For years, the development of alternative energy technologies that promise environmental benefits - technologies like wind and solar power - has remained largely outside the mainstream of American big business. But now that's changing, due in part to new environmental leadership in northeast Ohio. Recent advances in technology, combined with growing concerns about the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels, are turning some industry leaders toward green research. The most promising of these new energy sources is fuel cell technology. As 90.3's Karen Schaefer reports, some experts predict fuel cells could revolutionize the world as we know it.
KS- Dr. David Orr says there's one thing that never fails to amaze visitors to the new Lewis Environmental Studies Center at Oberlin College - and that's the building's energy system. The Lewis Center is considered one of the most environmentally advanced buildings in the world. Warmed by radiant and forced air heat under the floor and cooled by convection currents from windows that open, the source for most of the building's power will come from solar roof panels and something called a fuel cell.
DR. DAVID ORR- "A fuel cell basically takes hydrogen, joins it with oxygen and air to make electricity chemically, so there's no combustion. And the bi-product isn't smoke and carbon dioxide and things of that nature, it's water vapor and electricity."
KS- The technology of hydrogen fuel cells goes back over a hundred years, when the concept was first demonstrated in a laboratory. It's the same technology that now powers our Space Shuttles and provides its astronauts with drinking water. But for years, hydrogen had a bad name. Mark Hoberecht is a chemical engineer in charge of fuel cell projects at NASA Glenn Research Center.
MARK HOBERECHT- "The technology itself is very safe. Hydrogen gets a bad rap, because of the Hindenberg explosion...gasoline is in many ways more dangerous than hydrogen. People don't think of every car driving down the road as a bomb driving down the road...In the near future, the first place you'll see widespread use of fuel cells is in automobiles."
KS- This year, Honda and Toyota unveiled the world's first hybrid fuel cars, powered by both gasoline and electricity. By 2004, Ford Motor Company will join the two Japanese car makers in introducing an automobile with an entirely new drive train technology, the hydrogen fuel cell car. John Wallace is executive director of the THINK Group, a subsidiary of Ford charged with creating new forms of green transportation.
JOHN WALLACE- "From Ford's point of view, obviously we have a number of objectives. We are of course interested in environmental reputation, there's nothing wrong with that. We're also interested in making a profit. But in addition to all that, it's a sort of laboratory for the company to try out new ways of doing things and new ways of doing business..."
KS- In fact, Ford's commitment to cleaner, greener cars has been extended to their method of manufacture. At the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, environmentalists are helping the car maker turn Henry Ford's original assembly plant into the green factory of the future.
JW- "As major manufacturers of personal mobility products, it's our job to try to get rid of or reduce the negative impacts, so that people can continue to enjoy the positive benefits of personal transportation."
KS- California's new low emissions standards may be one of the factors driving the fuel cell car market. While Wallace believes it will be years before fuel cell cars can really compete against the internal combustion engine, NASA Glenn engineer Mark Hoberecht says the costs are coming down.
MH- "I think in the automotive industry, the goal is to get the price of fuel cells down to about $50 a kilowatt. We're nowhere near that yet, but we're close. It's not unimaginable that in thirty years, we're not using fossil fuels anymore, we're totally running on a hydrogen economy. It could really result in an energy revolution, worldwide."
KS- As costs drop over the next few years, experts say fuel cells will be able to produce energy more cheaply than all but the biggest hydroelectric dams, a factor that has some public utilities concerned. Todd Schneider is with Akron-based FirstEnergy.
TODD SCHNEIDER- "I wouldn't call it a concern. I think we're kind of excited about the prospects, we're following the new technology very closely."
KS- Under deregulation, electric utility companies are facing new competition. While FirstEnergy monitors developments in the fuel cell industry, Detroit Edison - the country's seventh-largest electric utility - is now distributing the nation's first home fuel cell systems in what could be the first step in a complete decentralization of the nation's electric power grid.
TS- "...I don't see the grid disappearing anytime soon or the major base plants disappearing anytime soon."
MARK HOBERECHT- "I tend to believe that it's sooner than most people think.
KS- NASA Glenn engineer Mark Hoberecht.
MH- "I think in the next twenty to thirty years, that we'll be able to transition almost completely into a hydrogen economy."
KS- All predictions aside, some people are already betting on the new hydrogen fuel cell technology. In New York City, the country's first green skyscraper - the Conde Nast building - incorporates fuel cells in its energy system. And at Oberlin, Environmental Studies director David Orr has pledged to take the entire campus off the city's electric grid by the year 2030. For INFOHIO, I'm Karen Schaefer in Oberlin.