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THE NEW YORK TIMES: Alternative Fuel Loses Another Alternative

Published: February 19, 2006
THE nation may be addicted to oil, as President Bush warned in his State of the Union address last month, but at least some American consumers seem willing to break the habit.
Numbers of Toyota Prius owners and other hybrid-vehicle enthusiasts are slowly weaning themselves off the crude. And a small sliver of drivers have gone cold turkey — swearing off gasoline altogether to fuel up on compressed natural gas, French fry grease and all manner of animal fats.
So there was considerable excitement here when General Motors recently announced plans to bring a slice of its own oil-busting experiment — a billion-dollar gamble on hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles — to this riverside village.
G.M. already operates pilot programs in suburban Washington and near Irvine, Calif. In Tarrytown, the company envisioned a third test market for the vehicles, which combine hydrogen and oxygen inside fuel cells to create electric current to propel the vehicle, emitting only water vapor and a little heat.
The plan was to bring a handful of futuristic prototypes to the company's 51-year-old training center on Route 9, build a small hydrogen fueling station at the plant and, perhaps most tantalizing, give a few local businesses and families a chance to try out the vehicles.
The buzz only grew when officials with Shell, G.M.'s partner in the fuel cell initiative, said they hoped to add a hydrogen pump and a visitors' center to an existing gasoline station on Central Park Avenue in Greenburgh.
But two weeks ago, Tarrytown officials opened a letter from G.M. announcing that it was dropping its hydrogen plans for the village. The company, it seemed, had run into an opposition more powerful than Honda, more intimidating than Toyota: the suburban mom.
The General Motors Training Center is next to the Jewish Community Center on the Hudson, a squat, boxy building overflowing with exercise equipment, musical classes and children. Visions of a hydrogen-fueled explosion did not sit well with parents at the center or with other residents in the area.
Proponents say that risk is minimal, and note that American industry has a strong safety record with hydrogen, a nontoxic, lighter-than-air element. With children in the picture, parents said, the experiment should go elsewhere. Besides, said Jackie Reich, a Jewish Community Center board member with a 2-year-old child in the day care program, “G.M.'s going to have a lot of space — a lot of empty factories.”
G.M., as Ms. Reich wryly suggested, is in the midst of a crisis. The company reported an $8.6 billion loss for 2005 and watched its market share slip to its lowest level since 1925. In November, executives said the company would cut 30,000 jobs and close all or part of 12 factories.
The company has pledged to find another test market in affluent Westchester for its fuel cell vehicles in its effort to build a commercially viable hydrogen-powered car sometime in the next 10 years. But Joseph J. Romm, a former Clinton administration official and author of “The Hype About Hydrogen” (Island Press, 2004), says an affordable fuel cell vehicle is decades away.
Among the hurdles, say Mr. Romm and other experts, are bringing down the cost of a vehicle that can cost $1 million or more to build, and increasing the range of a fuel cell car to the 300 miles consumers have come to expect. Then there is the “chicken or the egg” dilemma: automakers will have a hard time creating a market for fuel cell vehicles without a vast network of hydrogen fueling stations in place; but energy companies will be hesitant to build the necessary stations without an established market for the cars.
For now, Mr. Romm said, the hybrid, which combines a gas engine and an emissions-free electric motor, is the most viable alternative to the internal combustion engine. James P. Womack, an author and industry expert, shares some of Mr. Romm's skepticism about fuel cell technology but says G.M. has little choice but to look at alternatives to what is on the road now.
“Really, nobody has the answer,” Mr. Womack said. “There are a lot of people placing bets who have to place bets. The race is starting and you have to put your money down somewhere.”
But William L. Shepard Jr., field manager for G.M.'s fuel cell program, is bullish on fuel cell technology, which dates back 165 years and has been used by astronauts and bus drivers alike. He said G.M. has shrunk the cost of the vehicle considerably and will clear any remaining technical hurdles in the near future. The payoff, he said, could be enormous. “We're all wary about what's happening with the price of oil,” he said, “foreign petroleum dependency, on and on.”
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Under a March 2005 agreement, G.M. and the Department of Energy are pouring $44 million each into a demonstration project, with the automaker pledging to put 40 fuel cell vehicles on the road in New York, Washington, California and Michigan by 2009. The department also signed fuel cell development agreements with Ford, DaimlerChrysler and Hyundai as part of a broader, five-year, $1.2 billion hydrogen initiative announced by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address.
Shell already operates a hydrogen fueling station in Washington, which sells gaseous hydrogen and a liquid, cryogenically chilled version. Tim O'Leary, a spokesman for Shell Renewables & Hydrogen, said the Greenburgh station would offer only the gaseous form, stored at 5,000 pounds per square inch of pressure.
Mr. O'Leary said the company hopes to build one or two fueling stations between the Washington outfit and the Westchester station, starting what he called a “New England corridor.” But first, Shell needs to win support for an overhaul of the Greenburgh station, an unremarkable piece of property at the corner of Central Park Avenue and Clifton Road with two gas pumps and four drooping American flags out front.
So far, Shell is faring better than G.M. in its public relations battle. Environmentalists have been generally supportive, though they note that hydrogen production can create emissions that offset some of the benefits of clean-running fuel cell cars. Paul J. Feiner, the Greenburgh supervisor, says he is open to the hydrogen pump, as long as the neighbors' safety concerns are met. Mr. O'Leary said that a poll conducted by the company found area residents in favor of the idea by a four-to-one ratio.
The positive response is not exactly a surprise. Greenburgh has three small electric vehicles in its municipal fleet and plans to erect a series of solar panels at its town hall in the coming weeks. But hydrogen, however safe, can still spook a nervous neighbor.
The gas is odorless and tasteless and burns invisibly. And there is always the shadow of the hydrogen-fueled disaster that took place nearly 70 years ago, not so far from here. Robert Bernstein, a lawyer from the Edgemont section of town, said he could not help thinking of it when Shell's polling firm called to ask him about hydrogen some two months ago.
“'What's the first thing that came into my mind?' they said,” Mr. Bernstein recalled, “and I said, 'the Hindenburg, of course.' “

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