Hydrogen power: Still a gas after all these years

There must have been news conferences, press releases and lengthy stories, but I missed them.  It came as a quiet surprise to stumble across GM’s website talking about a fleet of 100 hydrogen fuel-cell cars, on the road now.

Chevy has launched a test fleet of hydrogen-powered fuel cell Equinox SUVs. This fleet hit the streets of New York City, Washington, D.C., and Southern California.

“Project Driveway” is the first large-scale market test of fuel cell vehicles with real drivers in the real world. Why? Because hydrogen fuel cells use zero gasoline and produce zero emissions. They’re a sustainable technology for a better environment. And they ultimately reduce our dependence on petroleum. Equinox Fuel Cell is an electric vehicle powered by the GM fourth-generation fuel cell system, our most advanced fuel cell propulsion system to date. The electric motor traction system will provide the vehicle with instantaneous torque, smooth acceleration, and quiet performance.

The Equinox Fuel Cell will go nearly 150 miles per fill-up, and reach a top speed of 100 mph. Green Car Journal has given the Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell its Green Car Vision Award. The Equinox Fuel Cell won the award over several nominees, including the Honda FCX Clarity and Toyota Prius Plug-In.

If you live in one of those cities, you may be eligible to test drive one of the vehicles.  Were I there, my application to try one would have been in before I started this piece.

It took 20 years longer than it should have to get hybrid fueled vehicles on the road; hydrogen power lags at least as far back.  To those of us who long ago gave up hoping the Detroit Big 3 might see the light on hydrogen in any form, the news GM has a fleet of fuel-cells in pre-Beta testing is most interesting.  We remember GM’s last foray into electric cars.  Hopes do not rise, at least not great hopes, and not high.

It’s been 31 years since Roger Billings drove a hydrogen-powered internal combustion car in Jimmy Carter’s inaugural parade.  Hope abides, but not forever.  Feathers cannot sustain hope that long, Emily.

Fuel cells provide significant advantages, though.  The need for something like fuel cells should drive a market to make the things work.   [More about fuel cells, hydrogen, and Roger Billings, below the fold.]

I last looked seriously at buying several dozen fuel cells six years ago.  Cell phone companies have emergency generators at many towers, to keep the computers running in the event of a power failure.  Many of the generators are Diesel fueled.  Diesel has problems.

Vandalism hurts.  Vandals can do a lot to cut fuel lines, break armored fuel lines, or rupture tanks.  One site had a ruptured fuel line going out of the tank, but the rupture was relatively hidden and a problem only under pressure.  The problem manifested when the power stopped, and 250 gallons of Diesel fed out to the ground.  Another site, the fuel level indicator triggered every other week or so; technicians learned to top the tank off to avoid the alarms.  Three years along another cell company’s environmental assessment discovered a pool of fuel in the ground.  There had been a pinhole leak.  Several thousand gallons of fuel required a significant excavation to clean up.

Hydrogen fuel cells offer significant advantages for emergency power generation, not the least being no serious environmental problems from leaked fuel. Back then a fuel cell ran about double the cost of the Diesel generator and tank.  I didn’t persuade my company to make the leap.  If any wireless telephone company has made the leap yet, I am too far out of the industry now to hear about it.

Hydrogen needs an advocate, and once upon a time it had one, in Roger Billings.

I knew Billings from Scouting.  He was Lodge Chief of the Tu-Coobin-Noonie Lodge of the Order of the Arrow, the Boy Scout camping honor society.  That lodge served Utah National Parks Council of the BSA, which encompassed all of Utah south of the Salt Lake County line.  It was the biggest geographical area council in the continental U.S.  With its heavy Latter-day Saint population, at one time 98% of eligible boys were in Scouting (Mormons use Scouting as part of their youth program).  In an area with a lot of good Scouts, Billings was a super Scout.  He ran a very large organization as a very young man, and ran it very well.

