Is there such a thing as a “green” car?

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When Zoe Stathopoulos, an ad exec from Ruder Finn, contacted Steven and me to invite us to the Chicago stop of Hyundai’s Drive 4 Hope event promoting the Tucson Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV), a hydrogen-powered car, it raised our eyebrows.

“I think this is right up your alley given your interest in sustainable transportation in Chicago,” she wrote. “As those who are interested in green/clean energy and the environment know, nothing in the automotive industry holds more promise for the health of the planet than fuel cell technology.”

Hydrogen cars do have a few environmental advantages over gasoline-powered vehicles. The Tucson uses fuel cell power from compressed hydrogen, which is renewable and less volatile than gas. The car gets 70 MPG and has the potential to have no carbon emissions, with water as its only waste product.

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I first heard about hydrogen cars in a George W. Bush state of the union speech. At the time I thought, instead of addressing America’s over-dependence on cars, he’s promoting technology that would allow people to feel like they’re saving the planet while making no real lifestyle changes.

Although I was interested in attending, I wrote Stathopoulos, “I should disclose that I’m a little skeptical of ‘green’ cars as a solution to our nation’s transportation problems. It’s great if they reduce emissions, but as cars they don’t do anything to address the issues of traffic fatalities, congestion, urban sprawl and sedentary lifestyles associated with America’s love affair with the automobile. I’m interested in getting people to drive less as well as driving ‘greener.’ ”

“Feel free to mention any concerns in your blog post,” she responded gamely. “Free speech makes for good journalism and reporting!”

After attending the event I do feel slightly warmer to the possibility of replacing gas-powered vehicles with FCEVs as a small part of the solution to the world’s environmental woes. And I’d have to have to be a real Scrooge to completely trash the Drive 4 Hope, since the promotion involves driving the Tucson 4,500 miles from San Francisco to New York in September, solely on hydrogen power, visiting 15 pediatric cancer institutions.

Hyundai is awarding $100,000 grants to 71 children’s hospitals across the country this month, as part of the $43 million the company and its dealers have donated to childhood cancer research since 1998. During this cross-country test drive, staffers are collecting hand prints from child cancer patients and survivors to display on the vehicle.

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A handprint from a child cancer patient.

The Chicago event took place last night downtown at the Drake Hotel, 140 E. Walton, where security was tight since Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was staying there. At the reception I speak to local Hyundai dealer Steve Foresta and his fiancée Angela Rowling. When I ask them about the potential benefits of HVECs, Foresta says while hydrogen cars will be expensive to buy, they’ll be cheap to operate. “Everyone’s concerned about the environment and saving money on fuel, especially in Chicago where we have the highest gas prices in the nation,” he says.

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Angela Rowling and Steve Foresta, an automobile dealer at O’Hare Hyundai.

The Tucson, covered with the colorful hand prints, is parked outside on a red carpet. Hyundai Director of General Affairs Zafar Brooks is showing members of the media around the vehicle. When it’s my turn to speak with him I say, “First, I’d like to say that it’s really great your company donating so much money to cancer research.” Then, apologizing for sounding like a crank, I ask him how he thinks the Tucson fits into addressing the car-associated problems I mentioned to Stathopoulos.

[flickr]photo:6152927324[/flickr]Zafar Brooks speaking before the attendees

“We have a love affair with our cars in America,” he responds patiently. “There will always be a role for automotive transportation, but as a car manufacturer we realize our responsibility in consuming resources and creating pollution.” He then reiterates the environmental benefits of the Tucson.

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The most encouraging piece of info I pick up at the Drive 4 Hope is that Hyundai is also creating fuel cell buses. The first such bus debuted at the 2006 German World Cup as a shuttle bus around Munich, and there are currently two operating in South Korea. While I still feel hydrogen cars are something of a distraction from the other major problems associated with there being too many automobiles in the world, hydrogen-powered buses truly are green vehicles.

[flickr]photo:6152965228[/flickr] Hyundai fuel cell bus in Seoul, South Korea

What do you think: could hydrogen cars be part of the answer to global transportation and environmental problems, or do they just divert resources from finding real solutions? If they became affordable, might you ever find yourself saying, as Beck Hansen once sang, “Lady, step inside my Hyundai?”

