Honda Clarity fuel cell vehicle
Of course, they never left, but the relentless focus on pure battery electric cars and plug-in hybrids as available zero emissions transportation solutions has overshadowed the technology that many automakers consider the most “elegant” solution to the challenge of replacing the internal combustion engine.
The most recent news is the announcement of a joint venture in hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) between General Motors and Honda. This follows by a couple months a similar alliance between Daimler (Mercedes-Benz), Ford and Nissan. BMW and Toyota have also banded together on fuel cell development.
While the deals sound a lot like pre-competitive alliances that automakers often pursue, the commercial horizon is much sooner for fuel cells than many might realize. Hyundai, one of the few major companies, along with Volkswagen, who is going it alone, has already started series production of 1,000 FCEVs (to be completed by 2015). Toyota’s FCEV goes on sale next year; Honda has built and leased 100 of its Clarity FCEVs; Daimler has built and deployed several hundred of its F-Cell cars. That said, the leap to the next level (thousands of cars instead of the current hundreds) is now expected by 2020.
The Hydrogen Joke
The inside-the-industry joke has been that fuel cell vehicles are the cars of the future—and always will be—with the subtext that the future is perpetually 20 years away. Based on the recent activities in the field, that 20 years may have shrunk to about five.
The attraction of fuel cell vehicles for automakers is clear.
- The cars work just like electric cars;
- They’re quiet,
- They use proven electric motors that provide quick acceleration,
- They present configuration opportunities since the fuel cell is smaller than an engine and can be placed virtually anywhere on the car,
- They don’t have the range issues of battery electric cars because instead of relying on stored electrical energy from a battery, the FCEV creates its own electricity from the hydrogen passing through the fuel cell.
The basic technology is old (more than 150 years old), but it has been honed by automakers and innovators during the past two decades (or in GM’s case, more than four decades) so that its durability and deliverable range is comparable to a gas engine while it is much more efficient and environmentally benign at the tailpipe (the only thing coming out is water vapor). And automakers also can count on extra credit in the CAFE fuel economy game.
Of course, hydrogen fuel cells also have challenges, which are alluded to in the “car of the future” joke. While fuel cell costs are down, they’re still significantly more than that of a traditional gas or diesel engine. Hydrogen, too, even when steam-reformed from currently cheap natural gas, carries a premium. Storing the hydrogen involves having a tank that needs to be of a material that can hold the gaseous fuel in a highly compressed state compared with a gas tank that can be made from relatively cheap composite material. Infrastructure has to be built, unlike ubiquitous gasoline and diesel stations and electric plugs that can be found everywhere.
But that infrastructure is being built around the world. California just offered $20 million for companies to continue to build stations needed for the initial vehicle launches and Korea, Japan, Germany and other countries have active government-industry coalitions ramping up stations.
While it still has some significant hurdles, the hydrogen future appears to be closer than ever with the new alignment within the auto industry. These alliances give them an edge on cost issues and presents a more unified front to skeptics who have written off automakers’ fuel cell focus as a diversion from other technologies like battery electrics. In reality, no automaker can afford to pass on any zero emission technology, particularly one this developed and seemingly ready-to-go. But, as with predictions of battery breakthroughs and magical alternative fuels produced from waste, it would be wise to file these latest announcements and check back in a couple years to see what real progress has been made.
GM’s last fuel cell project, the Chevy Equinoz
New U.S. Climate Report
A new science report representing a consensus of 13 agencies developed over a year and half and focused on potential climate change impacts on the United States.
It’s the most comprehensive report to date on the possible impacts of climate change for everyone across America, and begins an important process of redefining the sort of information we need in order to deal with climate change at national and regional scales. Effectively managing our response to a changing climate falls into two general categories:
1) Implementing measures to limit climate change and therefore avoid many of the impacts discussed in the report. These measures must reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and might include increasing our reliance on clean energy, and developing energy efficient technologies
2) Reducing our vulnerability and increasing our resilience to ongoing climate change in pro-active, community-based ways. Examples of this include such measures as developing more climate-sensitive building codes to keep people out of harm’s way, or planting more drought or heat tolerant crops, for example.
As a first step in reducing the impact of climate change, we need to know what impacts we must avoid in the future, and this report, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States”, does just that– outlining the possible direction of climate change under two broad scenarios: the first if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions aggressively, and the second, if we are less aggressive. These are neither the highest or lowest possible scenarios but begin to compare the possible futures for the U.S.
An important element of this new report, apart from that it is deliberately written in plain language so we can all read and understand the science in it, is that it dives down in the various regions of the U.S. and provides much more regional detail about possible impacts than ever before – critical information for an effective response. It also breaks down the potential climate change impacts by economic and social sectors, most of which transcend regional boundaries, such as water, energy, health, transportation, and agriculture – all vital components of a healthy and stable society.
The report notes climate change impacts that we are already seeing across the U.S. as well as those that will soon emerge or become more intense if action is slow to occur. Some of the impacts that the report mentions are:
· More rain is already coming in very heavy events, and this is projected to increase across the nation. This would have impacts on transportation, agriculture, water quality, health, and more;
· Heat waves will become more frequent and intense, increasing threats to human health and quality of life, especially in cities;
· Warming will decrease demand for heating energy in winter and increase demand for cooling energy in summer. The latter will increase peak electricity demand in most regions;
· Water resources will be stressed in many regions. For example, snowpack is declining in the West, and there is an increasing probability of drought in the Southwest, while floods and water quality issues are likely to be more of a problem in most regions;
· In coastal communities, sea-level rise and storm surge will increase threats to homes and infrastructure including water, sewer, transportation and communication systems.
Through identifying the climate change impacts we are experiencing now, as well as those that are emerging faster than we thought, and those projected to increase in the future, the report clearly highlights the choices we face regarding possible response options to reduce the impacts of climate change across the United States.
Responses to climate change impacts in the United States will almost certainly evolve over time as we learn through experience. Determining and refining the responses will involve partnerships between scientists, policymakers, the public, private industry, communities, and decision-makers at all levels. Implementing these response strategies will require careful planning and continual feedback on the impacts of policies for government, industry, and society.
More of the report’s findings are located at , which is the new home of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the interagency Government program that commissioned the report. The report was led by NOAA.