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nothing but blue skies
Air Quality In This Region Is Awful. While Some Spin Dreams of a Hydrogen Economy, Many Environmentalists Look for
Immediate Solutions
Despite mind-numbing feats of linguistic gymnastics. Pittsburgh's reputation as a notoriously smoky corner of the modern world persists in antique photographs of smelter stacks and furnace plumes made indelible by their stubborn redundancy amidst palls of gray-black fallout. The photos, made during the Great Depression under the aegis of the Farmer's Security Administration by such masters of photography as Jack Delano, John Vachon, John Collier and Arthur Rothstein, have risen to stations of reverence among the silver halide cognoscenti.

To make matters worse, James Parton's description of the city as "hell with the lid off' double-burned the brand with a metaphor so wickedly enduring as to stubbornly refute Pittsburgh's miraculous reversal of a once-blighted skyline.

The most recent dose of salt in the slow-healing wound of our atmospheric distress is Pittsburgh's recent listing by the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) as the sixth most air-polluted metropolitan statistical area in the United States. East of the Mississippi, we rank first.

Throughout the world, the names Three Rivers, Fort Pitt, Steel City and the Cathedral of Learning elicit an enviable sequence of superlative praise: frontier ruggedness, blood-sweat determination, fiery diligence and thirsty intellect. Pittsburgh began as a bastion of defense, evolved into a bastion of industry and then into a bastion of intelligence. Where next? If we wait for the air to clear, the question may well be moot.

As unlikely as it may seem, Pittsburgh's air pollution challenges may represent its next set of economic opportunities. Those opportunities present themselves in two forms: intelligent, instantly available solutions and silver bullets. The intelligent solutions revolve around efficiency and conservation, such as environmentally sensitive purchasing decisions and technology integration between energy supply and demand. The silver bullets are more difficult to define, however, most vaporously visible among them is the anticipated "hydrogen economy." On paper, hydrogen looks like the answer to our prayers. The question is how long it will take for paper to become reality.

Citing one of hydrogen's main challenges, that of avoiding the use of fossil fuels to make it cost-efficiently, Jonathan Nadle, president of Pittsburgh's Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), views the development of a hydrogen economy with caution. He considers energy conservation to be the only sensible first step in addressing both our air-pollution and energy-consumption problems. "It's the well-worn mantra, 'Reduce then reuse,"' Nadle says. "The idea of conservation has been around for so long that it may no longer be trendy, but it's proven to work and today it can serve as a great first step in cleaning our air."

Nadle says one of the main reasons Pittsburgh and other cities have not been more successful in their efforts to remedy their air-pollution problem is that "utility companies fight tooth and nail against efforts to control power-plant emissions that negatively impact their bottom lines." Nadle, a professional energy auditor, balances a sense of idealistic fervor with savvy pragmatism. "It's only natural that they want to protect the status quo." he continues. "After all, they are in the energy business to make a profit. There will be a lot of risks taken as we move toward clean energy, but the biggest risk of all is to allow ourselves to be trapped by inertia."

David Keith, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon's Department of Engineering and Public Policy, in the July 18 issue of the journal Science, said that the prospect of a new hydrogen infrastructure is inherently risky and premature. In his article, he shunned near-term investment in hydrogen technology, especially for cars, because current technology is able to achieve fuel efficiencies sufficient to meet EPA standards much more cost-effectively. Further, he noted that advances in carbon capture and storage might disqualify hydrogen as a contending solution to our energy/pollution problems.

John Hanger is a former Pennsylvania public utility commissioner and current CEO of PennFuture, an environmental advocacy group. "Clean air is not a luxury," he says. "A clean environment is a competitive environment. Winning businesses know that highly educated, specialized employees demand a high quality of life, starting with clean air and water. In a global economy decision-makers have lots of choices and they will locate where they can find the resources they need to succeed."

Hanger's reasoning defies refutation. Nobody wants to pollute. And everybody wants a clean environment. Clean air has become an issue of global concern. The prospect of climate change is no longer a matter of debate between lab-coated crackpots. It is a topic of concern for the United Nations. The links between air pollution and a myriad health conditions and life-threatening diseases have been shown. The costs of air pollution have been quantified in dollars.

