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Tweeting about hydrogen FCVs, EVs and Leontyne Price

My husband is a bit of a maven (one of Malcolm Gladwell’s “people we rely on to connect us with new information”): he was one of the first Spaniards to own a now-very-bulky 1st version ipod (motivated more as a tech writer than shopper); he bought a pair of Nudie jeans when they were only worn by Swedes; and joined twitter back in 2007 (starting his own ethical twitter last year).

Being married to an early adopter meant that I joined the twitterverse before I had any friend there to connect with, so my account sat empty for nearly a year. Then last month I started to tweet- at a moment when it seems the trend is starting to tip– and in one of my first twitter relationships I found a follower who nearly convinced me of another trend that I now believe is tipping its way out.

It all began when I tweeted about Iceland’s hydrogen economy. Within an hour he had found me and become my first non-acquaintance “follower”. Seeing his username- “H2 car advocate” (without spaces)- I jumped at the chance to drill someone on that side.

I’d been puzzled by the whys behind hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) ever since I blindly walked into a shoot back in the summer of 2007 with the Vancouver Vehicle Fuel Cell Program, when perhaps partly due to the unusually hot Canadian summer or the presence of my 6-month-old, I didn’t even ask the most basic question: why expensive pie-in-the-sky hydrogen and not already existent electric vehicles? (I’d seen Who Killed the Electric Car? and heard their argument that hydrogen vehicles are a distraction used by Big Auto to continue making profits with the status quo).

The problem with EVs in 140 characters

So a year and a half after test driving a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, I began my first twitter relationship with the 140-character-or-less question: “What about critic ‘why buy expensive electrolyzer to throw away some electricity making h2.. just to make electricity again?'”.

It was really a rather poor attempt to condense the great quote from author Joseph Romm: “If you have renewable electricity, why would you buy an expensive electrolyzer to throw away some of that electricity making hydrogen, buy an expensive tank to store it, and put it in a vehicle just to make it into electricity again?”

h2caradvocate“- aka Greg Blencoe-, with over a thousand updates to his name and 767 followers, was wise enough to not try to contain his response to a single tweet.

  • My 1st response would be that battery vehicles would’ve been on roads for last 100 years if energy efficiency were ONLY issue.
  • My second response is: Which vehicle will 99% of people buy? The Toyota FT-EV ULTRA COMPACT car with a 50-mile range…
  • or the Toyota FCHV hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (mid-size SUV) that gets 516 miles of range? See videos: http://bit.ly/16OU6H
  • Notice battery advocates don’t want to talk about driving range, passenger/trunk space, fueling time, etc. REAL issues!
  • An important fact is Honda (a VERY smart company) has completely rejected plug-in battery technology in favor of hydrogen.

His second 140 characters made me pause. While plenty of my acquaintances- and recent interview subjects- are excited about EVs, he’s right, how much of the mainstream would buy electric if it were the only family car? Especially in the US or Canada where driving a couple hundred miles for a weekend trip, or even weekly to a summer house, is not out of the ordinary (While shooting a video about Canada’s large carbon footprint I was told by one driver, “It’s nothing to go to Calgary from Edmonton. That’s a 3 hour drive.”).

But from translating EV articles for the site (Who revived the electric car? and The car finally… evolves) I know that batteries and range are improving, so I shot back 2 tweets:

  • Good point, but given that energy efficiency is now more important & batteries are improving, isn’t it time to reconsider?
  • What about longer range lithium ion batteries & cars like the Joule with a range of 248mph?

He didn’t respond to my mention of South Africa’s Joule, the product of a 4-year-old Cape Town company, and instead stuck with Bigger Auto, talking about how GM will make no profit from the Volt and how Toyoto is “pessimistic about viability of mass market for battery electric cars in near to mid-term”.

This last was from Prius designer Bill Reinert who, as Blencoe tweeted, also claims battery EVs cost the amount of a typical car plus “about $500 for each electric-design-mile plus the cost of the platform it’s derived from.”

It’s tough to accuse the Prius designer of being part of an anti-EV conspiracy and his number seemed so specific, but even if his estimate is right, Reinert is talking about “today’s technology and costs” and with our increased reliance on mobile technology (cellphones and laptops), battery technology is changing fast.

A $2 million dollar car

Arguing cost seems highly speculative if you’re an H2 advocate. The only pricetag I’ve seen on a hydrogen fuel cell car lately is an estimate from LA Times auto critic Dan Neil of $2 million per car for Honda’s FCX Clarity (he also also argues that “any way you look at it, hydrogen is a lousy way to move cars”).

But I played nice and tweeted: “But H2 cars don’t seem much cheaper. So aren’t we arguing about the future?”

Blencoe’s response: “Toyota and Honda R&D chiefs: Hydrogen fuel cell cars will be economical before plug-in battery cars.”

I was beginning to realize he relied a lot on Big Auto as a source (something he continued through our entire “chat”), so I shot back using his experts:

  • WSJ article “GM, Toyota Doubtful on Fuel Cells’ Mass Use” argues the 2 are betting on EVs for near term.
  • GM’s Bob Lutz @ Geneva show “If we get lithium-ion to 300 miles, then you need to ask yourself, Why do you need fuel cells?”

