The hydrogen factor

Can the Regional Transportation Commission drive the Citifare bus line and Reno into the future with its new “green” fuel plans?

Illustration By David Jayne

Washoe County’s Regional Transportation Commission has big plans. Very big plans. These plans are radical, and they may revolutionize the way public transportation is done in the Truckee Meadows. Heck, they may revolutionize most transportation in the Truckee Meadows. In the United States, even.

Considering how complex the concept is, the telling is easy: RTC, which owns the Citifare public transit system, intends to use Northern Nevada’s geothermal energy to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, and it will use the hydrogen to power the area’s buses. And RTC intends to do it in the next 10 years.

“Our estimate is a fleet of about 10 of the big buses and 40 of the paratransit vehicles [large vans],” says Derek Morse, RTC’s deputy executive director and project manager. “We know from the plans that are out there and seeing what everyone has, this would be the largest hydrogen-powered fleet in the world.”

The RTC’s plan is called H2Fuel. Using electricity to split water molecules is called electrolysis.

Many students experimented with electrolysis in junior-high-school science class. All it takes is a battery, two wires and a glass of water. Attach one wire to the minus end of the battery and one wire to the plus side. Now, put the opposite end of each wire in the water, but don’t allow them to touch. After a couple seconds, bubbles form along each wire. The bubbles on the negative wire are hydrogen gas; the other wire has oxygen.

Separate the gases, compress the hydrogen into tanks, then use it to power fuel cells (chemical reactors) or internal-combustion engines on buses, and there you have it: relatively inexpensive fuel that burns clean as the driven snow.

The idea is beautiful in its elegance—almost too good to be true. You take energy that is essentially wasted, the geothermal heat produced deep in the Earth, and use it to boil water that spins generators that make the electricity used to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen.

And then, if there is excess hydrogen, sell it to other businesses or even local commuters; if there is excess electricity, net meter it back to the power grid. There are probably even markets for the pure oxygen. But ideas of profit are putting the cart way before the horse, and RTC seems genuinely focused on the scientific and ecological advantages of studying and using H2 technology.

We’ve all heard about the benefits of hydrogen-powered transportation: There is little or no pollution. Our supply isn’t dependent upon global imperialism; hydrogen makes up 90 percent of all matter in the universe, so it’s easy to find.

The real beauty of RTC’s plan is that it’s utterly “green,” using non-polluting, renewable energy from production to consumption. It is unprecedented, to use a word that gets bandied around quite a bit when the H2Fuel plan is being discussed. It should be pointed out that using on-grid power provided by coal-burning power plants for electrolysis virtually eliminates the environmental benefit of using hydrogen as a fuel.

H2 technology is in its toddler stage, with companies around the world competing for dominion in the field. Imagine the days in the early 20th century when petroleum was first being exploited. All there is left to do is to embrace the future.

Derek Morse, RTC’s deputy executive director and project manager, says the RTC plans to have the world’s largest hydrogen-fueled fleet within 10 years.

Photo By David Robert

If it were only that simple.

The road in the rearview
Most people around the RTC attribute the Big Idea to Morse. He’s impassioned when discussing the future hydrogen economy, and it’s hard to get him far enough away from the facts and figures and predictions to recall exactly the genesis of the idea. He’s a regular looking guy, slight, carefully dressed, and except for his luminous gray hair, hardly the kind of guy you’d pick out of a crowd—especially as a visionary.

“I’m not going to take all the credit for this,” he says. “I was the person who said, ‘You know, I think we should look at hydrogen here,’ but that was a discussion we were collectively having about where RTC was going. The thing that sticks in my mind is, I was sitting with Joe Jackson and Mike Steele—that was probably in 1997. … You see stuff on the ‘net, and you get sent stuff and everything, and I said, ‘I think this is where this is going to go.’ “

The idea grew and was refined from that moment. What began as a discussion of the future of fuel (from a consumption point of view) was honed into the “well-to-wheels” renewable-energy concept, in which a coalition of interested parties, including the University of Nevada, Reno, the Desert Research Institute, private-sector partners like Sierra Pacific and, of course, RTC undertook a rigorous feasibility study beginning in May 2003. The study was completed last June, reviewed by internationally recognized, independent scientists and edited. The final version of the executive summary will be presented to the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission at next month’s regular meeting.