A series of environmental debate topics, in high school and college, kept Billings’ exploits in my debate files, at least.  When I started working in government, in Salt Lake City and Washington, Billings offered an easy path for politicians to do “something” for clean environments and energy independence:  Send a grant to Billings, put out the press release, blunt any arguments about support for Big Oil (“we’re not to a hydrogen economy yet”).

In high school, Billings won a national science fair for converting a Ford Model A to hydrogen.  In college, on scholarship at Brigham Young University, he churned out a constant stream of new hydrogen-capable devices.

Billings took over an old industrial facility near Provo, Utah, and blew through a series of grants and investor money trying to make the demonstration project that would spark interest and turn the corner for hydrogen.  He set up a model community and moved into a hydrogen house.  The press was good.  The sales were abysmal.

One secret of hydrogen is that it works.  It burns clean (water is the waste exhaust, from both fuel cells and hydrogen combustion); it makes gasoline engines run better, and boosts horsepower.  Hydrogen can flow through natural gas pipelines.  Hydrogen is less explosive than either gasoline or natural gas.

And still, the public won’t buy.

Oil has always been cheaper, and in the economy, easier to capitulate to.

Billings’ companies ran into difficulties (they weren’t selling much).  Billings sold them off, and he left the country for a time to chase other opportunities.

So I wondered whatever happened to Billings.  Late last night, Saturday, I tracked down a phone number for Billings Energy — his first company —  from an old press release I found on the web.  Billings relaunched the company under his tutelage, after the first one faded away after his sale.

I wondered whether the company still existed.  On Saturday night, I expected either a “this number disconnected” note, or perhaps an answering machine.  I got a live person, a woman who said the company is very much alive.

I take hope in small things.  Our drive to Lubbock last fall took us past miles and miles of giant wind turbines — Texas is the world’s leading producer of wind power now.  The turbines stand out, white memorials to a hoped-for better future in energy.  The road between Dallas and Lubbock is dotted with gas and oil wells, too.  In what can only be understood as extreme irony, the wells have solar, photo-voltaic panels powering them.

Well, no, it would be too much irony if the wells themselves were powered by the sun.  I suspect the wells are driven by gasoline and Diesel generators, still.  But the telemetry from the wells, the information gathering electronic sensors that allow pipeline operators in distant cities to figure out how to keep the pipelines full — that telemetry is powered by the sun (this patent summary reinforces that conclusion; if you have other information, especially that the pumps are solar powered, I’d love to hear it).

Making predictions is hard, especially about the future,” some wag said [Yogi Berra?  Casey Stengel?  Niels Bohr?  If you know, I’d love a citation].  Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” had a computer room in each house; computers now come on chips you can hid in a pencil.  Instead of massive computer buildings or rooms, we have dozens of tiny computers that make our devices work.  People carry communication devices in their pockets — or oddly clipped to their ears — that have more computing power than Apollo 11 had when it landed on the Moon.  Who could have predicted?

Hydrogen power may indeed be the answer.  When will most people figure out it’s time to ask the right question?

3 Responses to Hydrogen power: Still a gas after all these years

  1. Pensa Man says:

    The time is right Now, starting with Plug Power. It took 31 years to get here.. LOL. I am glad somebody kept the history here!. Thanks.


  2. PowerNature says:

    Prepared to provide product information related to power generation. We have many products to offer a variety of brands,Applications electric wind machines(Wind Generator),electric machines applications from the sun (solar cell generator),gas powered portable generator and accessories.We have content about power of nature (green energy) to you.


  3. I’ve been wondering lately if GM’s been kicking themselves for puling the EV-1, since they’d be selling like hotcakes about now. Proabably not, since the best reason I’ve heard about why they pulled the car had less to do with conspiracies with oil companies than it did with schemes for after-market maintainance. Hybrid cars are complicated and tricky, and so need lots of after-purchase, dealer-supplied lovin’. I suspect the same will be true of hydrogen fuel cells, also. The EV-1? Not so much.


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