Hydrogen fuel cells may be the energy of the future, but so far the hydrogen to power them has only been made from fossil fuels. Now, researchers at the University of Minnesota have come up with a way to make hydrogen from a renewable fuel – ethanol, made from corn. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Hydrogen fuel cells may be the energy of the future, but so far the hydrogen to power them has
only been made from fossil fuels. Now, researchers at the University of Minnesota have come up
with a way to make hydrogen from a renewable fuel – ethanol, made from corn. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Researchers published their findings in a recent issue of Science magazine.
Lanny Schmidt is a chemical engineer at the University of Minnesota. He says his team has
created a simple system. A fuel injector forces ethanol through a catalyst. The catalyst then
converts the ethanol into hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
Schmidt says because ethanol is made from corn, it doesn’t contribute to the greenhouse effect.
“We’re now just using that ethanol as a gasoline additive. What we’re proposing here is to use
this ethanol as a transportable liquid fuel to use in fuel cells, which have two or three times the
efficiency of simple combustion.”
Schmidt says early applications could include producing electricity at remote locations like
He’s applied for a patent, and hopes a private company will commercialize the technology.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.
General Motors and Dow Chemical have opened a test facility designed to make fuel cells more viable. Fuel cells use hydrogen to create electricity, with the only waste products being water and heat. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill Poorman reports:
General Motors and Dow Chemical have opened a test facility designed to make fuel cells more
viable. Fuel cells use hydrogen to create electricity, with the only waste products being water and
heat. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill Poorman reports:
The test site is located at Dow Chemical’s facility in Freeport, Texas. The fuel cell station will
use hydrogen that’s a by-product from the plant’s processes. The electricity that’s generated will,
in turn, be used by the plant. Julie Beamer heads GM’s efforts to make fuel cells commercially
viable. She says, over time, the facility will generate a megawatt of electricity.
“To put that into perspective, a megawatt is really the equivalent of powering about 700 average
size U.S. homes.”
Beamer says GM will learn valuable lessons from the site that will help it create fuel cell cars by
the next decade. The technology is seen as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But a recent
report out last week from the National Academy of Sciences says it will take decades before fuel
cells are widespread in automobiles.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bill Poorman.
For the past few years, people who have wanted to buy a more energy-efficient car have had to think small. That’s about to change. The floor of this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit offered a look at several new energy-efficient models due out later this year or within the next few years. The auto industry hasn’t sold very many of the cars carrying one type of new technology so far, but officials hope more choices will boost sales. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Michael Leland has more:
For the past few years, people who have wanted to buy a more energy-efficient car have had to
think small. That’s about to change. The floor of this year’s North American International Auto
Show in Detroit offered a look at several new energy-efficient models due out later this year or
within the next few years. The auto industry hasn’t sold very many of the cars carrying one type
of new technology so far, but officials hope more choices will boost sales. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Michael Leland has more:
At the Toyota display at this year’s auto show, a small crowd formed around the newest version
of the gasoline-electric Prius. Toyota’s sold the car since 1997, and has made it bigger for this
year. What makes this car different is it’s powered by a gasoline-electric hybrid engine. A few
months ago, Denny Jones of Toledo, Ohio ordered a new Prius. He’s still waiting for delivery, so
he drove to Detroit to sit in one at the auto show.
“First of all, I’ve had other Toyotas, so I like the quality. They’ve made improvements on this
one. There’s hatchback. On the first style you couldn’t have a hatchback. They get better
mileage than the first one. And, overall it is a larger car.”
Gasoline-electric hybrid engines have lower emissions and get better mileage than cars with
standard gasoline engines. Toyota says the Prius gets about 50-miles per gallon. But the only
hybrids on the market so far have been small cars like the Prius and the Honda Civic.
Later this year and next, larger hybrids will roll into showrooms. Honda will offer a hybrid
Accord. And Ford will sell a hybrid version of its Escape SUV. Jerry Bissi braved an afternoon
snowstorm to come to the auto show, and was checking one out.
“I prefer to have an SUV-type vehicle for driving back and forth, all-wheel drive, the weather
conditions we have today outside. So I prefer something like that rather than the car.”
