By Eileen Gunn/TheStreet.com
REYKJAVIK -- Owning a car not powered in any way by gasoline seems about as likely as using a jet pack to fly to work.
Sure, it might happen, but not anytime soon.
The day when gas-powered cars disappear completely from our roads is probably decades away. But changing a nation's transportation and fueling infrastructure happens gradually, not overnight. And the time when hydrogen cars and hydrogen fuel stations are common might be closer than many think.
This means that car shopping could get increasingly interesting in the next few years as we not only get to choose between sedans, hatchbacks and SUVs, but between gas-powered, hybrids, more hydrogen cars and who knows what else.
Short of strapping on a jet pack, I can't imagine a more exciting opportunity for a country infatuated with cars.
Visiting Iceland has opened my eyes to the real possibilities of alternative fuels and compelled me to take a closer look at what's happening with these innovations in the U.S.
Electric fuel cells powered by hydrogen have only water as a byproduct while internal combustion engines release some nitrogen oxide -- about one-fourth of what a gas-fueled engine does -- and that's about it. Auto makers are putting cars that use both technologies on the road today.
In Iceland, the 28% of energy that still comes from fossil fuels is entirely transportation-related. But the country would like to see more than 30% of its cars running on hydrogen by 2025 and no gasoline tanks anywhere in sight by 2050.
Icelanders are spending this decade introducing hydrogen fuel to one mode of transport after another to see how well it works, where the problems lie and what users like and don't like about it. Then they'll compare the data and decide whether it will be cars or ships or public transit or something else where they'll focus their first efforts.
To kick-start things in 2003, Royal Dutch Shell's (RDSA) hydrogen division opened a fueling station in Reykjavik, and soon after, three hydrogen-fueled buses from Daimler (DAI) began circling through the city for about two and a half years. Three conventional buses would have gobbled 70,000 liters of diesel and spewed 200 tons of greenhouse gas emissions over that time, but these buses released only water vapor. A blogger on Grist describes the experience of riding on one.
Late this fall, a dozen hydrogen cars began making their way around the island nation, two Mercedes Benz A-Class fuel cell cars from Daimler Chrysler, and the rest of them conventional Toyota (TM) Priuses that Quantum Technologies (QTWW) in California had converted to hydrogen-powered hybrids.
Some are being test driven by employees at local power companies including Icelandic New Energy, a company created to manage these science projects and evangelize about hydrogen. But a handful have gone to the local Hertz (HTZ) office, so that locals and tourists can drive around the country on carbon-fuel-free day trips (they can go about 180 miles on a full tank).
One point of these tests is to get real-world feedback from drivers, passengers and maintenance crews on how these buses and cars accelerate, brake, wear out and stand up to the elements compared with conventional counterparts.
A quick ride in one of the Priuses was encouraging. The accelerating and braking and overall feel was no different from a conventional car. The engine was so quiet that Jon Bjorn Skulason, a general manager at Icelandic New Energy and one of the first to get his hands on one, says he wishes that when he's idling the dashboard would reassure him that he hasn't stalled.
Another point of these test runs is to get vehicles out on the roads where people can see them and get used to the idea of sharing the road with (or sitting on top of) hydrogen tanks.
This is no small thing. Apparently hydrogen doesn't have the greatest public image.
Skulason, INE's chief hydrogen evangelist, spends a lot of time reassuring people that hydrogen is perfectly safe. Thanks to these public relations efforts, most Icelanders now associate hydrogen with clean energy. But, he says, the average Japanese consumer associates hydrogen with bombs, while the gas makes Americans think of the Hindenberg disaster, which, Skulason is quick to point out, was caused by flammable paint on the zeppelin and not the hydrogen inside it.
Here in the U.S. the Department of Energy, local municipalities and auto companies are similarly working to promote hydrogen and get cars and fueling stations out where they can be seen. Autobloggreen has a great roundup of these developments.
Daimler recently got noted car buff Jay Leno to test drive its BMW Hydrogen 7 ICE car and make a video about it. Honda (HMC) announced in late November that it will lease FCX Clarity fuel-cell-powered sedans to a limited number of consumers in the Los Angeles area next summer.
General Motors (GM) has been looking this autumn for everyday people in New York City, Washington, DC, and California to test drive 100 fuel-cell powered Equinox SUVs.
Where will all these pioneering drivers refuel? There are already 122 fueling stations in the U.S. and Canada. The National Hydrogen Association has a list if you want to learn if there's one near you.
There are clusters of them around Detroit, Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There's also a growing dotted chain along the East Coast, as Shell tries to develop a hydrogen corridor there to mirror California's Hydrogen Highway, which has the state's civil servants test driving cars from Ford (F) and other auto makers.
Hydrogen fuel is more expensive than gasoline, but mass production could bring it down to comparable levels. In Iceland, Skulason estimates that if they can get 300 hydrogen cars on the road and four more fueling stations up and running, they'll reach the tipping point necessary to wean the fuel off the subsidies it receives and jump-start his country's hydrogen economy.
In the U.S., much more of a critical mass would be needed of course and it will take longer to reach such a tipping point, but rising gas prices are lowering the bar for hydrogen prices to be competitive.