He came back with a Toyota company blog (Big Auto again) calling the Wall Street Journal article “sloppy reporting”. While I had more faith in the Wall Street Journal than a Toyota blog, I wasn’t sure twitter was the place for slamming someone’s sources.

Musing on leftovers and Schwarzenegger’s teetering hydrogen highway

As it was, I felt a bit awkward that while I was filling my follower’s twitboxes with fuel cell talk, they were musing on things like “leftovers for lunch. sometimes that’s so much better than anything fresh, cause you know what you get”.

I wanted to throw in something a bit sexier, so I looked up progress on Governor Schwarzenegger’s “hydrogen highway” project and found mostly news from back in 2004 when the ex-actor- and now driver of a hydrogen-powered Hummer- announced plans for 100 fueling stations to be built by 2010. Today, with only 24 built and the deadline being delayed to 2015 for maybe just 50 stations, the highway bears resemblance to Seattle’s monorail: it doesn’t really go anywhere (except from LA to San Diego).

It seems the only news these days about Schwarzenegger’s vision carries headlines like “California’s Hydrogen Highway Teeters Toward Collapse” and “Hydrogen Cars Won’t Make a Difference for 40 Years“.

I asked Blencoe about the hydrogen infrastructure problem and he laid out his plan for H2 fueling station coops. At “a few thousand dollars per person”, they would be user-owned and could be powered by wind or solar (in addition to nuclear or electricity), though the hydrogen would be mainly created offsite, which means a big need for pipelines (not coincidentally, the focus of Blencoe’s startup).

My immediate response was the expense and logistics of all this, especially when electricity is already here, but Blencoe shot back “current electrical grid could not handle lots of plug-in cars” and “H2 pipelines are less expensive than transmission lines”.

Pausing for opera and Tweeple

He had to leave to go “Tweeple”, which according to the urban dictionary means “people who use twitter.com” so I’m guessing he meant something like a twitter meetup.

In the meantime, I got a tweet from my arts writer friend that she was “listening to Leontyne Price–man, that woman can sing!” and having no idea even what genre she was talking about (opera, for those as clueless as I), I went to youtube and fell in love with Price’s voice and the power of twitter to make it so easy for my friend 6,000 miles away to microblog her music tastes into my living room.

Coming down off my opera break, I tweeted:

  • US grid needs updating even w/o EVs. Interesting to see if a “smart grid” (smarter) is launched with this administration.
  • With pipelines/fueling stations, there’s a lot to be done to reach a Hydrogen future. May be difficult w/o political backing.

And then Blencoe earned his second point (or perhaps part of his only real point, that of questioning mass market viability of EVs as we know them now): “Only half of people in U.S. have access to outlets at night. Other cars will have to run on something.” I wasn’t aware the number was so big, but accessibility was something I had considered when my Manhattan-based brother looked into buying an electric scooter and suddenly aware that without a garage, or easily accessible outlet, he wouldn’t be able to “fuel up” at night.

Still, while I’ll admit my twitter sparring partner had made some good points about the problems with mass adoption of EVs with our current infrastructure, I don’t believe they’re insurmountable.

There are plenty of entrepreneurs like A Better Place’s Shai Agassi with plans to help Denmark, Israel, Australia, and part of the U.S. (the San Francisco Bay Area and Hawaii) create EV networks with swappable batteries and “intelligent” charging stations (an Internet-connected web of thousands- not just 100- stations). Incidentally, Deutsche Bank analysts have called Agassi’s model a “paradigm shift” and capable of “massive disruption” to the auto industry: “Looking at Better PLC’s model, we conclude that a pure EV should not be more expensive than a gasoline/diesel vehicle.”

Rather than continuing to drag out our debate in a forum where I had just read a tweet that “a submarine makes less noise than a shrimp”, I decided to wrap things up with Blencoe in 4 micro-blogs:

  • I have been really taken in by your arguments these past couple of days, but still not convinced by car execs as a source.
  • Economist’s “Car of the Perpetual Future“. Car execs & H2 fans (Schwarzenegger) always hyping H2 future that never arrives.
  • You’ve made good points about the weaknesses of EVs, but not convinced H2 is the answer.
  • Rocket scientist Robert Zubrin: Hydrogen is “just about the worst possible vehicle fuel”. Prefers methanol fuel-cell cars.

Expecting some sort of further slam on EVs or weak reporting from the press, I waited 18 hours only to hear: “Thanks, I enjoyed the discussion”. Just as the brevity of a tweet can make a debate speed along rapidly or a music suggestion slide into your daily information stream, it also allowed for a very unsatisfactory ending to my first twitter debate/”discussion”.

Still, I want to credit h2caradvocate, and twitter, for making me think a bit more about batteries, charging stations, and the difficulty of finding an alternative to our “gasoline highways” for 99% of our population. Unfortunately for Blencoe, I don’t think the alternative will be hydrogen, but rather improved EV batteries and infrastructure. And it seems popular, and expert, opinion is tipping that direction.