A roadmap to the future?
The feasibility study was to examine the potential for “cradle-to-grave production and use of hydrogen by a bus transit system.” That included hydrogen production, storage, distribution, and vehicle-maintenance facilities to service a fleet of buses and vans.

The study was divided into two areas, technical feasibility and economic feasibility.

The objectives for the technical team included these: to provide background information on fuel cells, hydrogen properties and other projects; to assess vehicle designs and technologies for onboard hydrogen storage; to assess infrastructure requirements; to assess energy sources for hydrogen production; and to look at ways to make the project more affordable.

The economics team had these objectives: to develop a cost model for operating diesel-fueled buses that are being used by the RTC; to develop a cost model for operating hydrogen-fueled buses; to estimate the costs for the production of hydrogen; and to estimate the potential economic benefits of hydrogen power.

H2Fuel is a 10-year project with an estimated cost of $52 million. Funding is being sought from the U.S. Department of Energy and other sources. So far, $3 million has been earmarked for the project. Think $52 million is too high a cost to help preserve the air, soil and water for future Truckee Meadows generations and to help America overcome its dependency on foreign oil? Really? Well, it only cost us $50 million to build the bowling stadium. And that $264 million train trench was rationalized in part to decrease idling car emissions.

When’s all this going to start? Now.

“We’ve got our first $3 million in grants,” says Morse. “We’ll be designing, constructing a hydrogen/CNG [compressed natural gas] fueling station and an interim fuel-production facility. [We want to] quickly have something on the street, something that people can start getting experience with.”

Morse recognizes the necessity of getting the public infrastructure in place to create the fuel infrastructure. In other words, code officials such as fire marshals have to be educated. So does the public, some members of which may balk when told a hydrogen-production plant will be built in their backyard. The lucky thing about a hydrogen-production plant, though, is that it can be almost as small (think back to the water glass) or as big as desired, so it can be virtually invisible, unlike those coal-burning fuel plants or gasoline refineries.

University of Nevada, Reno political science professor Eric Herzik analyzed the economic feasibility of hydrogen-fueled transport. It’s a huge investment with much to consider, he says, but one that could pay off.

Photo By David Robert

“Probably in the second year of the program, we’ll start to introduce some internal-combustion/electric-hybrid transit vehicles, or, if they’re not available, get some more hydrogen/CNG-powered vehicles,” he says. The hydrogen-mix vehicles will essentially serve a transitional role between current technology, and the high-tech future of hydrogen vehicles. The research team will be working concurrently on the design of the primary geothermal power station, the main fuel-production station, the storage, transmission and maintenance facilities.

Think about it. This is one of the first hydrogen fleets in the world. What does a hydrogen maintenance shop look like when it’s designed from the ground up? There would be a lot fewer grease-stained mechanics walking around, fewer recognizable fuel pumps, more computerized diagnostic devices, maybe different kinds of fuel tanks. (Tanks are often color coded: Oxygen is green; hydrogen is yellow.)

“We think there’s a lot to be learned here, and it’s done in a real-world setting,” Morse says, lauding the sheer enormity of the research. “All this is with data collection and research and outreach to the public and the scientific community within the nation and worldwide. We have this large-scale area where we can test all this. It’s an unprecedented scale in that regard.”

From 2007 to 2009, the researchers would expand the fleet and finish construction of the power station and fuel production facilities. Beginning about 2009, they’d start operating the primary facility. They’ll be running electric-hybrid vans and using around 10 of the 40-foot buses.

Could the Age of Aquarius be just around the corner?

No fare, no ride
Eric Herzik, UNR political science professor, headed up the economic aspect of the feasibility study.

It’s obvious he’s enamored of the hydrogen potential as illuminated by the study, but as an objective academic, he’s loath to say anything as positive as, “This is the coolest thing since Elvis.” In fact, his fiscal conservatism is probably the trait the community recognizes most about him.

No, first the doctor has to outline the possible downsides, and there are a few of them.

· New technology, like the cost of hydrogen-fuel-cell buses, is expensive. The fuel-cell buses could cost in the neighborhood of $2.5-$3.5 million each. That would require a huge capital outlay. (Some of the non-fuel-cell, hydrogen-mix buses, though, cost in the neighborhood of $500,000. Comparable diesel buses cost about $380,000).

