Philadelphia Could Become A Center Of The Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) Revolution
(This essay, by Michael Silverstein and Kay Wood, considers one important way Philly could become a green economic power.)
Opponents of a fossil fuel-based energy hub plan for Philadelphia often speak of green alternatives that should really be the focus of such a hub. But there’s often a lack of specifics when it comes to describing these green alternatives and their potential.
Today, however, the city has a very timely opportunity to benefit in a big way from a revolutionary trend in the transportation sector of the economy. It can tap the potential of a fast emerging zero emission vehicle (ZEV) market because of some factors that uniquely favor Philadelphia in this realm.
General ZEV Background
Zero emissions vehicles now come in two basic formats: lithium ion battery-powered and hydrogen fuel cell-powered. In the automobile market, the lithium battery-powered variety are now produced by car makers like Nissan and Tesla; the hydrogen fuel cell-powered variety are now produced by car makers like Toyota and Hyundai.
Two major problems made such vehicles seem commercially impractical for many years. The first was lack of convenience in recharging a battery- powered car or refueling a hydrogen fuel cell-powered one. This problem is now being addressed in significant ways for both vehicle formats.
You can do plug-in recharges for new battery-powered cars overnight at home. Electric charging stations that provide needed charges outside the home are also springing up in many places such as at work places or shopping malls, especially in California with a fast growing number of battery-powered vehicles are already on its roads (though recharging is still a fairly lengthy process).
When it comes to refueling a hydrogen fuel cell-powered car, pumps to do this are appearing in great numbers. California, for example, expects to have between 63-75 such fueling stations covering most of that state by 2020. And this past July participants in Germany’s H2 Mobility Initiative announced plans to have 400 such pumps, sited in existing gas stations, located throughout the country by 2023, so no hydrogen fuel cell-powered car driver there will be more than a 50-minute drive from a five-minute hydrogen fuel up.
The other major problem that long plagued a zero emissions vehicle market was that these vehicles were not truly zero emissions. Yes, when you drove one they gave off no climate hurting emissions. But when you recharged a battery model the electricity came from power plants that ran on fossil fuel. For a hundred years, meanwhile, most commercially produced hydrogen to refuel a fuel cell-powered vehicle came from natural gas, a major pollutant.
Things are changing rapidly here. Many battery-powered car owners in California and elsewhere recharge overnight with electricity made by their home solar units, while some recharging stations in the state get their own power exclusively from solar, wind, or geothermal sources.
When it comes to hydrogen refueling, a growing amount of hydrogen comes from hydrolysis of water using wind or solar as the hydrolysis power source. Indeed, the entire national H2 Mobility Initiative in Germany gets its own hydrogen from wind turbines.
The most important thing generally to keep in mind about a ZEV-based automobile future is that it’s a future already well begun and destined to reach full fruition in a near, not a distant time. California, which sets the tone for the entire world auto market, estimates that 87 percent of all vehicles on its roads will be ZEVs by 2050. Supporting this estimate, Toyota, the world’s best-selling car seller, said virtually all its own cars will be either hybrids or ZEVs by that same year.
Philadelphia’s Unique ZEV Opportunity
There are a number of ways that Philadelphia could tap into the electric battery end of the zero emissions vehicle market. The most immediate economic opportunity here, however, is in the hydrogen fuel cell end of this market.
Curiously, this opportunity arises from one we have already missed. Toyota began selling its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell-powered car a few years ago in California. Early last year it announced plans to market its Mirai on the East Coast in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. Pennsylvania (and Philadelphia) didn’t make the cut for lack of a push by state government.
However, we still have a very big opportunity in this burgeoning market. It involves putting together some synergistic pieces that happen to fall in a very positive way for the City of Philadelphia and its own future economy.
The company that is emerging as Toyota’s chief competitor in the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle market is Hyundai, which just began test marketing its own Tucson fuel cell contender in California last year. And Hyundai, unlike Toyota, has yet to establish an East Coast marketing center.
Hyundai’s East Coast port of entry, where all its cars come in this part of the U.S., is the Port of Philadelphia. It is a well-established presence there.