Related post: Nissan has moved up a Chicago launch of the Leaf all-electric car after it noticed that Chicago has a growing EV-charging network

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

18 thoughts on “Is there such a thing as a “green” car?”

  1. Tough questions.
     
    Sure, hydrogen powered buses would (1)minimize pollution and (2)reduce road traffic.  Hydrogen powered cars only work towards #1. 
     
    Still, research and expansion of hydrogen powered cars would lead to expanding hydrogen power, perhaps reducing the high cost, and in turn promote hydrogen powered buses. 
     
    I don’t think I’d want to discourage hydrogen power just because it attacks only one of the two problems.

  2. Tough questions.
     
    Sure, hydrogen powered buses would (1)minimize pollution and (2)reduce road traffic.  Hydrogen powered cars only work towards #1. 
     
    Still, research and expansion of hydrogen powered cars would lead to expanding hydrogen power, perhaps reducing the high cost, and in turn promote hydrogen powered buses. 
     
    I don’t think I’d want to discourage hydrogen power just because it attacks only one of the two problems.

    1. True, that might be a good argument for grudging approval of hydrogen car research, that it paves the way for hydrogen buses.

  3. Great article, though you should have mentioned that hydrogen isn’t an energy source, but merely an energy carrier as there are no sources of free hydrogen on earth.

    A fuel cell is comparable to rechargeable battery technologies which are also forms of energy storage as opposed to energy sources.  When starting from a renewable energy source such as wind or PV, rechargeable batteries, especially lithium types, will be significantly more efficient than using the electricity to produce hydrogen and then using the fuel cell to produce electricity from the hydrogen.

    The appeal of the fuel cell is the potentially greater energy density of the stored hydrogen fuel as opposed to the energy density of typical rechargeable batteries enabling greater range between refueling.  This has the “ungreen” drawback of facilitating larger, faster more powerful vehicles than one would be inclined to build using rechargeable batteries.

    Finally, for the foreseeable future the primary energy sources for producing hydrogen will be natural gas and coal.  Directly using natural gas in an ICE can be nearly as clean and probably more efficient.  Thus the main benefit of fuel cells will be in allowing a more direct path of powering big energy hogging vehicles using coal instead of oil.

    According to James Hansen and many other top scientists we need to leave the coal in the ground if the earth is to remain somewhat inhabitable.  So in closing one could easily argue that fuel cell cars are one of those ‘green’ technologies that may perpetuate business as usual a bit longer and significantly increase mankind’s near term extinction risk.

    1. Todd,

      Thanks for laying this out, since I wasn’t so clear on the actual technology behind hydrogen fuel cells. So basically what you’re saying is that, like current electric cars, FCEVs are really only as green as the electricity that is used to charge the fuel cells. A hydrogen bus that is charged via solar power would be very green. The same bus charged with coal power? Not so much.

  4. While hydrogen powered cars (as well as electric cars) minimize pollution created by the vehicle, producing hydrogen can be an energy intensive process. Unless that process is environment friendly, all that happened is moving the source of pollution from the vehicle to the (coal or gas) power plant or hydrogen production facility.

    Of course, improving air quality in Chicago is a worthwhile goal in itself, so encouraging hydrogen cars may still be worthwhile from that perspective.

    1. It may be worthwhile, but we have less expensive and more readily available “technologies” at our disposal to achieve the same goal of improving air quality in cities.

      After writing my article on electric vehicles, I realized that electric cars are the lesser of two evils. And when it comes to the electricity source of electric cars, it seems like coal or nuclear-powered electricity is the lesser of two evils when compared to hydrogen (because of the energy intensive process of producing hydrogen). 

  5. Well, I think I’m mostly preaching to the choir here, but my answer is a resounding No.

    If these “green” cars succeed in replacing a significant number of gasoline-powered cars, which I’m not convinced is either technically or economically feasible, but even if they do, the net result of making driving cheaper is undoubtedly going to be more cars, being driven more miles.  This will require more paved roads and parking lots, more rubber for tires, more sprawl, and more infrastructure in general.  This alone has a negative impact.  But in the long run, we’re going to be using even more energy to move more metal around.  Even if the means of doing that gets slightly more efficient, it’s still more energy overall.  It might, MIGHT, be generated from cleaner sources, but it’s still more energy, which competes with other demands for electricity and heating, which are also going to be increasing.

