The Sacramento Municipal Utility Districtunveiled a new solar-powered hydrogen refueling station on S Street on Apr. 1 for use in the district’s participation in a Department of Energy program.
The station boasts $1.7 million worth of solar panels paid for by SMUD as well as another $1.7 million in hydrogen refueling equipment paid for by the DOE and British Petroleum. The renewable energy source will refuel hydrogen fuel cell vehicles driven by SMUD employees on district business.
“The solar ray is keeping with SMUD’s history of supporting solar,” said Bill Boyce, supervisor of SMUD’s electric transportation group. “We’ve been a strong solar utility for over 20 years.”
SMUD is participating in the Hydrogen Learning Demonstration Project, a government and industry cost-sharing program sponsored by the Department of Energy as well as private automotive and energy companies. The DOE is paying an estimated $360 million, half the cost of the program, while private industry is contributing the other half, accordingto DOE’s website.
The project’s purpose is to bring private automotive and energy companies together under the guidance of the DOE in order to simultaneously install both hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and refueling stations in cities around the country.
“It’s a way to take [hydrogen] one step closer to commercialization,” said Joshua Cunningham, program manager for the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways Program at UC Davis.
Before the project began in 2004, car companies conducted separate testing and demonstrations of fuel cell vehicles. The DOE program allows them to combine their energy as well as conduct public outreach programs, Cunningham said.
Sacramento is one of only seven U.S. cities selected to participate in the vehicle demonstration and testing. Ford Motor Company and Daimler-Chrysler provided SMUD with its seven fuel cell vehicles, while British Petroleum installed the refueling station. The federal government recently approved a second phase of the project beginning in 2010, Cunningham said.
The new station will better support vehicle testing and be used to educate the public about generating hydrogen from renewable sources, Boyce said. The station will generate up to 12 kilograms of hydrogen per day. SMUD’s fuel cell vehicles can travel 40 to 50 miles per kilogram of hydrogen and take two to four kilograms per fillup.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are among the leading alternatives to fossil fuel-burning cars. They fill up at service stations like gasoline vehicles but instead of putting liquid fuel into the tank, fuel cell vehicles take hydrogen gas. The engine takes the hydrogen stored onboard, combines it with oxygen from the air and then sends the combination into the fuel cell – which generates electricity to power the car, Cunningham said.
“It’s basically an electric vehicle, but instead of storing electricity in batteries it generates it onboard,” he said.
Hydrogen fuel cells are considered “the ultimate clean motor fuel,” according to SMUD’s website, because their only byproduct is water; however, some in the alternative transportation field disagree.
“Battery-electric drive technology is proven much more affordable and durable than hydrogen fuel cell technology, is two to four times more efficient in energy use and doesn’t require building a new multi-billion dollar fueling infrastructure,” said Sherry Boschert, vice president of Plug-in America, a nonprofit alternative energy advocacy group.
Fuel cell skeptics contend that the technology is energy inefficient because hydrogen used to power the vehicles doesn’t exist naturally and must be generated using electricity to separate it from other compounds.
“People are starting to realize that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles don’t make sense, but there is a self-perpetuating industry and tons of money committed to it, so the idea is likely to die a slow death,” Boschert said. “For example, in 2007 the DOE budgeted $196 million to research and develop hydrogen technology, compared with only $51 million for hybrid and electric propulsion.”
Proponents of electric technology often point to the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle as the best solution. Plug-in hybrids are a regular Prius-type hybrid but with a larger battery pack that can be charged from a standard household outlet. The car initially runs only on electricity but automatically switches to hybrid mode once the battery pack’s charge is depleted.
“It’s very easy for people to say those two vehicles are in direct competition,” Cunningham said. “But I firmly believe we cannot pick just one solution. There is no silver bullet.”
SMUD has tested every kind of alternative transportation technology including plug-in hybrids.
“In my opinion, we need them all,” Boyce said. “I don’t think it’s one vs. another. When we need to go beyond oil-based technologies, we’re going to need all of them.”
ALYSOUN BONDE can be reached at email@example.com.