It also happens that part of the Port of Philadelphia is the Navy Yard where the Philadelphia Industrial Development agency, working with an international solar company, Conenergy, is developing a large solar photovoltaic system.
This project is part of a broader plan, the Solar City Partnership, that brings together the City of Philadelphia and the U.S. Department of Energy with a goal, according to the city’s Sustainability Office’s website “of fully utilizing solar energy’s potential to safely, reliably and cost effectively displace the use of energy generated by fossil fuels.”
Could the large solar photovoltaic system in the Navy Yard be used via hydrolysis of water to produce cleanly produced hydrogen for Hyundai’s Tucson cars that will soon be coming into the Port of Philadelphia? Of course. Something analogous is already happening at a port in Hawaii.
There, a large solar array on a military base is generating cleanly produced hydrogen that is not only used to fuel the port’s formerly fossil fuel run refrigeration units but a kind of vehicle — the refrigeration barges that carry goods among the islands. And this solar to hydrogen to vehicle running cycle is funded by an agency of the federal government.
Two pieces of the puzzle allowing the Philadelphia economy to tap into the fast evolving zero emissions vehicle market are thus obvious and already in place: A car company that needs a marketing center and a source of environmentally clean hydrogen; and a readily tapped nearby source of that fuel. The next piece of the puzzle involves a company just an hour’s drive up the road from Philly — Air Products, headquartered in Allentown.
Air Products is the world’s largest producer of hydrogen used in scores of industrial processes. Though it currently does not itself generate hydrogen from sources such as solar or wind, it is a major supplier of hydrogen transportation-related infrastructure products such as fuel pumps, many already used around the world by vehicles such as buses and industrial equipment like fork lifts, running on hydrogen fuel that is solar or wind generated.
Air products is a natural locally-based partner with Hyundai, Conenergy, Philadelphia Industrial Development, the Port of Philadelphia, and the U.S. Energy Department to make Philadelphia home base for the East Coast marketing effort of Hyundai’s entry into the budding zero emissions vehicle market — with all the jobs, innovations, and infrastructure (including pipeline building) that comes in its wake.
In terms of where funds to cover the initial infrastructure costs of such an effort might come from, beyond government grants, it is worth noting in this regard that in California, developing its own hydrogen fuel station infrastructure, Toyota is paying part of these costs. Hyundai is very likely to do the same in Philly if the right pieces of this economic development puzzle can all be assembled.
Further Opportunities, Likely Opposition
At first glance it might seem odd that local fossil fuel interests would oppose this bring-the-ZEV-revolution-to Philly-plan. Yet in all likelihood they would, and in fact, already have.
Through their lobbyists in Harrisburg they have inserted into Pennsylvania’s energy promotion planning a specific prohibition against mandating something California has mandated — that all new automobiles after a certain date have to be zero emissions to be licensed by the state.
Why would they do this? The simple answer is that passenger cars are just part of a far larger transportation sector that also includes buses, trucks, maritime vessels of all sorts, and industrial and farm equipment. While natural gas-powered engines are not competitors in the automotive part of this sector, they are definitely competing in these other parts. And by promoting automotive ZEV development in Philly, the fall out in these other transportation areas might cause natural gas alternatives to lose out.
One could therefore expect a fight against a plan to give Philadelphia’s energy hub a ZEV bent. One could also expect local fossil fuel interests to try to scare environmentalists away from this plan by noting that most commercially produced hydrogen comes from natural gas — conveniently ignoring that the hydrogen in this plan comes from a non-polluting solar via water hydrolysis source.
But this fight is one the good guys can win.
Phil Rinaldi’s crowd like to go up against large but often fragmented environmentalist opposition in league with relatively small green business interests. But the business interests described above include Hyundai, one of the world’s largest car makers, Air Products, the world largest industrial gas producer, Conenergy, an international hedge fund-owned solar projects company, Philadelphia Industrial Development, the Port of Philadelphia, and the U.S. Energy Department.
Philadelphia’s can have a green twenty-first century energy future. This Hyundai project could move that vision along nicely. So let’s make it happen.
Michael Silverstein is a former senior editor at Bloomberg News and a regular contributor to Planet Philadelphia radio show. Kay Wood is the producer and host of Planet Philadelphia.
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