In 2001, the Surface Transportation Policy Project put the economic cost of Pittsburgh's air pollution at more than $227 million per year. To arrive at this figure, the group extrapolated Pittsburgh's share from national Federal Highway Administration statistics of total miles driven and used an estimated health cost factor of one and three-quarter cents per mile. The result is $ 100 per year for every man, woman and child in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Whether or not that number is accurate, Roger Westman, head of air quality at the Allegheny County Department of Health, says the sixth-place designation is a bum rap for Pittsburgh. Westman claims that the Post-Gazette's reporting of the STPP findings resulted in an inaccurate and unfair characterization of the Pittsburgh area,

"We have 12 air-pollution monitors in Allegheny County," Westman says. "The Liberty monitor, which is located downwind of U.S. Steel's Clairton coke plant, is the one that registers high PM-2.5 particles." Westman is quick to point out that U.S. Steel's Clairton plant is the largest coke-producing facility in the United States -- on some days its output is the largest anywhere -- and the cleanest in the world.  Westman explains that the Liberty monitor is intentionally located near a school, downwind of the coke plant, in order to assess the plant's impact upon the kids. "We will be working very closely with EPA and U.S Steel to develop a program to reduce the PM-2.5 emissions. This is a new standard and we don't have the answers yet. We need the data from the Liberty monitor to find the answers and implement an effective mitigation program."

He goes on to complain that, as a consequence of his office's and EPA's efforts to gather data to improve air quality, Pittsburgh has been painted with a dirty brush. "If you go anywhere else in the county, the air is essentially the same quality as in any other urban area in the United States," he says.  Given the realities of public perception, however, Clairton's air is Pittsburgh's problem. Our renovated skyline notwithstanding, we appear to have traded visible emissions for invisible ones.

So how did the city that transformed itself from sweat to smoke to smarts fail to shed its smoggy curse? Suffice it to say that years of political lollygagging at the highest levels of our federal government has led to an energy crisis that has morphed into a three-headed monster: national security, economic stability and public health.

At the national security level, we are held hostage to foreign whimsy and global terror, as a consequence of our oil dependency. In contrast, at the local level, our economic stability has been married to our natural and industrial resources, and to our expectation of cheap energy.  As a consequence of our deals with those devils, public health has suffered. But the deals are just that -- arrangements that offer both sides of the table the satisfaction that they have received more than they have given. The dealers walk away, satisfied, because the chips were not theirs to start with. They belong to you and me. They are our bodies, our lives. And we were not invited to the table.

But, supposing we had been invited, how would we have ascribed a negotiable value to a human life? Phil Coleman, chairman of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club, stated in a public hearing before the EPA that government agencies typically attribute a $6.1 million value to each human life when evaluating new environmental rules. The Bush administration, however, reduced the value of life to $3.7 million per person and only $2.3 million for anybody over the age of 70.

As outrageous as such a callous devaluation of human life may be, it should come as no surprise, given the Bush administration's oil-soaked attitude toward energy and public health. It is telling that of the 14 cabinet members appointed to the National Energy Policy Committee by the president and vice president, the surgeon general is notably absent, as is the Department of Health and Human Services.

As though devaluing our lives was not enough, earlier this year, during his State of the Union Address. President Bush attempted to mortgage our lungs for a couple more decades when he hung his 10-gallon hat on hydrogen. In his speech he proclaimed, "the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free."

As sweet as hydrogen smells for the future, the current political strategy underlying hydrogen is uncannily shrewd. The Bush administration has reworded the problem from, "How to eliminate pollution" to "How to make hydrogen that will eliminate pollution." This is both a red herring and a fail-safe strategy for the fossil fuel industry for two reasons. First, for the foreseeable future, fossil fuels will be used both as feedstock and energy source to make hydrogen. And second, given the daunting nature of converting to a hydrogen infrastructure, government funding will be absolutely necessary to spur it on. And who controls government funding?

The time frame for conversion to a hydrogen-fuel infrastructure is far too long for the private sector to seed development. Lackluster government funding runs the risk of ensuring both the dawdling development of a hydrogen economy and the demise of conservation.  In the meantime, the immensity and allure of the quest for the hydrogen economy will serve to ensure that between now and the time big energy interests turn the world into a prune, we little guys will be assuaged by the dream that someday we will have super-cheap, ultra-clean energy from hydrogen.

On the surface, hydrogen looks like a miracle fuel. It's clean and abundant. Its energy comes in the form of an electrochemical reaction when it combines with oxygen to form water, so there's no pollution. But in order to break the H2 molecules away from their precursors, we need to spend more energy than the energy we get from the hydrogen itself.  If we could do it with less energy, then we could make perpetual motion machines, and I wouldn't be writing this and you wouldn't be reading it.

The lingering problem is this: Given the laws of matter and energy and the realities of current technology and economics, for the foreseeable future, most of the feedstocks and thermal energy we use to produce hydrogen will come from carbon-based polluting sources such as coal, oil and, less polluting, natural gas. So why not just burn fossil fuel in an internal combustion engine and eliminate all the energy-wasting exchanges?