There will be several hybrid SUV’s available by next year. Toyota will sell a hybrid Highlander,
and its luxury division Lexus will offer its own model.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce the world’s first luxury hybrid vehicle, the
Denny Clements is a vice-president at Lexus. He says there seems to be a pent-up demand for
“Our dealers have taken a huge amount of orders just off word of mouth about Prius, I think. I
think what we have when you talk to our customers is there is a lot of very affluent people who
would like to make a statement about Middle East oil, would like to make a statement about who
they are, but they don’t want to make the sacrifices in terms of luxury amenities.”
Toyota says Americans bought about 21-thousand hybrid Priuses last year. But that’s a drop in
the bucket compared to the almost 16-million vehicles sold in the U.S. last year.
“If you added up all the hybrids that have ever been made since the beginning of time, they don’t
equal the production of one high-volume auto plant in one year.”
That’s David Cole. He heads the Center for Automotive Research. He says some people have
shied away from hybrids because they’ve only been available as small cars, and others have been
wary of the new technology. But mostly, Cole says a lot of people aren’t willing to pay more for
“Where it is going to be in the future is dependant on one thing in my judgment and that is
economics. Can it be done at a cost that consumers will pay for?”
So far, Toyota, Lexus and Ford aren’t saying what their new hybrids will cost. Right now a new
hybrid Honda Civic costs about two-thousand dollars more than the most expensive gasoline
model. The federal government offers a tax deduction to hybrid-buyers to help close that gap, but
it is being phased out during the next few years. Some automakers and environmental groups say
it’s not enough anyway. They want Congress to pass a federal tax credit for people who buy
David Friedman is with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says the automakers’ decision to
offer hybrid engines in more models is an opportunity for the country to become less dependant
on imported oil – if enough people can be persuaded to buy the vehicles.
“If automakers put some of their 10-to-15 billion dollars of advertising muscle behind this, and if
the government is willing to get these tax credits out there, I think we can see hybrids grow into a
significant portion of the market.”
Back at the auto show, Jerry Bissi says he’d consider buying a hybrid SUV. He says he thinks
others will too, if the price is right and they prove to be reliable.
“I think there are a lot of people sitting on the fence. They’re going to watch the first one, see
how it does. If it does prove to be good, they’ll jump on the bandwagon and be late joiners.”
Buyers might need some convincing, though. On this afternoon at the auto show, Ford’s hybrid
version of the Escape SUV drew only a few visitors compared to the crowds surrounding the
standard gasoline-engine Escape and the company’s larger Explorer SUV.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Michael Leland.
A Midwest company is producing a generator it says will revolutionize the way large electric consumers get power. While the company is hailing the generator as the next big thing, it is getting mixed reviews from industry analysts and environmentalists. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:
A Midwest Company is producing a generator it says will revolutionize the way large electric
consumers get power. While the company is hailing the generator as the next big thing, it is getting
mixed reviews from industry analysts and environmentalists. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Jonathan Ahl reports:
(sound OF the fuel cell)
Engineer Steve Brown is showing off a generator that can be the primary power source for an entire
hospital, prison, factory complex, or any other multi building facility. It’s a 250-kilowatt fuel cell
generator that’s as big as a one-car garage. It’s currently running at Caterpillar’s Research Center
just outside of Peoria, Illinois. The generator works by extracting the hydrogen from natural gas
and converting it into electricity. Brown says the only emissions from the unit are heat, water, and
carbon dioxide. He says the unit can also use that heat for other purposes, making a generator that
is up to ninety percent efficient:
“That means ninety percent of the heat, the potential heat in the natural gas has been converted into
useful energy and only ten percent is exhausted to the atmosphere. That’s sexy. It is, compared to
the typical internal combustion engine is in the high teens. And all the rest goes to waste and just
heats up the atmosphere.”
Brown says this unit can eliminate large electric consumers’ need to be hooked up to the power
grid. Peoria, Illinois based Caterpillar and Danbury, Connecticut based Fuel Cell Energy
Incorporated are manufacturing the generators. They say there is a growing market for reliable
power. They also say the generators are better for the environment than coal or oil fired power
plants. John Leitman is the president of Fuel Cell Energy:
“The fuel cell here generates electricity just like a large battery, except with a fuel cell, you can keep
feeding it fuel and air and it will keep generating electricity, very cleanly.”
