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U.S. cities hot for hydrogen

Hydrogen supporters hope what happens in Vegas doesn't just stay in Vegas. Photos: A hydrogen oasis Studying the hydrogen energy chain

Las Vegas' hydrogen station and automotive fleet attracts so many tour requests that its director is starting an educational program to keep up with the demand.

The public's excitement and interest is an unexpected side effect to the city's hydrogen initiative, according to Dan Hyde, the director of fleet and transportation services for the city of Las Vegas.

Think of your city's road vehicles and you probably envision a fleet of aging utility trucks and maybe a sensible sedan for the mayor. But some state, county and city governments are on the cutting edge when it comes to hydrogen fuel.

The average hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle can go about 150 miles before it needs to refuel, according to Patrick Davis, acting program manager for hydrogen fuel cells and infrastructure technologies at the U.S. Department of Energy. That makes municipalities, which generally keep their cars within short distances and return them to a common station, good testing grounds.

London and Luxembourg, along with Barcelona and Madrid in Spain; Amsterdam in the Netherlands; Hamburg, Germany; and Reykjavik, Iceland, have been using hydrogen fuel cell buses as part of their fleets since 2003 through a pilot program with Daimler-Chrysler.

U.S. cities have also been joining hydrogen programs through sponsorships with car companies, energy companies and initiatives from the Department of Energy. There are now fleets with hydrogen fuel cell buses, cars and light-duty utility trucks, as well as vehicles with converted internal combustion engines that take hydrogen fuel.

The Las Vegas area, for example, has one hydrogen filling station for the city and one at the Las Vegas Valley Water District's Springs Preserve.

The city fleet station run by Dan Hyde uses compressed hydrogen fuel that gets delivered to two separate types of pumps. One dispenses pure hydrogen at 5,000 psi for fuel cell cars like the Honda SCX; the other dispenses a blend of hydrogen and compressed natural gas for cars with internal combustion engine conversions. It will also fill up two hydrogen engine buses from Ford to be delivered this June.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District chose to make its own hydrogen from a completely sustainable energy source for the Springs Preserve station, according to James Morwood, fleet services manager for the LVVWD.

Solar panels make electricity for electrolysis, a common method for liberating hydrogen from water. While that hydrogen production method can use up a lot of electricity, the solar panels at Springs Preserve make more electricity than the hydrogen station uses in 24 hours. The excess electricity is directed to the Nevada grid.

"This project demonstrates the district's commitment to renewable energy. We are trying to lead the way and show people that this is out there and we can get there, but we need more participation or it's going to be pretty hard to sell hydrogen vehicles," said Morwood.

Of course, it's arguable whether these programs can catalyze hydrogen into the winners' circle of .

Ken Kurani, an associate researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis, was part of the Hydrogen Pathways Program that from 2003 to 2006 studied every aspect of the hydrogen "energy chain."

While he sees state and local governments as playing a part in illustrating the pros of hydrogen, they aren't going to push the market into using it, he says. Since they often rely on partnerships with the private sector and federal government, they are subject to the whims of bureaucracy at all levels. If hydrogen falls out of favor and loses sponsor support, for example, or if the leasing company wants its hydrogen fuel cell vehicle back (as in ), those government programs are out of luck.

The midterm, hybrid option
The city of Las Vegas, for example, spent $150,000 in land and manpower to prepare the site for its hydrogen station, according to fleet director Hyde. The rest of the $10.8 million project came from Air Products and the Department of Energy. Air Products maintains the station for about $24,000 a year, about half of which is paid for by the government, according to Hyde. Air Products also supplies 1,500 gallons of compressed hydrogen fuel twice a month.

Hydrogen could be the long-term solution once transportation systems become "electrified," but not just yet, said Kurani.

"The immediate-to-midterm option is going to happen through hybrid electric vehicles and...subject to fixing the lifetime costs and the short-lifespan-of-batteries issue...plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, as well," says Kurani.