The answer is simple. Electric motors are about three times as energy efficient as internal combustion engines. So, starting at square one, hydrogen has tremendous efficiencies over fossil fuels. The problem is how to gain those efficiencies without further polluting the air.

With or without polluting the air to produce it, here's what the Bush administration's National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap committee has to say about producing commercially viable hydrogen: "Cost-effective means of converting H2 carriers to H2 do not exist." This means  that today, the retail price of a quantity of hydrogen equivalent to the energy contained in a gallon of gasoline would be between seven and eight dollars.

PennFuture's John Hanger believes the president's purported commitment to hydrogen will do little to advance the development of a clean, sustainable energy economy. "The transition to hydrogen is virtually certain. The question is, when will it happen?" Hanger says. "Without a massive commitment from government it will be a decades-long process." By massive commitment Hanger means tens of billions of dollars per year for at least 10 years to get to the point where we have a fully deployed hydrogen infrastructure.

Hanger believes that the hydrogen economy will roll out sequentially, starting with the full commercialization of stationary hydrogen units. The next milepost will be the large-scale production of hydrogen fuel cell cars that are competitive with internal combustion vehicles. "Once stationary hydrogen units are fully commercialized and fuel cell vehicles become cost-competitive, the marketplace will fuel its own penetration," he says.

Hanger and others point out that the sequential development of the hydrogen economy is already underway. Hydrogen fuel cell electricity generators are already used for backup purposes at airports, hospitals and other critical installations.

"All the technologies necessary for a hydrogen economy currently exist," says Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, world-renowned energy consultant and inventor of the lightweight, low-drag fuel cell car named "Revolution." "We are well past proof-of-concept. As fundamental changes in energy bases go, this one is proceeding at an astonishing pace."

An unabashed advocate for hydrogen technology, Lovins does not expect any major barriers to hydrogen's success. Any obstacles, he says, will come in the form of details. One such detail will be the development of substitutes for expensive platinum catalyst membranes used in current fuel cells. Others will include the development of high-temperature fuel cells and advanced hydrogen storage systems. Lovins claims that progress is currently being made on all of these technological challenges.

The point of departure for Lovins's hydrogen evangelism is the design of hybrid gasoline/electric cars that increase fuel efficiency by a factor of three with today's technology -- advancing to a factor of five whenever the new hydrogen infrastructure is fully realized. Such a car will be designed to minimize drag and be built of lightweight, super-strong composite materials, like those used in racecars. Gas mileage for current gas/electric hybrid designs, such as the Toyota Prius, is 52 miles per gallon. Lovins projects mileage for his prototype hydrogen fuel cell Revolution design to be around 99 miles per gallon.

Lovins's strategy answers the chicken-and-egg question: Which comes first, the hydrogen or the car? By decreasing weight and drag, Lovins's car immediately conserves fossil energy by increasing fuel efficiency, hence reducing emissions by about two thirds today, bringing them down to zero with hydrogen fuel cell power. The same design effectively addresses hydrogen's inherent bulk-to-power problem.

That problem is this: Although hydrogen holds a lot of energy per pound, it also takes up a lot of space per pound. Lots more than gasoline or other fossil fuels. There are only two logically possible solutions to this problem; more hydrogen in heavy pressurized containers stored on board a heavy, hydrogen-sucking vehicle, or an aerodynamically efficient, lightweight vehicle that gets more miles per molecule. With the interior space of an SUV, Lovins's Revolution resolves hydrogen's bulk-to-power problem without sacrificing comfort. At the same time it builds a demand-side ramp to a future hydrogen infrastructure by drastically increasing not miles per gallon but miles per dollar over current internal combustion vehicles.

So to conduct an imaginary recap: Now that we have the stationary appliances in the field and we know roughly what the cars will be like, where's all this hydrogen going to come from? How are we going to store it safely? And get it into your appliance or vehicle.'

Today, there are three practical ways of producing hydrogen: Steam reformation of natural gas; thermal reformation of fossil fuels, and electrolysis of water. Each of these methods has its own set of benefits and problems. And all of them have one big general problem.

Both steam and thermal reformation are relatively cheap, but they yield carbon pollutants as well as unreformed feedstock gasses. Electrolyzing water is extremely clean, but today it is far too expensive to be commercially viable.

Generally, all of the processes require energy input originated from conventional energy sources such as fossil fuels or nuclear power. Hydro, wind and solar power would provide non-polluting energy for electrolysis, but are not yet sufficiently penetrated through the energy infrastructure.