Leitman says the generator will also be easily convertible to a pure hydrogen power generation unit
if that technology becomes available. But some environmentalists are not as excited about the
generators potential. Chris Johnson is a spokesman for the Illinois Public Interest Research Group,
a public policy advocacy group that focuses on the environment. He says fuel cell power
generators are a step in the right direction. But he says since this generator uses natural gas instead
of pure hydrogen to create electricity, it’s not a long-term answer to the nation’s energy problems:
“In other words, we’re sort of losing energy. It’s becoming less efficient, and in that sense we are
also having more CO-2 emissions in the long run. Also with natural gas emitting heat and CO-2,
Carbon dioxide is a huge cause of global warming.”
Johnson does concede that fuel cells are better for the environment than coal- and oil-based power
plants. But he also says fuel cells will not reach their full potential until they run off more basic
forms of hydrogen. The generators are also meeting some skepticism from the power generation
“I think fuel cells are everyone’s Holy Grail of engine power.”
Mike Osenga is the publisher of Diesel Progress Magazine, an engine and power generation trade
publication. He says such generators show promise, but also have a lot to prove:
“There hasn’t been long term testing, a lot of the engineering still needs to be done, and it’s still a
technology that has to prove itself, but it certainly seems to have some potential compared to some
of the other technologies people are considering.”
Osenga says the other issue is money. Using such a generator costs at least three cents more per
kilowatt-hour than taking the power from the local utility company. But Caterpillar and Fuel Cell
Energy are hoping customers will think the cost is worth it to have a more reliable power source.
Rich Thompson is a group president at Caterpillar. He says in light of the major blackout this past
summer, the industry is moving toward what he calls distributed power generation.
“A term you are going to hear more and more frequently, because distributed generation is the key
answer and the rapid answer to strengthening our national grid. And that is going to happen
following the northeast blackout.”
Thompson also says Caterpillar is lobbying Congress to give the company tax subsidies that other
cleaner power providers receive. That could make the fuel cell generators almost even in cost with
traditional utility power.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.
More farms are trying to turn cow manure into electricity. But some people say the government should not be paying for the process. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:
More farms are trying to turn cow manure into electricity. But some people say the
government should not be paying for the process. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck
The federal government recently gave 14 million dollars to six Great Lakes states for renewable
energy and energy efficiency projects. Some of the projects are manure digesters, which capture
the methane from large amounts of animal waste and turn the gas into
But Bill Weida of the New York-based Grace Factory Farm Project says the digesters do little to
reduce odor and nutrient problems at large farms. He also says the amount of electricity produced
is relatively small for the expense.
“We are subsidizing a program, which is going to produce energy at a higher cost than other
alternatives would, for example wind.”
Weida says the manure digester technology should be forced to stand on its own economically. But
the U.S. Agriculture Department says it’ll continue to consider digester proposals.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.
The federal government is putting more money into turning cow manure into power. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:
The federal government is putting more money into turning cow manure into power. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently gave 6 Great Lakes states about 14 million dollars
for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects at rural sites. A large chunk of the money
will go to manure digesters, which separate liquid and solid waste and capture methane gas that
can be turned into electricity. Frank Frassetto heads the USDA’s rural development office in
Wisconsin. He says the manure digesters are a small step toward energy independence, as some
digesters can power about 200 homes apiece.
“That’s a pretty serious amount of energy to be putting back into the grid.”
Frassetto says he expects more farmers and rural groups to apply for these funds. He says the
USDA is trying to back projects that reduce odors and other pollution coming from larger farms
that may border developed areas.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Chuck Quirmbach reporting.
Drivers are spending more time and burning more fuel stuck in traffic. An annual study found the upward trend of more traffic congestion continues. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
Drivers are spending more time and burning more fuel stuck in traffic. An annual study found the
upward trend of more traffic congestion continues. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
The latest report looks at 2001. It found that about half of the time we spend in traffic jams is due
to delays caused by accidents, vehicle breakdowns, weather and construction. But researchers at
the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A and M University found that people are driving
farther to work and they’re also making more trips. Instead of combining trips to the bank, the
grocery store and the cleaners, more and more drivers tend to make separate trips, putting more
cars on the road at a time. David Schrank is one of the researchers. He says it ends up being a
huge waste of fuel.
“In 2001, almost five-point-seven billion gallons of fuel — that’s with a ‘b’– were wasted in
traffic congestion in 75 urban areas in the United States.”
And the study estimates we all spent more time, three-and-a-half billion hours, stuck in traffic
during the year.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.