    But forget about energy, and even the environment, for a minute.  Even if you could get all cars to run on magical, free, clean fairy dust, there are still a lot of problems you’re not only not solving, but making a whole lot worse.  The biggest one, of course, is automobile crashes, and their associated injuries and fatalities.  We know that 40,000 Americans are killed in car crashes every year, and nearly a million worldwide, with many times more injuries.  We know that car crashes are the number one killer of children and young adults in the U.S.  And we know that, largely, the number of crashes, and fatalities, correlates not only to the number of miles driven, but also (negatively) to the price of gasoline.  When driving gets more expensive, people do less of it, and crashes and fatalities are reduced.  And when driving gets less expensive, people drive more, and crash more, and more people die.  Cheap driving literally kills.  So again, the better these “green” cars work in reducing the direct fuel costs of driving, the higher the price we pay in human lives.

    Our children will suffer from this technological revolution the most, not only by car crashes continuing to be their number one killer, but from obesity, diabetes, and other health issues related to automobile dependency.  Our kids hardly walk now, and “green” cars will just make them, and everyone else, fatter.

    The real problem we should be trying to solve with all of this wonderful new technology and brainpower isn’t, how can we come up with new ways to allow us to continue to bring two tons of metal to work every day?  It’s, how can we change the ridiculous situation we’re in that makes that seem necessary and normal?  It’s about making it possible for more people to be close enough to things that they can actually walk, ride a bike, or use transit for most of their daily needs.  That’s the revolution we need, not to increase our mobility, but to reduce it.  Those kinds of changes are what will ultimately make our lives better, and longer.  But more cars will just keep killing us.

    1. I like your comment, Dan. 

      I think you are preaching to the choir of John+Steve, but maybe not all Grid Chicago readers see it like we do. 

      A personal question John and I need to answer is how we’ll cover this topic as we continue building and writing for the site. 

      Should we keep writing about the electric car fallacy? Should we ignore the stories that come our way? 

      This is our second electric car story, if you remember. The first was about the expanding electric car charging network in Chicago and how many of the charging points are providing users with “free” electricity (paid for by Walgreens customers, and other contributions). 

      P.S. “Only” 33,800 people die in car crashes each year now. Our peak in the last 15 years was in 2005 with 43,500.
      http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx

  6. a few thoughts…

    I think a big part of the picture is population. The sprawling aftereffects of the car are predicated upon cheap space. If there are more people, the idea of devoting more space to parking lots and roads is not going to be attractive. I wonder how much that’s a factor already.
    I think ‘green’ cars will and should be a small part of the picture. I think ultimately, we need to have a civilization that is a good participant in the larger ecology: establish the human niche, if you will. If cars are going to be part of it at all, they need to be as green as everything else.  

    I think we need to have some consensus on what kind of physical environment we want to live in. I think we need to find other ways to make driving less appealing and more expensive. Addressing their direct cost is not enough. It poses technological risks: what if it suddenly becomes cheaper and cleaner? Then, like others have said, you get more driving, more deaths, more roads, more parking lots, more sprawl.

    My own rule of thumb is: if it’s cheaper to rent, you’re doing it right. I think we need to find ways to spread values that move in that direction.

  7. a few thoughts…

    I think a big part of the picture is population. The sprawling aftereffects of the car are predicated upon cheap space. If there are more people, the idea of devoting more space to parking lots and roads is not going to be attractive. I wonder how much that’s a factor already.
    I think ‘green’ cars will and should be a small part of the picture. I think ultimately, we need to have a civilization that is a good participant in the larger ecology: establish the human niche, if you will. If cars are going to be part of it at all, they need to be as green as everything else.  

    I think we need to have some consensus on what kind of physical environment we want to live in. I think we need to find other ways to make driving less appealing and more expensive. Addressing their direct cost is not enough. It poses technological risks: what if it suddenly becomes cheaper and cleaner? Then, like others have said, you get more driving, more deaths, more roads, more parking lots, more sprawl.

    My own rule of thumb is: if it’s cheaper to rent, you’re doing it right. I think we need to find ways to spread values that move in that direction.

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