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John Bock points out the equipment in a hydrogen-powered bus. The bus was one of several alternative vehicles displayed on the quad during Earth Week in April. Photo by Kelly Lacefield

The Future of Fuel

Earth Week Sparks Discussion on Alternative Methods of Transportation

May 12, 2009

By John Bock

The transportation infrastructure of our country is going to be very different 50, 25, or even 10 years from now.

This is due to a number of challenges facing our current system: density, time, environmental concerns and our reliance on fossil fuels. Perhaps more than any other region, Southern California epitomizes a system under enormous pressure to change in all of these areas. While many compelling arguments can be made for increasing our reliance on mass transit and decreasing our dependency on the automobile, it’s clear that Californians’ relationships with their cars will remain strong for some time.

This set of realizations led the Environmental Studies Program and the Environmental Studies Student Association to develop Cal State Fullerton’s inaugural Alternative Transportation Expo (AltTransExpo) for Earth Week 2009.

How could we pique the interests of students, faculty, staff and community members?

Our solution was to bring state-of-the-art vehicle technology to the Quad for a firsthand look, followed up with a more academic discussion. So, April 20, Cal State Fullerton’s main Quad looked a little more like an auto show than a college campus, with buses, cars and other displays dominating the area.

Upon closer inspection, however, it became clear that these vehicles were unlike those currently seen in dealer showrooms. For instance, almost all of the vehicles could operate without a visit to a gas station. And, they represent a continuum from mass-production to hand-built vehicles with some price tags topping $1 million.

Once we began to ask questions about vehicles of the near future, it became clear that there are a few common concerns.

Will the internal combustion engine survive? What energy source will power these vehicles? Will private vehicle ownership remain the most common model? Visitors to the AltTransExpo expected answers to these questions from our exhibitors.

Vehicles Showcased

BMW exhibited its Hydrogen 7 car. One hundred of these vehicles were built and leased to trendsetters from industry, politics and entertainment around the world. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are among the celebrities who own one. The vehicle is based on a BMW 7 Series sedan with a standard internal combustion engine that has had a few modifications to burn hydrogen. Liquid hydrogen is stored at 250 degrees below zero (Celsius) in a pressurized tank that takes up about half the trunk. While running on hydrogen, the car is said to deliver typical 7 Series performance while producing only water in its exhaust, leading BMW to claim that this is the cleanest internal combustion engine produced.

Honda brought a natural gas powered Civic that can be fueled at home with the installation of a “Honda Phill” home fueling station. This Civic burns a widely available, domestically produced fuel with very low carbon emissions. Natural gas is abundant in the United States, and its use diminishes our dependence on foreign energy sources. There also is a large existing infrastructure for natural gas supply and emissions are less polluting than those from gasoline or diesel. Yet, while natural gas addresses major concerns of energy dependence and carbon emissions, the extraction of natural gas and the construction of pipelines have major environmental impacts that need to be addressed.

Mercedes Benz USA brought three vehicles, exemplifying differing approaches to alternative fuels. The E85 C300 can use any mixture of gasoline and ethanol up to 85 percent ethanol. This option allows drivers to use a fuel that can potentially be made domestically from biomass in their vehicles without any modifications.

Most ethanol produced in the United States is made from corn that would otherwise be diverted into the animal feed industry, with a far smaller amount diverted from the food supply.

There is great contention regarding the efficacy of the current mode of ethanol production as a means of reducing dependency on fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions. Still, Mercedes Benz and other manufacturers of these “Flex Fuel Vehicles” argue that they provide consumers a choice in today’s marketplace at a cost that is competitive with other vehicles.

Mercedes Benz also displayed a Bluetec advanced diesel GL320 SUV. This vehicle uses diesel technology already widely employed in Europe to provide a fuel-efficient premium vehicle with excellent performance and reduced emissions. Again, this vehicle gives consumers an option that uses our current fuel infrastructure.

