EarthTalk: Not long ago we were reading a lot
about hydrogen’s role in a clean energy future, with
cars transitioning from gasoline-powered engines to hydrogen-powered
fuel cells. Where does hydrogen fit now in the mix with
electric cars now coming on so strong?
—Amanda Jenkins, Troy, MI
development costs, implementation hurdles -- and
competition from electric and hybrid-electric vehicles
-- have kept hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles
(FCVs) out of the mainstream for now, but FCVs aren't
dead in the water yet and research and development
continues in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. Pictured:
The Honda FCX Clarity fuel cell car.
© Raymond Chen/Flickr
is true that just a few years ago everyone was talking hydrogen
fuel cells as the future of petroleum-free automotive transport.
Fuel cell cars can run on infinitely renewable hydrogen
gas and emit no harmful tailpipe emissions whatsoever. A
2005 Scientific American article bullishly reported that
car company executives “foresee no better option to
the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle in the long run.” Likewise,
the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggested, also in
2005, that some 30 percent of the global stock of vehicles—700
million cars and trucks—could be powered by hydrogen
fuel cells by 2050.
high development costs and implementation hurdles have kept
fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) out of the mainstream for now.
And in the face of competition from a new crop of all-electric
and hybrid-electric vehicles lately, some analysts wonder
whether the fuel cell’s future is as bright as once
not to say the technology isn’t impressive, and still
potentially very promising. The concept was first developed
by NASA some five decades ago for use in space travel and
has since been implemented in a wide range of other mobile
and stationary power applications. In an FCV, a stack of
fuel cells under the hood converts hydrogen stored on-board
with oxygen in the air to make electricity that propels
the drive train. While automakers have been able to make
fuel cells small enough to fit in and power a conventional
size car or truck, the price per unit is high due to the
need to incorporate expensive, cutting edge components.
And the lack of widespread demand precludes cost-saving
mass production. Also, the lack of hydrogen refueling stations
around the country limits the practicality of driving a
fuel cell vehicle.
to Richard Gilbert, co-author of the book, Transport Revolutions:
Moving People and Freight without Oil, another big issue
for hydrogen-powered fuel cells is their energy inefficiency.
Creating hydrogen gas by splitting water molecules via electrolysis
ends up using up about half of the energy it creates. Another
half of the resulting energy is taken up by the conversion
of hydrogen back into electricity within fuel cells. “This
means that only a quarter of the initially available energy
reaches the electric motor,” reports Gilbert. (Making
hydrogen by reforming natural gas is also highly inefficient
and relies on a fossil fuel from the get-go.) Such losses
in conversion don’t stack up well against, for instance,
recharging an electric vehicle (EV) like the Nissan Leaf
or Chevy Volt from a wall socket—especially if the
electricity can be initially generated from a renewable
source like wind or solar.
FCVs aren’t dead in the water yet. A few dozen Californians
are already driving one of Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel
cell cars. A $600/month lease payment entitles qualifying
drivers to not only collision coverage, maintenance and
roadside assistance but also hydrogen fuel, available via
a handful of “fast-fill” hydrogen refueling
stations. General Motors is part of an effort to test FCVs
and implement a viable hydrogen refueling infrastructure
in Hawaii, currently one of the most fossil fuel dependent
states in the U.S. The Hawaii Hydrogen Initiative aims to
bring upwards of 20 hydrogen refueling stations to Hawaii
by 2015. Other efforts are underway in the U.S., Europe
EarthTalk: I heard that timber thefts are increasing
across the country. Why would people steal timber and is
it a particular kind for a particular use?
—Rosie Ng, Stanwood, WA
thefts appear to be on the rise and losses in Mississippi
alone were estimated to be $3 million over the last
five years. Pictured: the aftermath of a timber
theft (in this case, maple) in Washington State.
© Washington State Department of Natural Resources/Flickr
People are stealing
timber for the same reasons they steal anything: to profit
from someone else’s hard work. What makes timber thefts
that much harder to stop is the fact that, most of the time,
they occur in remote forested areas and loggers typically
don’t have to document their sales as meticulously
as other kinds of natural resource extraction. With the
economy still in the doldrums, it’s not surprising
that timber thefts appear to be on the rise, at least based
on anecdotal evidence from around the country.
theft can range from a landowner cutting down a neighbor’s
tree to loggers stealing hundreds or thousands of trees
from private or public lands,” reports Lori Compas
in the September/October 2010 issue of E Magazine. “Investigators
say it’s difficult to calculate the exact number of
trees lost to theft, but losses are estimated at $3 million
over the last five years in Mississippi alone.” She
cites one example there whereby a logger was arrested on
three counts of timber theft after clearing some $375,000
worth of trees from land set aside to benefit local schools.
In some cases,
thieves are targeting specific types of rare or expensive
wood, such as the distinctively patterned birds-eye maple
used in some high-end musical instruments. Since there’s
no way to tell if the wood inside a maple tree will show
the birds-eye pattern without cutting into it, thieves aren’t
scared to damage or potentially kill a tree to find out.
“We can see where they’ve notched trees [on
state-owned forest land] to see if they have that desirable
pattern,” says Larry Raedel, chief law enforcement
officer for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
“When they find one that does, they cut down the entire
tree and pack out a five- or six-foot section. They might
make $300-$400 for a slab of birdseye.”
Of course, on
the other end of the spectrum, more complex schemes involve
unreported or falsified mill receipts. “For instance,
a logger might have a legitimate contract to cut timber
on a parcel of land, with the understanding that he will
cut certain trees, take them to a sawmill, receive payment
and pay the landowner a portion of the receipts,”
reports Compas. “The trick is that he might take the
logs to several different mills and only report the sales
from one mill, pocketing the proceeds from the others.”
In response to these more sophisticated tactics law enforcement
is starting to step up efforts to catch timber thieves red-handed
by the use of tracking paint, surveillance and hidden cameras.
Oftentimes other loggers will even tip off local authorities
about a rogue member of their industry perpetrating such
Tree Farmer magazine, legislatures and courts in various
states are also starting to assign stiffer penalties for
timber thefts. “Not only will actual or compensatory
damages be awarded, but also, in the proper situations,
swift and severe penalty awards and punitive damages will
be handed down by the courts,” Tree Farmer reports.
Unlike in the past, timber thieves today often must answer
to civil trespassing charges along with larceny of natural
resources—and may be expected to pay back not only
the value of the stolen timber but also the cost of reforesting
the site(s) in question. Timber thieves who haul their take
out of state might also face federal charges for transporting
stolen timber across state lines.
E Magazine; Washington
State Department of Natural Resources; Tree
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