Shell Opens Hydrogen Station In L.A.

A few months ago, General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz dismissed hydrogen fuel-cell automobiles as impractical and unnecessary, but now some automakers are coming on board. At a West Los Angeles Shell station, it's possible to fill up with hydrogen instead of gasoline.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I am Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. Oil prices dropped about two dollars today. They are now hovering around 141 dollars a barrel. That's a few bucks below last week's high, but it's still about 50 percent more than it was at the beginning of this year. Those 100-dollar a barrel prices may never be seen again.

BRAND: So people are looking ahead and trying to figure out what to do. Should they increase supply? Lower demand? Well, there are those who say the car of the future will not run on gasoline at all. It'll be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

COHEN: Shell Oil has now opened its first retail hydrogen filling station in California and as NPR's Celeste Headlee reports, many people say hydrogen fuel cell cars aren't just possible. They're inevitable.

CELESTE HEADLEE: First we heard that hydrogen is going to revolutionize automobiles. Then we heard that hydrogen was a red herring. As recently as March, top executives from both Toyota and General Motors were saying hydrogen is not a practical fuel source, but Tom Drennen of Hobart and William Smith Colleges says the message has changed again.

Professor TOM DRENNEN (Economics Professor, Hobart and William Smith Colleges): Every car company is kind of racing towards hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

HEADLEE: To be fair, the interest in hydrogen fuel cells has been relatively constant. Hank Green is the chief editor of EcoGeek.org, and he says GM alone has invested more than a billion dollars in research on fuel cells.

Mr. HANK GREEN (Chief Editor, EcoGeek.org): There was a time when hydrogen was definitely what was going to be the next big thing in fuel. And then for a while, it sort of faded from the mainstream. And now I feel like since gas is suddenly four dollars a gallon, it's becoming an issue again.

HEADLEE: Councilman Bill Rosendahl of L.A.'s 11th district says the interest in hydrogen isn't fueled solely by gas prices.

Councilman BILL ROSENDAHL (L.A.'s 11th District): The gas price obviously has gotten people to say to themselves, oh my god! I can't afford to be driving around, but most importantly climate change. The world is on its knees.

HEADLEE: Rosendahl is standing next to a Chevy Equinox fuel cell car that's pulled up to a hydrogen-filling pump. The car looks like any other with one notable exception - no tailpipes. When you walk to the back of the car, all you see are some rectangular openings that emit a gentle water mist.

Hank Green says it's great that the fuel cell car has zero emissions, but hydrogen is still not a completely clean fuel. First, there's the basic elements.

Mr. GREEN: They're taking methane and natural gas, and they're breaking it down and creating hydrogen, but that produces carbon dioxide.

HEADLEE: Plus, the process to produce hydrogen is mostly powered by fossil fuels.

Mr. GREEN: So basically, you're getting a slightly better carbon dioxide deal by having a fuel cell vehicle, but you're still producing greenhouse gases.

HEADLEE: Green says hydrogen can be created using renewable sources too, like wind power and solar. And Dave Barthmuss of GM says this isn't the only alternative his company is pursuing.

Mr. DAVE BARTHMUSS (Manager, Public Policy, Environment, and Energy Issues, General Motors North America): The one thing that we know that we can't be is 98 percent reliant on a single energy source to power our vehicles. We see with world events and disasters, like Katrina, how that impacted the fuel supply.

HEADLEE: And Barthmuss says GM is moving quickly to get fuel cell cars onto dealer lots. How quickly?

Mr. BARTMUSS: By 2010, we hope to have a fuel cell system that's reliable, durable and, competitive with an internal combustion engine. By 2012, we're going to start building these in thousands of units. By 2015, hundreds of thousands of units.

HEADLEE: Meanwhile, the state of California is expected to invest nearly eight million dollars to build three fueling stations as part of its Hydrogen Highway Project. But you can't buy these cars yet, so there will be four retail filling stations to serve what customers? I put that question to Graeme Sweeney with Shell, and he said...

Mr. GRAEME SWEENEY (Executive Vice President Future Fuels & CO2, Shell): It moves us from behind the fence to the front of the fence, you know?

HEADLEE: I think I know what he means. Basically, something has to come first, either the cars or the stations. But Tom Drennen says he thinks it could be more than a decade before these cars are really priced for the average Joe.

Prof. DRENNEN: The cars that they're building right now, they won't tell us how much they're costing, but it sounds like they're probably spending 100,000 dollars on each car they're building.

HEADLEE: Right now, filling your tank with hydrogen will cost twice as much as filling it with premium gas, but Shell Oil says fuel cell cars are twice as efficient, so it all balances out. And by the time fuel cell cars are commercially available, there may be no price difference at all. Celeste Headlee, NPR News.

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