Finally, there is another problem which is perceptual in nature -- that of hydrogen's reputation as being extremely explosive. Upon investigation, volatility is not a justifiable concern. As far as safe storage goes, first of all, there would most likely be very little bulk storage of hydrogen. It would be reformed pretty much in a just-in-time way. Secondly, the global industrial hydrogen industry currently produces about 50 million tons of the gas per year, so safety standards are established and mature. Finally, there is a modicum of danger in all of our energy products. Gasoline and natural gas will explode under the right conditions. Experts assert that hydrogen is no more dangerous, perhaps less so, than gasoline or natural gas.

Now that that's out of the way, let's say, for purposes of contemplation and edification, that real world politics and economics are of no consequence. Then, taking a practical, step-wise approach, the next problem is simply to get hydrogen into our stationary fuel cell appliances and fuel cell cars. Today, hydrogen for stationery systems can be delivered by truck through the existing hydrogen production and delivery system. Following that, your local filling station might install a modular hydrogen steam reformer and connect it to the natural gas line that was installed beneath the roadway in 1963.  Then, Pump Number 12 would be converted to hydrogen delivery. And presto!  At this point we would have all of the elements deployed in the marketplace.  Once deployed, as John Hanger says, market penetration will fuel itself.  So here we are with the resources that already exist, deployed for critical uses, ready for rollout into the consumer marketplace. What are we waiting for?

When asked about consumer demand for clean energy and cleaner air, Nick DiPasquale, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection says, "The consumer price signals are not there."

DiPasquale points out that Pennsylvania imports over $4 billion in natural gas and $14 billion dollars in oil each year, an amount comparable to the entire state budget. He proudly acknowledges DEP's aggressive actions to develop indigenous energy sources to displace those imports and keep those dollars inside the state. He also cites Pennsylvania's rapid improvements in air quality as a result of DEP's continuing pollution reduction activities. But when asked about disclosing the true costs of our energy choices, lie has no quantitative answer. "We just don't keep those kinds of books," he says.  In all fairness, it is DiPasquale's job to fix Pennsylvania's environmental problems, not to invent a cost accounting system for the nation's energy resources. But shouldn't somebody be working on it?

A major problem underlying our energy /pollution conundrum is that a fully burdened cost accounting of all of our options is, nowhere to be found. Surely the criteria are as disparate as the health-related costs of pollution, accurate well-to-wheel ratios, fuel efficiencies, air pollution, the human and economic costs of using non-indigenous energy, acknowledged and hidden energy subsidies, deforestation costs, the impact of global climate change and so on. At first glance, such an analysis would appear to be an impossible undertaking. But if, as a nation, we can contemplate the daunting task of shooting a missile out of the sky with another missile, then modeling the true costs of all of our imaginable energy futures should be child's play.

Taking DiPasquale at his word, it may be that our local, state and federal governments are simply incapable of solving our air pollution problems. Will Mayor Murphy fix the air after he fixes the budget gap? Will Governor Rendell fix Pittsburgh's air before Philadelphia's? Our state legislature? The truth is, they are helpless in these matters, The EPA sets standards and it falls to the states to meet them. And if the states, given inadequate support from the federal government, cannot meet the standards, then the EPA will lower the standards, much as the Bush administration has done. It's more of the same, creative discounting of lungs and lives. It is a sad commentary that our government is waiting for market indicators to resolve public health issues that adversely affect each of us every day.

The shame of it is that the tools are there. Conservation tools. Efficiency tools. Alternative fuel tools. Digital tools. Education tools. Calculation tools. Integration tools. Sensitization tools. Leave the pie-in-the-sky for tomorrow, because, as the American Lung Association says in its motto, "When You Can't Breathe, Nothing Else Matters."

In the absence of a set of comprehensive, quantified value propositions by which consumers may establish knowledgeable energy values and make informed choices, DiPasquale says one of the most important things consumers can do to accelerate the development of a hydrogen economy and its attendant clean air is to make green purchasing decisions, such as buying clean electrical energy and high-efficiency cars. Such decisions, he says, will be seen as market indicators by government and industry. In turn, those indications will encourage investment, which will facilitate expansion, economies of scale and lower prices for hydrogen. In addition, he declares that millions of small individual actions on the demand side will result in large consumer-friendly consequences on the supply side.

Suzanne Seppi, executive director of Pittsburgh GASP, puts it this way: "In the short term, the drive towards a hydrogen economy won't magically transport us away from fossil fuel dependence. But in the longer term, it ought to be an important part of a cleaner, less centralized solution."

