles under the sea isn’t cheap.

In an e-mail exchange about Chevron’s AC transit hydrogen fueling station, Chevron spokesperson Brent Tippen wrote, “Hydrogen has potential as a transportation fuel in the long term, but significant technical and economic obstacles prevent it from being a widespread commercial fuel option right now.”

Levin is cautiously optimistic that it could be the gas companies like Linde and Praxair, and not the oil companies, that carry the hydrogen torch forward.

After a brief ride in a hydrogen fuel cell bus, Levin noted how quiet they are. At one point, he bought Tibetan bells and had them welded to the bus so it would be audible as it moved, but there wasn’t enough vibration to make them ring.

Therein lies Levin’s dream: a quiet, nonemitting vehicle for public transportation. And maybe even someday an entire society running on a clean, renewable, domestic fuel source. But for now he’ll start with what he’s got: a $2.5 million bus that emits water from the tailpipe and doesn’t make any noise.