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Hydrogen buses need more study

Jim Mellander El Sobrante
Monday November 18, 2002

To the Editor: 


I am responding John Dyra’s letter (Forum, Nov. 13) headed “Healthy Hydrogen.” There were a number of factual errors as well as omissions which I would like to address. 

Most hydrogen used commercially is produced by the reformation of methane derived from natural gas, with the by-product of the greenhouse gas Carbon Dioxide. Electrolysis is relegated to a niche market, and is generally regarded as wildly inefficient. The energy cost of containment and transport from renewable sources, as Dyra desires, adds to the actual energy burden. To be fair, Stuart Energy, the builder of the AC Transit Hydrogen Fueling Facility, claims over 90 percent efficiency in electrolytic efficiency, but we never believe press releases from energy companies, do we? Anyway, there are far better proven uses for excess electrical generation capacity, such as pumping water uphill to refill reservoirs generating hydro-power. 

Hydrogen has real safety issues, aside from the fear posed by the Hindenburg disaster. Due to the small size of the hydrogen molecule, it tends to infiltrate into surrounding metal, causing an embrittlement and weakening of storage vessels and connecting tubing, requiring energy and materials to replace them. For the same reason, hydrogen is much more prone to leakage, and as it possesses no odorants or colorants, a leak can be difficult to detect. Hydrogen requires enormously heavy containment vessels relative to the amount of energy stored, which, of course, a hydrogen powered vehicle must carry around. Did anyone ask what the range of the AC Transit buses running on hydrogen actually is?  

If the bus must return frequently to be refueled, this could represent an energy loss, and extra wear and tear (which is another, more subtle loss of energy) on these $3 million beasts. 

Hydrogen deserves to be thoroughly studied and evaluated, as it is likely to play a supporting role in future transportation and home energy solutions. Currently, though, the safety and environmental 

issues need to be ironed out before hydrogen is likely to hold more than a niche in the energy picture. The AC transit stunt is an irresponsible boondoggle, foisted on a public who seem to accept anything with the catch phrases ‘environmental,’ ‘renewable,’ or ‘sustainable’. In these days of a budget crisis shame on the Daily Planet for using the euphemism “paid for by the state” (Daily Planet, Oct. 30) instead of the more accurate “paid for by the taxpayers of California.” Does the Daily Planet uncritically accept press releases that promote popular Berkeley agendas? It would be nice to see some objective journalism, for a change. 


Jim Mellander 

El Sobrante