Friday, February 10, 2006

#235 - Because Revolutions Take Time and We Are Impatient

I called my Mom the other night. It used to be that when I'd call my mother at home I generally had to go through the Debby Filter®. My sister was living with Mom and kept the phone within reach pretty much full time. Now that Mom is married and living in Texas, however, I have to go through the Evil Woody Step-Dad. (Just kidding, Bob! Really!)

We can tease about having an evil step-dad because Bob is about as nice a guy as you'd ever want to meet. He even reads my blogs, so exactly how evil could this guy be? Unless, of course, he's planning some sort of extortion later on... Hm. Must ponder this disturbing development further.

Anyway, Bob answered the phone the other night. He point-blank refused to let me speak with my mother (the nerve!) until he'd shared with me his Burning Opinion of Bush's 2006 State of the Union address.

"Don't you think, " he asked, "that Bush's comment that we need to depend less on foreign oil comes across as 'too little, too late?'"

Yes, I admitted, he certainly seems to be entering this fray a tad late.

"Well," continued the Evil Woody Step-Dad, "I think there might be a blog in there somewhere."

Point taken. Then he let me talk to Mom. (Side note of no real interest except to my siblings: Wanna know how to make Mom blush? Just mention, when she says she was ready to jump on Bob's chest to make him give her the phone, that she can jump on his chest anyway. I swear I heard her blush.)

So: Dependence on Foreign Oil. My mind immediately jumped to a report I'd heard just a few days earlier about some hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that were being test driven around Los Angeles. Fuel cell vehicles are - for a number of reasons - the most obvious approach I can think of for eliminating our dependence on OPEC and the Dynasty of Imperialistic US Oil Interests.

The idea is to take a technology that was used extensively in the American space program - hydrogen fuel cells - and make it available to power the vehicles that we drive every day. (I read, in fact, that the invention of fuel cells actually occured in the 19th century. Go figure.) On the plus side, the by-product of a hydrogen fuel cell is water. Water would, of course, merely evaporate - sorta like my tax refunds every year - and are about the most environment-friendly fuel source imaginable. Also, every major car manufacturer has some sort of fuel cell vehicle under development. The down side includes the ludricous cost of the technology, and the equally ludicrous cost of the fuel itself.

The processing of hydrogen for fuel cells makes the cost of that fuel the equivalent of $20 to $30 dollars a gallon when compared to gasoline, according to one report. Add to that the fact that fueling stations are rare, and you see that we just don't have the infrastructure in place yet to support wide-spread use of fuel cell vehicles. California, in fact, is the only state I know of to have an active interest in building hydrogen fueling stations. But even when Schwarzenegger is done with his current wish list, there will be a total of 13 (count 'em! 13!) fuel stations across the state. Big whoopin' deal.

Of course, it's easy to fret now. Chrysler just delivered 5 test vehicles to Los Angeles World Airports (keepers of LAX) to be tested over the next two to three years. Technology Proof vehicles, we'd call them. This will help the company see how the vehicles age with "normal" use and help them further refine the technology. Also, the cars cost $1 million each to build. (Really? One million, you say? Huh.) So the probability of seeing fuel cell cars at a dealer's lot in the next 10 years or so is slim.


If the computer industry has taught us anything it's that, once something has caught on, prices will drop. Within the next twenty years, who's to say that the vehicles won't be available for less than $50,000 while the price of fuel drops to under $5? By then we can imagine that between government incentive programs and the honest greed of corporate America, we might begin to see hydrogen fueling stations popping up all over the country. (You just know that we'll begin to see the hydrogen equivalent of Yugos breaking down on freeways all over Los Angeles. That will be one of the signs of the Apocalypse.)

In the meantime, there are alternatives to consider. BMW, for example, is producing an engine that will run on either gasoline or hydrogen. It's basically just a combustion engine that will burn either fuel. Of course, the act of burning hydrogen means that there would be some pollution. But those pollution levels would be, according to BMW, far below even California's tough emission standards.

Battery-powered vehicles are another option. The technology has grown tremendously in the last few years. One of my best friends works for a company that produces the Tango, a battery vehicle that has potential to become the commuter vehicle of choice in the near future. It's about the size of a smallish golf cart, is highway rated, and can park in impossibly small spaces. The problem? It still costs about $80,000 to own one because they can't get investors to recognize the potential for mass producing such a vehicle. Hey! Mr. Investor! I'm a regular middle income guy, and I would buy one of these! Really! (How'd I do, LaVar?)

The hybrids already in production are nice, but just a stop-gap when you think about it. They are meant to reduce (not eliminate) emissions and be much easier on your personal economy. As a help to the environment, however, their impact will be minimal at best.

So, yes, President Bush's statement might be perceived as too little, too late. On the other hand, maybe - just maybe - Congress will finally get the message and start to ignore the Oil Dynasty's protestations. Will we ever be completely free from our dependence on oil? No. Not given our current infrastructure. But we can start, and if the Government gives it a big enough push, we really can pull it off. Oil will still be useful to our economy. It figures heavily, if memory serves, in the production of plastics. I don't see that disappearing any time soon. But if we can stop burning the stuff to get to work every day, we will have achieved a tremendous victory.

France may even start liking us again.

Or, maybe not. One can never tell, with the French.

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