Whether or not hydrogen will prove to be the answer to all of our energy needs only time will tell. Scientists are currently rifling Mother Nature's file cabinets for biosynthetic methods of producing hydrogen directly from microorganisms, such as some species of algae. Others are investigating organisms that readily yield electricity without intermediary processes. If carbon sequestration testing proves successful, the largest challenge in our air pollution puzzle may be solved without the need for any hydrogen infrastructure. How hydrogen will fit in with other emerging energy solutions is open to question.

But there can be little doubt that hydrogen will remain a political football until our leaders recognize the crisis for what it truly is: not a crisis of energy supply or consumption. We have all the energy we need and the means to make it clean. It is a burgeoning crisis of public health. Our lives are being used as bargaining chips by an entrenched plutocracy set on lining their pockets at the expense of our lungs. Our only choice is to elect leaders who will take us to the hydrogen horizon. Only then will we stand a chance of bequeathing a legacy of health and perhaps peace to our children and theirs.

Just think: At some time over the next couple of decades, next to your home or office, a modular energy appliance powered by a high-efficiency, wind-driven micro-turbine coupled with a few solar panels will provide all the electricity you need whenever the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Since we know that the wind doesn't blow some days and the sun never shines at night, you'll need a backup. So, while you're at work on a sunny day and while you're asleep on a windy night, your energy machine will generate electricity that it uses to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms and store them for those cloudy days and windless nights when you want to vacuum the carpet while you watch TV and run the dishwasher. On that cold and not-so-stormy night, just when you need the energy, the hydrogen your appliance produced yesterday will be catalyzed to produce electricity that evening.  But between now and then, it looks as though it will be up to consumers of energy products to vote in the marketplace. There are thousands of actions that each of us can take, from switching to fluorescent bulbs to sharing rides, planting shrubs instead of lawns and putting the lawnmower in mothballs. Each day those actions will add up to a small pile of energy savings. And each of our small piles of energy savings will make our aggregate pile bigger.

The basic resources to start cleaning the air are here in Pittsburgh today. On the near-term solutions side. there's Pittsburgh's Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), CMU's Department of Engineering and Public Policy, internationally renowned Conservation Consultants. Inc. and PennFuture with their affiliated Web site, In the silver bullet department, there's the Siemens Westinghouse fuel cell research division in Pittsburgh; in Johnstown, there's the Department of Defense Fuel Cell Test and Evaluation Center; and in the South Hills there's the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Finally, there's you and me -- taxpayers, voters, moms, dads, workers, shoppers, purchasers of energy products. Jimmy Carter said it first: "Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people." He was talking about us. It's up to us to get this ball rolling while we still have breath to do it.

Here are a few ways to send the market signals: Buy a few bucks worth of clean electricity every month from a source like Encourage development of green building design for public and private buildings. Test-drive a hybrid car at GASP's annual meeting on November 8. If you like it, buy one. Thank the elected officials who voted for Pittsburgh's no-idling ordinance. Ask political candidates about their environmental voting histories and plans of action for improving air quality.

Suggest that the Port Authority run a fleet of fuel cell busses. Ask your church or school board to think about lighting a building with a fuel cell appliance. Argue about installing a wind turbine instead of an electric sign. Face a skyscraper with photovoltaic cells. Build a wind farm in the South Hills. Insist on Pittsburgh's share of Pennsylvania's Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Funds.

Promote energy audits for homes and offices. Suggest that Allegheny County hire an energy grants person. Insist on green school buildings, where kids have been shown to perform 20 percent better because they're comfortable in their environment. Take the money for the next stadium and put it into the air. It will be better spent because clean air never loses. Let homeowners and business people know that Pittsburgh is serious about saving them money by saving the air. There are lots of things that can be done. Surely you can think of a few. Make clean air the priority.

Between near-term solutions, grassroots efforts and silver bullets, there stands the promise of putting Pittsburgh on the world map as a bastion of clean air. Then, with any luck, the day will come when the folks concerned about how to dress up Pittsburgh for the global marketplace will actually have a differential advantage to boast about. Our skies will be clean. The air will smell like the blossom of the day. We'll all breathe better. Our wizards will improve the technologies. Our techies will design distributed energy systems. Our tradesmen will install and service fuel cell appliances and vehicles. Our muses will sing of sweet skies. And our marketers will come up with something really catchy. Something like: Pittsburgh -- heaven with the lid off.

This story first appeared in Pittsburgh PULP

©Copyright 2003 Thomas P. Imerito

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