Building better buses - Page 3

AC Transit pushes hydrogen fuel cells as oil companies pull back
Chevron helped greenwash its image by supporting AC Transit's hydrogen fuel cell program before pulling out this September

"I see the power of corporations growing and the power of politicians actually waning," Lipman said. "Who is really going to benefit the most? It's society and consumers, but they're not going to lobby for it."

When it comes to lobbying, few can outgun the power of the Western States Petroleum Association. WSPA is consistently among the top few lobbyists in California, spending $10.5 million to influence the Legislature in 2007-08. Even with the push for alternative energy options, it's oil that really governs the debate. Relatively inexpensive and easily storable, oil is still king even as gasoline prices hover at $80 a barrel.

"We will never run out of oil, but the question is, can we afford it?" said WSPA spokesperson Tupper Hull. Rising oil prices have helped proponents of alternative energy because the cost spread between gasoline and other energy options has narrowed. But they worry that momentum will be lost if the recession lingers and oil drops in price.

Proponents of the "peak oil" theory say we are approaching a point at which global oil production will start declining, necessitating a rapid and potentially painful transition to new fuels. But identifying the peak is difficult, complicated by events such as the 2007 discovery of more than 5 billion barrels of oil off the coast of Brazil. The oil field was found under 7,060 feet of water, 10,000 feet of sand, and another 6,600 feet of salt. What the oil industry is ultimately worried about is whether we will hit a point where extracting oil gets so expensive that the cost of oil starts to cripple the global economy. Drilling four miles under the sea isn't cheap.

In an e-mail exchange about Chevron's AC transit hydrogen fueling station, Chevron spokesperson Brent Tippen wrote, "Hydrogen has potential as a transportation fuel in the long term, but significant technical and economic obstacles prevent it from being a widespread commercial fuel option right now."

Levin is cautiously optimistic that it could be the gas companies like Linde and Praxair, and not the oil companies, that carry the hydrogen torch forward.

After a brief ride in a hydrogen fuel cell bus, Levin noted how quiet they are. At one point, he bought Tibetan bells and had them welded to the bus so it would be audible as it moved, but there wasn't enough vibration to make them ring.

Therein lies Levin's dream: a quiet, nonemitting vehicle for public transportation. And maybe even someday an entire society running on a clean, renewable, domestic fuel source. But for now he'll start with what he's got: a $2.5 million bus that emits water from the tailpipe and doesn't make any noise.