· Nobody knows exactly where the projected $52 million is coming from. The Department of Energy has money available, but this is a bigger experiment than that agency is accustomed to funding (although somebody has spent in the neighborhood of $4 billion—that’s $4,000 million—on Yucca Mountain).

· Hydrogen can explode. There may be a public perception that hydrogen is dangerous, fueled by memories of the Hindenburg or even the hydrogen bomb. There needs to be some consideration of public acceptance and building the public confidence.

· There will be governmental restrictions and permitting issues. Most government officials and agencies don’t have the knowledge or procedures in place to allow for speedy consideration of hydrogen-related projects.

RTC executive director Greg Krause is optimistic about the organization’s role as a forerunner in hydrogen-fueled public transportation.

Photo By David Robert

· Financial return on the investment will be slow.

· There’s a lot of competition for federal dollars. Even though the federal delegation, particularly U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, has shown a lot of interest in Nevada’s sustainable energies and this project, there are more agencies, universities and private businesses racing to the hydrogen finish line than you could flick a Bic at.

Now, here’s the good stuff.

“I’m reluctant to use that direct of a quote, ‘This is a good project,’ Herzik says in final analysis. “There are a number of upsides for the region, economically, environmentally, technologically—but you’re going to have to take an initial capital hit to make that happen.

“If the money comes from the feds, that softens the hit. It may sound ironic coming from me, but this is a good thing. If I have to analyze this project just in dollars, rate of return, will we get our money back right now, I’d be lying if I said, ‘We’ll get it back day after tomorrow.’ But by the same token, there are a number of ancillary benefits.

“We tried to attach value to some of that. Some of it you can. If Nevada becomes the hydrogen mecca and the technology mecca for hydrogen engines and the testing of these vehicles and for building more efficient hydrogen fuel machines, there’s a huge upside. Coming from a fairly fiscally conservative person, this is an investment I would take.”

The bus stops here
“Why us?” asks Greg Krause, executive director of RTC. “By God, somebody’s got to do it. Nobody else is doing it.”

Krause beams when he discusses the potential of H2Fuel at the large, document-laden table in his office at the blue-and-white Washoe County Regional Transportation main offices, 2050 Villanova Drive, under the U.S.395 freeway. His office is of the working-executive sort with awards and photos of historic RTC moments on walls and bookcases. The gray-haired administrator wears buttoned-down business attire, wire eyeglasses and cocks his head when he makes key points. He references articles in Utne Reader magazine and has obviously been thinking about the future of fuel for a long time. If H2Fuel is Morse’s brainchild, then maybe Krause is the doting uncle.

Actually, in retrospect, it seems reasonable for the RTC to be the agency to pursue this project. The agency was a pioneer in the use of CNG, converting over to that cleaner-burning fuel a decade ago. The agency has been routinely testing refined diesel fuels. It was quick to add bike racks to buses when the idea became popular in the West. Krause can tick off on his fingers the different ways RTC has shown commitment to making as small an environmental impact as possible over the years; of course, he’s seen a lot of commitment in his 20 years with RTC.

“We built the momentum to undertake what we were trying to do,” he says. “Derek [Morse] fully understood that we not pursue this unless it was economically feasible. It wasn’t just some pie-in-the-sky, ‘Gee, what a fun research project.’ It had to have real, practical benefits to Washoe County and Northern Nevada. And we think it will benefit a much larger community than that.”

There are also some skills that are analogous and probably transferable from the lessons the agency learned from its experience with CNG. While it’s true that different gases have different properties, procedures like high-pressure fueling may be similar. But the RTC has one thing none of those little laboratories in East Coast Ivy League schools have: RTC has to service 8 million riders per year over 58 square miles. Citifare has to get the buses and vans out on time, all the time, in a variety of real-world conditions.

But beyond RTC, Northern Nevada has the renewable resources, the solar, wind and geothermal, that are the very keys to making the whole green process work. It may well turn out that the free heat generated by the planet, the geothermal power, makes the difference between having an expensive, reliable, environmentally friendly form of fuel that frees us of foreign control of our economy and having an affordable option.

“Did I think we had potential to change the world?" asks Krause, bemused by the question. "No. That just kind of came to us."