A new research facility will be testing scientific innovations in the field of ethanol production. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Kevin Lavery reports:
A new research facility will be testing scientific innovations in the field of ethanol production.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Kevin Lavery reports:
The National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center will focus on developing new ways of producing
ethanol, a corn-based product that shows promise as a long-term alternative to fossil fuels. Each
year in the U.S., more than 2-billion gallons are produced. It’s hoped that figure will increase to 5
billion within 10 years.
Center director Rodney Bothast says projects performed at the new facility will help make that
“And it’s broader than just fuel ethanol. It means the co-products. They might be food products,
they might be industrial products, all interfaces into this scenario.”
While politicians hail ethanol as an environmentally-friendly fuel that reduces U.S. dependence
on foreign oil, critics argue that a single gallon of ethanol produces less energy than it takes to
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Kevin Lavery.
On the last Friday of every month, people in close to 300 cities all over the world gather together to ride their bikes. The rides are called “Critical Mass” and the goal is twofold: to raise awareness of the rights of bicyclists to be on the road and to promote bicycles as a clean form of transportation. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman rode along on a Critical Mass ride in one Midwest city:
On the last Friday of every month, people in close to 300 cities
all over the world gather together to ride their bikes. The rides
are called “Critical Mass” and the goal is twofold: To raise
awareness of the rights of bicyclists to be on the road and to
promote bicycles as a clean form of transportation. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman rode along on a
Critical Mass ride in one Midwest city:
John Luhman says riding a bike is a healthy way to get around
town. He says using bikes can ease traffic congestion. And he
says if more people used bikes, we wouldn’t need to import as
But he says none of those is the real reason he rides his bike.
“Well, it’s fun”
Luhman is part of a group of bikers who gather on the last Friday
afternoon of each month in downtown Rockford, Illinois.
The first order of business is to plan the route, which varies from
month to month. Luhman says the riders don’t shy away from
major streets because part of the goal is visibility.
“When people see a group of bikes they tend to pay it more
attention than a single biker. And it tends to make them think
that you know, there are people out there that ride bikes and get
around that way.”
The rides are open to anyone. The pace is leisurely, and they last
about an hour. Today’s Critical Mass has just 20 riders. That’s
far less than critical mass rides in places like Chicago, which
sometimes draw nearly a thousand people. But the Rockford
riders are pleased, since 20 is their largest group ever. Some
months, fewer than ten people show up.
Luhman says he isn’t discouraged by the low turnouts. He says
it’s going to take time to build up a ridership base in Rockford.
“Chicago wasn’t a very bike-friendly city until Critical Mass
came along in Chicago. And people started biking and started
networking with other bikers and raising the awareness of bikes.
And it developed to something.”
Once they choose their route, the riders set off together. They
mostly observe traffic regulations. Their presence seems to have
little effect on the constant stream of drivers heading home from
Terry Patterson pedals west on a main thoroughfare as cars zoom
past just a few feet to his left.
“Just having a presence on the street, taking a lane with this
many people can open people’s eyes, give them the visual that
bikes are viable, that we can have sustainable energy through
“Looks like we’re turning right here. You’ve mentioned some of
the social and environmental aspects of this. Why is this
something you personally participate in?”
“Personally, I’ve been shot at with a paint gun, sling shots, pop
cans, beer cans, cigarette butts, ‘Get a job, get a life.’ People spit
at me; people mess with bikers in Rockford.”
(traffic sound fades out)
Many of the Critical Mass riders say cities don’t always do much
to help their concerns, and they say Rockford is no different.
They say biker’s needs aren’t always taken into account when
new roads are built. And they say existing roads don’t offer bike
Doug Scott is the City of Rockford’s mayor. He concedes the
city hasn’t always treated bikers with respect.
“We’re fighting a lot of years of history here, where they weren’t
as highly regarded as they should have been. We’ve done well
with some paths and some other things, but just in traveling
along the streets itself, we haven’t done as well as we probably
Mayor Scott says the city does look at the needs of bicyclists
when new roads are built. But he says it’s difficult and
expensive to retrofit existing roads.
After making a loop through Rockford’s north and west side, the
group ends up at the home of one of the riders. There, a large
pot of soup is waiting on the stove and everyone helps them self
to a bowl.
Some of the Critical Mass riders believe in bikes so much
they’ve started a free bike clinic for kids in their neighborhood.
By patching up tubes and greasing up chains, they hope to plant
a seed that will grow into the next generation of riders.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris Lehman.
