Hybrids, Hydrogen Vehicles Struggle to Meet Expectations

Published April 1, 2005

Despite the promises made on behalf of hybrid electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles, alternative fuel technologies are proving unready to replace gasoline-powered engines. Government agencies across the nation are encountering significant problems in converting their fleets as the vehicles prove to be less fuel-efficient and more costly than promised.

Seattle Area Buses Disappoint

As reported in the December 13 Seattle Post-Intelligencer, expensive new hybrid diesel-electric buses in Kings County, Washington are falling far short of initial promises.

To win support for purchasing the buses, county officials claimed the vehicles would use up to 40 percent less fuel than existing ones. However, the New Flyer hybrid articulated buses, which cost about $200,000 more than the 1989 dual-mode Breda buses they replaced, have achieved worse mileage than the older buses.

“What is interesting is that the premium for the ‘magic’ will never be paid back, even under the assumption that historically high diesel prices will continue,” said Tom Tanton, a senior fellow with the Institute for Energy Research. “We’ll see how happy the transit folks are when [diesel fuel] prices return to normalcy.”

Northeast Fares No Better

Connecticut Transit also operates hybrid buses. Although the agency promoted them as being up to 60 percent more efficient than traditional buses, agency officials told the December 26 New York Times the buses are operating only 10 to 15 percent more efficiently than traditional models.

According to the Times, hybrid buses operated by the New Jersey Transit Authority are also making only minimal fuel efficiency gains. The agency purchased seven buses, spending an extra $600,000 to $800,000 per bus for the hybrid technology, believing they would save 20 to 40 percent on fuel. The actual savings have been at the bottom of that range, New Jersey Transit spokeswoman Penny Bassett Hackett told the Times.

“The small fuel efficiency gains from large hybrid vehicles such as the ones operated by New Jersey Transit do not yet come close to justifying the huge extra costs involved,” said Iain Murray, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and former British government official dealing with transit issues. “And if transit officials are really worried about reducing emissions, they might do better to direct the money towards investments that will attract people out of their cars, such as better parking facilities or lower fares.”

Other agencies have reported larger efficiency gains, though still short of the 40 to 60 percent gains promised in Washington and Connecticut. According to the Times, New York City operates more than 100 buses with hybrid drive trains made by BAE Systems and has reported efficiency gains of 35 to 45 percent. However, “the savings around the country appear to be in the range of 10 percent to 20 percent.”

Hydrogen Faces Similar Obstacles

Hybrids are seen by many analysts as a short-term technology that will ultimately give way to hydrogen-fueled vehicles. President George W. Bush (R) and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) have touted hydrogen’s potential, but there is a lack of scientific agreement about the future of hydrogen-powered vehicles.

According to scientists attending a December American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, hydrogen technology is still plagued by myriad problems, and some experts caution much more research is needed before the nation can commit itself to developing the “hydrogen economy.”

The December 20 San Francisco Chronicle reported the scientists’ concerns included:

  • significant hydrogen leakage from cars and hydrogen plants into the atmosphere could set off chemical transformations that generate greenhouse gases and contribute to atmospheric warming;
  • hydrogen is most efficiently extracted from methane, but the extraction process causes carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, to be released in the atmosphere;
  • although hydrogen also can be extracted from ordinary water through a process called electrolysis, in order to be economically feasible the process currently requires burning of fossil fuels, which defeats the purpose of switching to hydrogen fuels.

Hydro Vehicles Very Costly

As reported by the Chronicle, MIT-educated physicist Joseph J. Romm, a former U.S. Department of Energy official, said, “I’m supportive of research and development, but we are at least two decades away from (deploying) the vehicles on a mass level.” Romm’s book, The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate, was published earlier this year by Island Press.

The price tag on hydrogen devices is very high, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single demonstration vehicle, according to Romm.

Although atmospheric scientists are still trying to figure out how hydrogen leakage from cars, fuel stations, delivery trucks, and hydrogen production plants would affect Earth’s atmosphere, it is believed such leaks could change cloud abundance, which might alter local temperatures and climates.

“The widespread use of hydrogen fuel cells … would cause stratospheric cooling, enhancement of the heterogeneous chemistry that destroys ozone,” scientists from Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena proposed in the journal Science in 2003.

Other scientists argue that even if hydrogen leakage generates a small amount of global warming, that would be a relatively minor problem compared with the advantages of switching from a fossil fuel-based transportation system to a system fueled by hydrogen.

Automakers Making Progress

Anthony Eggert, associate director for research in the Hydrogen Pathways program at University of California-Davis, believes automakers are making great progress in reducing costs and increasing reliability and durability of hydrogen powered vehicles, as reported in the January 9 Detroit News.

“GM’s goal,” explained Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of research, in the Detroit News article, “is to design and validate a fuel cell propulsion system by 2010 that is competitive with current internal combustion systems on durability and performance, and that ultimately can be built at scale affordably.”

Current generation fuel cell vehicles have a range of between 170 and 250 miles and can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 12 to 16 seconds, depending upon whether a battery is used.

Calling fuel cells the “ultimate environmental answer,” Burns said GM will theoretically be able to mass-produce fuel cell vehicles affordably by 2010. However, most of the firm’s competitors, which are also working on the technology, caution it might take longer to reach that goal.

In the nearer future, reported the January 9 New York Times, GM sees a solution in gasoline-electric hybrids, such as its hybrid version of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. A hybrid Sierra gets 19 miles per gallon, compared to the standard version’s 17 miles per gallon. Smaller cars are making somewhat larger mileage gains. Sales of some hybrid vehicles have tripled during the past year, but U.S. new car buyers still choose hybrid vehicles less than 1 percent of the time.

Betty Marton ([email protected]) is a freelance writer.