Pumping hydrogen

Can Terry Tamminen’s hydrogen visions make Arnold Schwarzenegger the environmental governor?

This hydrogen filling station at the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento is one of a handful in the state. California’s new governor wants hundreds of them built by 2010.

This hydrogen filling station at the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento is one of a handful in the state. California’s new governor wants hundreds of them built by 2010.

Photo By Larry Dalton

For an environmentalist, watching the “action” governor at work requires a neck brace.

Here is the man who popularized the Hummer, which, in some corners of popular culture, has become the very emblem of “I’m rich and don’t give a damn” anti-environmental feeling. Some would call it the ecological equivalent of groping.

But the same Republican ran on an environmental platform crafted by arch-eco-warrior Robert Kennedy Jr. and his pal, Santa Monica houseboat-dwelling, pony-tailed, California Environmental Quality Act-lawsuit-bringing conservationist Terry Tamminen. Kennedy called the platform better than Al Gore’s in 2000 and second only to Green Party candidate Peter Camejo’s in the pack of gubernatorial hopefuls. (Schwarzenegger reportedly told Kennedy, on Cape Cod, that he “was going to be the greatest environmental governor in the history of California.”)

Then, on the campaign trail, Schwarzenegger suggested scrapping the state’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because he felt it was “redundant.” Then he changed his mind. And to the delight of the environmental lobby, the new governor bucked his own conservative inner circle and appointed Tamminen to head the no-longer-endangered EPA.

Days after the announcement, another key environment post—secretary of the state Resources Agency—looked like it would go to former Secretary of State Bill Jones, who has close ties to big agriculture and a legislative voting record that gives environmental groups fits. But late last week, the governor instead picked Mike Chrisman, a former Southern California Edison executive described favorably by environmental groups as a “conservationist Republican.”

Another reason environmentalists are both hopeful and deeply skeptical about the new governor is Schwarzenegger’s newfound passion for hydrogen fuel.

It was Tamminen who convinced Schwarzenegger to support the remarkably ambitious environmental initiative to help switch California’s cars from fossil fuels to clean-burning hydrogen by the end of this decade. The “2010 Vision” would invest hundreds of millions of dollars into building a statewide network of hydrogen filling stations all along California’s major highways.

With a station every 20 miles or so along Interstate 5, Interstate 80 and the other major freeways, hydrogen-powered vehicles—running either on electric fuel cells or using hydrogen gas to power a modified internal-combustion engine—conceivably would be able to reach all but the most isolated and rural California roads.

It’s an attempt to solve the chicken-and-egg problem that has dogged the transition to hydrogen cars for years. Automakers say they are committed to building hydrogen vehicles but complain there’s no point in mass-producing them if drivers have no place to fill up. But without tens of thousands of hydrogen cars on the road, no one wants to build hydrogen-fuel stations.

“Building that first network of stations is really important,” said Daniel Emmett, Tamminen’s colleague at Environment Now, the Santa Monica-based group that wrote much of Schwarzenegger’s hydrogen platform. “The automakers have said over and over again, ‘We can’t build these until there’s an infrastructure.’ So, we need to do our part in the state to get ready for these cars.’”

If implemented, the plan would mean building a hydrogen infrastructure much faster than many industry groups, researchers and government officials had anticipated.

“It’s an extremely ambitious proposal, no doubt about it,” said Anthony Eggert, associate program director at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

He credits the governor for recognizing the importance of building a hydrogen infrastructure but is somewhat skeptical about the hydrogen-highways approach.

“The truth is this technology is still in its infancy. These vehicles still break down every other day, and they are nowhere near ready for mass production,” Eggert said. He isn’t sure if there will actually be enough vehicles on the road to make use of the 200 or more stations.

For Joel Makower, co-founder of the Oakland-based Clean Edge Inc. environmental consulting firm, the governor’s hydrogen promise seems “a bit overreaching.”

He likened the proposal to Schwarzenegger’s campaign promise to convert his own tank-like Hummer to run on a hydrogen fuel cell, which Makower called laughable. “You’d need a fuel cell the size of a Prius just to get that thing rolling,” he said.

“It’s an extraordinary vision, one I’d like to see happen. But not at the expense of all the green technologies that are out there now,” he said, adding that the state could make tremendous progress in cleaning up air pollution by heavily promoting the new generation of hybrid gas-electric vehicles that are already on the market.

But Emmett believes the state needs to start preparing for hydrogen cars now. “Without some kind of vision, it will always be 20 or 30 years away,” Emmett said, noting that Europe and Japan also are working aggressively on their own hydrogen infrastructures. “Unless California does this now, we’re going to miss the boat in a big way.”

Jason Mark, with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley, said that if the governor is serious about promoting hydrogen, there are several things he could do in his first few months in office.

First, Mark said, the governor should hold onto those political appointees with expertise in the alternative fuels, especially Alan Lloyd, the current chairman of the state Air Resources Board (ARB). Mark also said the governor should do everything he can to make sure that ARB rules requiring automakers to sell thousands of emissions-free vehicles in the state during the next 10 years remain in place.

Mark suggested that the governor move quickly on a detailed study of the “2010 Vision” proposal. The state needs to look closely at how hydrogen fuel will be produced. “Not all hydrogen molecules are created equal,” said Mark, explaining that hydrogen quickly loses its environmental benefits when it is produced from fossil fuels. Most of the hydrogen sold in the state probably would come from reformed natural gas. But cleaner technologies, using wind- and solar-produced electricity to make hydrogen from water (H2O) should be encouraged heavily, Mark said. He cautioned that the oil, coal and nuclear industries are all eager to jump on the hydrogen bandwagon.

“The dream of a renewable hydrogen future can quickly become just another fossil-fuel nightmare,” he said.

And then there’s the question of cost. Building 200 hydrogen stations is estimated to cost $100 million to $200 million—not cheap considering that the state’s budget woes may linger for years. The Legislature looked at one possible funding mechanism, Assemblywoman Fran Pavley’s Assembly Bill 740, last year. That bill would put a $3 billion bond on the ballot to fund an array of environmental programs. The bond, if approved by voters, would set aside $500 million to help build a hydrogen infrastructure. But the current budget crisis forced the bill to be held until next year. Schwarzenegger—the man who wants to be the greatest environmental governor in the history of California—could throw his weight behind the Pavley bill to help fund his vision.

“The new governor has promised to be a man of action,” said Mark. “We’ll be watching closely.”