But for both local governments and consumers, this isn't going to be a winner-take-all situation.

"We started the 20th century with steam, electric and gas, and we settled on one. I don't think there is an imperative that we have to settle on one again, though. You have the electrical grid with so many sources. If we have grid-connected vehicles, that opens up the transportation industry to those possibilities," Kurani said.

Hyde lists several reasons why Las Vegas was willing to try out hydrogen.

"First, air quality, which is everyone's concern. Second, it goes a long way for energy independence if we can perfect the tech for mainstream use. And third, it creates new business for the economy," he said.

Other areas working on similar hydrogen programs are Washington, D.C., Atlanta and a Boston-based consortium that looks at alternative forms of transportation in the Northeast. California's Hydrogen Highways Network aims to make hydrogen fuel accessible to all Californians at service stations along the state's major highways by the end of the decade.

Many of the issues that prevent hydrogen from becoming an effective fuel source for consumers can be worked on through municipality test programs.

Most cities and towns in the U.S. don't have the solar power of Las Vegas and have to contend with how to import or make hydrogen for fuel. This leads to efficiency and safety questions surrounding production, transport and distribution of compressed hydrogen fuel versus making hydrogen at the station. Options being considered include constructing a hydrogen pipeline and distribution system mimicking today's gas distribution model, closed renewable systems for making hydrogen from chemical reactions, hydrogen produced from nuclear energy waste and on-board hydrogen generators for vehicles.

"You could replace every bus fleet with hydrogen and not do a lot about petroleum dependency if that's where you stop. It's only when you get into the mass market that you can drive petroleum out of the economy."
--Patrick Davis, acting program manager, Department of Energy

And while the Department of Energy has a big initiative to research hydrogen as an alternative fuel, it arguably does not have the jurisdiction to force other government agencies to establish safety standards so that hydrogen can be used. The Department of Transportation regulates fuel truck transport and hydrogen fuel use in vehicles. States and cities adopt their own codes for local filling stations based on recommendations by the International Code Council and National Fire Protection Association. The Environmental Protection Agency has yet another layer of standards for protecting people.

But solving these technical hurdles for municipalities doesn't guarantee companies will embrace hydrogen in the greater market.

"Those applications are nice, from one standpoint. It can help to establish the tech, and on a contained basis that can be economical. But you are not going to solve dependency just with those applications," said Davis.

Two-thirds of U.S. oil is used in transportation, and two-thirds of all transportation is light duty--the cars and trucks that we all drive--he said.

"You could replace every bus fleet with hydrogen and not do a lot about petroleum dependency if that's where you stop. It's only when you get into the mass market that you can drive petroleum out of the economy," he said.

"A company in the business of making membranes for the fuel cells...Will they establish a high-volume facility in the hopes of building hundreds of buses? Maybe not, but they will with the hope of doing buses and the larger vehicle market," said Davis.

The pilot programs seem to have done more in terms of educating the public than influencing the market toward moving into hydrogen, he said.

Anecdotally, the managers of both Las Vegas stations, as well as Kurani, think the pilot programs are changing people's attitudes toward the element previously known for an exploding dirigible.

Part of Kurani's work on the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways project, a comparative study of hydrogen, biofuel, electric and fossil fuels, is studying public perception.

"The perception of hydrogen is still fairly uninformed and not sophisticated enough to deal with this distinction between hydrogen from coal versus hydrogen from clean electricity and electrolysis of water," Kurani said.

Hybrid vehicle owners expect hydrogen fuel cell cars to be an option when they make their next purchase, said Kurani, and any doubts expressed are more about hydrogen's efficiency than its safety.

For those hydrogen skeptics who still have visions of the Hindenburg in their heads, the DOE's Davis offers this answer:

"We are spending a great deal of time making sure hydrogen can be used as safely as conventional fuels are used. The companies that have to put their reputation on the line are not going to put out a product that they don't think is as safe as those today," he said.