Special Order: A Green Hummer

October 5, 2003


As a California gubernatorial candidate, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been trying to pull his environmental image out of the shadow of the Hummers in his driveway.

He has embraced hydrogen energy for automobiles and said that he would develop public-private partnerships to install hydrogen filling stations every 20 miles on California interstates by 2010, an inducement for automakers to build fuel-cell cars.

And to counter demonstrators who chant "A Hummer Isn't Green" at his campaign stops, he said he would convert one of his own 12 m.p.g. Hummers to run on hydrogen. (His campaign did not respond to a request asking how many he owns, although The San Francisco Chronicle says he has five.)

According to a Reuters report that was widely disseminated, Mr. Schwarzenegger said in Carpinteria on Sept. 21 that he would fit one of his own Hummers with a fuel cell to test the technology. But his advisers say that is not what the candidate said. Rather, they say, he has a much simpler and less expensive goal: to modify the V-8 engine of a Hummer H2 to burn hydrogen gas.

It is not surprising that press accounts got it wrong, because most automotive hydrogen research involves fuel cells. And other remarks by Mr. Schwarzenegger suggest that he may also have been unclear about the distinction. In a Sept. 10 television appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor,'' he said, "I have my Hummer, for instance, right now, trying to see if we can change it, for instance, to try it out and see if it can be done, to have hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen fuel energy."

Tai Robinson, one of several hydrogen experts who are submitting bids to convert the Schwarzenegger Hummer, said that the candidate "didn't know until a few weeks ago that it was possible to burn hydrogen in an internal-combustion car."

Modifying a Hummer to run on hydrogen gas requires some engine work and hydrogen gas tanks. Terry Tamminen, executive director of the Environment Now foundation in Santa Monica, and an adviser to the Schwarzenegger campaign, estimated that such a conversion would cost $20,000 to $35,000 and take 60 days.

Building a road-ready fuel-cell Hummer would cost much more. John DeCicco, a mechanical engineer who is a senior fellow at Environmental Defense, an advocacy group based in New York, said fuel cells were "still hand-built by Ph.D's." He estimated the cost, which would have to include safety and environmental certifications, at $2 million or more.

Among prototype fuel-cell cars, only the Honda FCX has been certified by both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board.

A green Hummer already exists. The Army is testing a hybrid-power Humvee (the military version of the Hummer H1) that was developed in a government-industry partnership.

Some experts question the utility of a hydrogen-burning Hummer. Amory Lovins, chief executive of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo., a pioneer in clean-car development, estimates that the vehicle will need storage tanks many times larger than its gasoline tank to have a comparable range.

Simply replacing the gasoline tank with a similar-size hydrogen tank would yield a vehicle that could travel only 40 or 50 miles between fillups, Mr. Lovins said, "because it's such a heavy, high-drag vehicle." Mr. Robinson said his design includes four or five fuel tanks mounted on the roof. Jason Mark, director of the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said a hydrogen car would produce much lower emissions, but any greenhouse-gas reduction would depend on how the hydrogen was produced.

Alan Niedzwiecki, chief executive of Quantum Technologies in Irvine, Calif., insisted that Mr. Schwarzenegger's plan could work. Mr. Niedzwiecki, whose company is one of the bidders, concedes that the size of the tanks is a factor, but he said a 200-mile range could be achieved using "some tricks of the trade."