Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Not in My Hindenburg

The technology for putting Hydrogen-fueled cars on the road has reached a tricky point: past the glossy stage at which it existed only as shiny possibilities, but a long way from being economically competitive and widely available. In its present limbo, developers are being forced to address the real-world problems of community relations and service station permits without having a compelling product and a clear-cut economic advantage. GM has run into this brick wall in Tarrytown, a community in New York not far from where I live. Thanks to local opposition, it will have to find another city to use as a fuel cell vehicle test market.

We all know that hydrogen has an image problem concerning safety. Over the years I've read dozens of articles debunking this "Hindenburg effect", and yet the public still associates the fuel with a giant fireball consuming an airship, accompanied by the voice of the radio announcer saying, "Oh, the Humanity!" But I'm not sure that this is the whole story. We live in a peculiar time, surrounded by high-tech gizmos we can't imagine living without but deeply suspicious of the infrastructure that keeps them running.

My own town is in the midst of a long-running battle over cellphone antennas. You can't drive anywhere without seeing every other driver with a phone glued to his or her ear--in violation of a 5-month old handsfree law--but heaven forbid that Verizon should put up an antenna near any residential property, to improve the dreadful reception outside the downtown. The latest setback concerns a proposal to attach antennas to a 114 ft. tall water tower, which has been defeated in the state supreme court on the interpretation of the land-use restrictions in a deed.

Imagine trying to start up the gasoline service station network a hundred years ago with this kind of sensibility and a court system willing to facilitate it. It would never have gotten off the ground, and I grow increasingly skeptical that any alternative fuel that can't piggyback on the existing petroleum products infrastructure--or finesse it altogether, as in home battery recharging--can ever become ubiquitous enough to avoid a chicken-and-egg failure. That sounds pretty cynical, but unless communities change their attitudes toward things like LNG, high-voltage power lines, and hydrogen filling stations, we will see our available energy options pruned back to a progressively more restrictive and increasingly unimaginative short list.

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