Mercedes Benz and the California Fuel Cell Partnership displayed a Mercedes Benz fuel cell powered B series. This vehicle uses hydrogen to power a fuel cell, which produces 80 kW of electricity to power the vehicle with water vapor as the only exhaust. While in Southern California there is a nascent hydrogen fueling infrastructure, the availability of hydrogen is a mere fraction of the availability of petroleum-derived hydrocarbon fuels, such as gasoline or diesel. Moreover, the technology is in its infancy, and the displayed vehicle was a hand-built prototype that cost more than $1 million to make. Still, Mercedes Benz, along with many other manufacturers and energy companies, sees hydrogen as the long-term future fuel for personal transportation.

A local concern, Energy Efficient Solar, brought a Toyota RAV4 electric vehicle from its work fleet of electric and natural gas powered vehicles. Energy Efficient Solar also brought an array of solar panels to act as a solar generating station, supplying all electric power to the event while recharging their vehicle using only the sun’s energy. The vehicle displayed is used daily as a work truck and has well over 100,000 miles on it, demonstrating the viability of electric vehicles. Although consumers express concern over the cost of replacement batteries or of exceeding the range of the batteries while traveling, the reality is that the kind of driving most people do on a daily basis fits within the parameters of existing electric vehicle technology.

Public, Shared Transportation

While there were many examples of possible future options for private vehicles, there also were examples of public and shared transit. The Orange County Transit Authority parked a bus on the Quad, representing one of the largest existing fleets of natural gas powered buses in the world.

OCTA and Metrolink offer many commuting options to the Cal State Fullerton community.

Students travel for free on OCTA buses, and there are many discounts available for faculty and staff. Another bus on the Quad was from EBus, a Downey based manufacturer of electric, hybrid and fuel cell powered buses and trolleys. The bus exhibited is one of four fuel cell powered buses built by EBus. Running on hydrogen, the bus exhaust consists of pure water vapor.

Two buses have already been delivered to the University of Delaware and the University of Texas, and the one displayed is available for about $600,000. While the Ballard fuel cell powering the bus is a 2-foot-by-2-foot square that’s four inches thick, the associated custom designed and manufactured pumps and electronics take up a large compartment on the back of the bus, and the batteries occupy the central undercarriage.

ZipCar brought one of its shared vehicles for display. A national car-sharing company, ZipCar’s model differs from our current model of exclusive private ownership.

By joining ZipCar for $35 per year, individuals 21 and older gain access to their nationwide vehicle fleet for $8 an hour (including insurance). The vehicles are unattended at drop-off locations, and users have a code to open the vehicle. ZipCar is expanding to colleges and universities, including most of our neighboring institutions. They also have begun offering their services to government agencies as a cost-effective and reliable replacement for motor pools.

Discussion on the Future

Earth Week events culminated with a roundtable discussion, “The Future of Personal Transportation,” featuring Tom Baloga, vice president of engineering for BMW North America; John Carroll, chair and associate professor of geography; Alison Cliath, assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies; and Mark Filowitz, associate dean of the College of Natural Science and Mathematics, chemist and former petroleum industry executive. The lively discussion brought focus to several areas:

• Individuals can make choices that directly affect our dependence on foreign energy sources and our environment.

• Every solution must be evaluated for sustainability on a number of dimensions including economics, environmental impact and social responsibility and justice.

• There is no “one size fits all” solution.

The best transportation choice for some people may be bicycles, for others it may be public transportation, for others electric vehicles, and for others, hydrocarbon-powered vehicles. Each has its benefits and costs, and by evaluating these we can develop a mix of choices that will most effectively accomplish the goals of energy independence and environmental sustainability.

John Bock is a Cal State Fullerton professor of anthropology, coordinator of the environmental studies program and associate editor of Human Nature.

Related Stories:

Moving Forward Toward Sustainability

Spotlight: Environmental Responsibility

Spotlight: Global Warming

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