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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

Alternative-Fuel Vehicles Are Ready to Clean Up

The technology is becoming more affordable, and more people understand the importance of independence from foreign oil.

November 30, 2003|Sarah L. Catz | Sarah L. Catz is director of the Center for Urban Infrastructure at UC Irvine's Institute of Transportation Studies.

In the opening pages of Laura Hillenbrand's book "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," she discusses the difficulty Henry Ford and others faced in getting the public to accept the automobile during its first few years.

Californians wouldn't go near the gasoline-powered machine until necessity forced them -- immediately after the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Now, almost a century later, Ford and others are bringing another novelty onto the scene -- the automobile that no longer runs on gasoline. Just about every car manufacturer is betting that eventually, the public will learn to accept cars that run on hydrogen fuel cells, (a system that uses hydrogen and air to generate electric power), or bio-diesel (a blend of vegetable oil or animal fat with diesel fuel), or natural gas, or some other alternative fuel. Some of the work is going on right here in Orange County.

For one, the National Fuel Cell Research Center, located at UC Irvine, has been at the forefront in developing fuel-cell technology and hydrogen systems. The center has launched the first publicly deployed hydrogen-fueled vehicle on the streets of Orange County. It joined with Toyota to create a ride-sharing program at the Irvine Transportation Center called ZEV-NET, (for Zero Emission-Network Enabled Transport) that provides commuters with the free use of alternative-fuel vehicles such as the Toyota RAV4 EV and the Prius Hybrid to get to work.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) sponsored a bill this year to provide incentives to speed to market the fueling stations and infrastructure necessary to support drivers of hydrogen vehicles. Because hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles produce no harmful emissions, they offer an environmentally sensible alternative that can reduce air pollution and counter the threat of global warming.

The Orange County Transportation Authority has been a leader in the effort to convert gasoline-powered buses to alternative-fuel vehicles. Currently, 40% of OCTA's fleet operates low-emission buses by using liquefied natural gas. OCTA also is testing the next generation of electric hybrid buses.

It helps that in an effort to promote greater use of alternative-fuel automobiles, President Bush has called for investing $1.2 billion in developing hydrogen and fuel-cell technology. The European Union also plans to spend billions of dollars on these technologies.

Such technology is receiving attention now because it can be used not only for transportation but for stationary and portable sources as well. The Irvine Hyatt Regency was a pioneer in the use of fuel-cell stationary power, used to provide electric power to part of their hotel. A next-generation model provides the same type of power at the Ford Premier Group Design Center in Irvine.

Portable units can recharge cell phones, laptops and other such items. There is even a rock band, Protium, that uses a sound system powered by fuel cells.

The technology is becoming more affordable, and more people understand the importance of independence from foreign oil.

Yet few, if any, have begun to examine the implications of the alternative fuels as they gain widespread acceptance. Right now, for example, we fund our transportation infrastructure by taxing gasoline. But if we will no longer be filling our cars with gasoline, how will we raise that money? Eventually, we would need fewer gas stations. Who will clean up all those sites? How will we use that land? These and other policy considerations will be examined at the Center for Urban Infrastructure's two-day workshop at the Wyndham Hotel in Costa Mesa on Dec. 9 and 10, where interested parties from car makers to policy makers will discuss these important issues.

It is not a question of "if"; it's a matter of "when." It shouldn't take a crisis of the magnitude of the 1906 earthquake to garner the public acceptance needed to bring alternative fuels into our daily lives.

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