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SF’s new hydrogen ferry could fuel clean energy market

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Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine, a Bay Area company, is developing a hydrogen fuel-cell ferry called “Water-Go-Round.” (Courtesy rendering)

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Hydrogen has been the fuel of the future for decades.

Two years ago, San Francisco received funding to help develop hydrogen infrastructure. Although the Port identified Pier 54 as a feasible location for a fueling station, the proposal hasn’t become a reality. In fact, as electric vehicles and charging stations pop up all over San Francisco, there are no existing hydrogen fuel stations in The City.

But the market could, and should, change for hydrogen soon.

This week, Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine, a Bay Area company, announced it received a $3 million grant by the California Air Resources Board to build the first hydrogen fuel-cell ferry in the United States. Finally, the maritime industry, which relies on dirty diesel, is getting financial support to clean up its act. If hydrogen fuel cells become more widely adopted, the demand could also provide California with support to store renewable energy.

“We have an issue with maritime pollution,” Dr. Joseph Pratt, CEO of Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine, told me. “There are certain cases where battery-powered, electric boats make sense. But with hydrogen fuel you don’t need infrastructure at the dock and have a lot more flexibility and endurance.”

Pratt, a former energy researcher at Sandia Laboratories, has studied the feasibility of hydrogen fuel-cell boats for years. The proposed ferry — the Water-Go-Round — will be able to fill up quickly from a truck and travel long distances without needing to re-fuel. Plus, it won’t be limited to a route dictated by its battery capacity. If Pratt decides to retire the Water-Go-Round from his fleet, it will be easier to sell.

The widespread adoption of hydrogen fuel cells by the maritime industry could also benefit electricity suppliers in California. To make the fuel, producers need an energy source to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Typically, fossil fuels, like natural gas, provide this energy source.

But the growing number of solar and wind power plants in California is putting cheaper, renewable energy on the grid and creating a market to capture, or store, the energy. Storage gives electricity customers more flexibility and security. It also monetizes any potential surpluses.

Across the country, utilities are looking to add batteries to their portfolios to store renewable energy. In California, investor-owned providers Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric are required to procure specific amounts of electricity from storage by 2020. The big three are building battery projects to meet the mandate.

But storing renewable energy in hydrogen tanks may be a better choice; at least, in some situations. Batteries face limitations, according to representatives from Hydrogenics, the company that’s helping develop the Water-Go-Round’s technology. They typically have storage capacity of up to 100 megawatts and can only capture, store and discharge electricity at a single location. Batteries are also susceptible to temperature fluctuations.

Hydrogen doesn’t face the same constraints. It can store more energy than batteries for an infinite amount of time. It can also be used in a variety of applications.

“The highest value is as a vehicle fuel because it’s difficult to replace gasoline and hydrogen can do that,” Keith Wipke of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory told me. “But the more hydrogen becomes available, the more it can be blended into other industries to reduce fossil fuels.”

While ferries and boats could create a demand for stored hydrogen, a lot is still unknown. For the next three months, the Water-Go-Round will operate in San Francisco Bay as researchers from Sandia Laboratories gather data and assess its performance. If the vessel is successful, Pratt and others must then motivate the maritime industry to ditch diesel for hydrogen fuel on a wider scale.

Only the future knows if they will be successful. But it’s prudent for the public to give hydrogen a chance. Every technology, even lithium-ion batteries, has an environmental impact. Diversifying our clean energy portfolio reduces the burden a single natural resource must bear to heat our homes, light our rooms and take us across the Bay.

Perhaps, the Water-Go-Round can transport hydrogen from the fuel of the future into the fuel of today.

GREEN SPACE Q&A

Where do you put those plastic mesh bags that mandarins and avocados are sold in at the store? – Dale Harvey

Great question! Those mesh bags can create quite the mess. The net-like bags used to wrap multiple oranges or avocados are either produced with a nylon-like fabric that resembles a fishing net or stretchy plastic. Both are hazardous for wildlife and difficult, if not impossible, to recycle.

Recology, The City’s recycling provider, asks San Franciscans to avoid the mesh bags whenever possible. Most produce can be purchased without the net. It’s sometimes harder to find specialty produce, like a brand of citrus known as Cuties, without the packaging.

If you must mesh, try to reuse it. Carry fruits purchased from farmer’s markets or use them for your wet swim suits this summer. Keep them out of the black bin or the Bay as long as possible.

More sorting questions? Ask me! Email bluegreenorblack@gmail.com.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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