The Bush administration is making it easier for coal-burning power plants to avoid upgrading to modern pollution prevention equipment. But in some cases the power companies are bowing to public pressure to reduce pollution anyway. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Alquist reports:
The Bush administration is making it easier for coal-burning power plants to avoid upgrading to
modern pollution prevention equipment. But in some cases the power companies are bowing to
public pressure to reduce pollution anyway. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Alquist
Elizabeth Dickinson didn’t get any kind of warning about air quality in her neighborhood. She
really didn’t need one. She says couldn’t avoid noticing the pollution in the air.
“A couple years ago, there was almost a week where the air quality in my neighborhood was so
bad that you literally couldn’t sleep. There was a burning back in my throat.”
Dickinson lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, not too far from one of the oldest coal burning plants
operated by Minnesota’s leading supplier of electricity, Xcel Energy.
She and many other people have been actively working to pressure the company to address the air
quality problems they believe are caused by Xcel’s older plants.
And in a rare move among power companies, Xcel Energy is doing something. In May 2002, the
company put forth a voluntary proposal to convert its two oldest coal burning plants to natural
gas. The oldest plant, Riverside, lies in northeast Minneapolis.
(sound of power plant)
Since it opened in 1911, the Riverside plant has changed very little when it comes to emitting
pollutants. It was grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act of 1970 – which means the plant isn’t
subject to federal environmental mandates.
It didn’t have to install modern pollution control devices unless it upgraded the plant. And now,
under the Bush administration’s new rules, even upgrading it might not trigger the threshold that
would require it to reduce emissions.
“For a little bit over two years, one of the first things I was charged with was to look at all the
emissions in and around southeast Minneapolis and Riverside plant came back as a sore thumb
because of the glaring emissions.”
Justin Eibenholtz is the environmental coordinator for a Minneapolis neighborhood improvement
group. He says that’s why Excel’s decision to convert Riverside to natural gas is such a big deal.
Once it’s converted, the old plant will cut air pollutants by 99 percent. Mercury emissions will be
Neighborhood groups such as Eibenhotz’s and big environmental groups alike are praising
Excel’s decision. The Great Lakes Program Coordinator for the Sierra Club, Emily Green, says
the reduction in emissions will mean a better quality of life for residents who live in the Great
Lakes region. That’s because the mercury and other pollutants that were emitted from the plant
often ended up in the Great Lakes through a process called air deposition. That meant pollutants
got into the food chain and contaminated fish.
“The Great Lakes are like a giant bathtub with a very, very slow drain, so that what we put into
the Great Lakes stays there.”
Green says the pollutants don’t go away. They just end up contaminating the air and the water.
“We swim in them, we drink them, you know, the fish swim around in them, and so it’s very,
very important that we recognize, despite their size, how fragile the Great Lakes are.”
Besides polluting the lakes, the air pollution drifted for hundreds of miles, causing health
problems. The effects are already apparent. An independent report commissioned from the
Environmental Protection Agency says pollution from the oldest and dirtiest power plants kills
more than thirty thousand Americans each year – almost twice the number of people killed by
drunk driving and homicide combined.
While the natural gas conversion won’t reduce the level of mercury in the Great Lakes
immediately, it will mean it won’t add to the problem. It also means a more efficient use of a
Ron Ellsner is the project manager for Xcel’s proposal.
“The new combined cycles that we’re going to install are on the order of 30 percent more
efficient than what our current coal cycle is. They do that much better a job converting that
energy into fuel into electricity.”
It comes at a cost, though. Xcel estimates converting its Minneapolis and Saint Paul plants will
amount to one billion dollars. By Xcel’s estimate, it’ll be the most expensive power plant
conversion in the history of the United States, and the cost of the conversion will be passed on to
That’s fine by Elizabeth Dickinson. She says she, and her neighbors, were paying for it in other
ways already, such as additional healthcare costs. Dickinson says the estimated extra 15 cents a
day for her power bill will be worth it.
“You know, these are the hidden costs of coal burning and they’re huge, and you know, they’re
usually left out of these equations and we’re saying they can’t be left out any longer, they just
can’t be, because it’s too high a cost for us as a society.”
Government regulators still have to approve the plan. Minnesota’s utilities commission is
holding a final round of public hearings before voting for or against Xcel’s proposal to convert to
If the conversion is approved, it will likely put pressure on other power companies in the Great
Lakes region to do the same.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Ann Alquist.