I had the pleasure of speaking with and interviewing Stan Thompson, Chairman of the Hydrogen Economy Advancement Team (HEAT) and the force behind the largest hydrail website on the Internet.
Here is the interview:
HydroKevin (HK): How did you come to the decision to pull the plug on this year’s hydrail conference?
Stan Thompson (ST): Coming up on one month before the Seoul Conference, far too few of the invited presenters had received the needed travel OKs and funding from their organizations. Many had responded with “regrets” even to our initial invitations—almost all citing travel expense related reasons. The Hydrail Conference organizers just could not risk having to cancel the event after some presenters had purchased air tickets, probably without a refund option. We conferred … and deferred, taking the Hippocratic route: if we could not do the intended good, we could at least avoid harm. And, of course, it was getting too late to orchestrate the conferee attendance we’d hoped to attract.
HK: With the weak economic recovery do you see the hydrail industry growing in the coming year?
ST: Yes. Only to the extent that the weak economy cost us an opportunity to collaborate in Seoul has it harmed progress much. The narrow-gauge project in northern Spain is still on track (so to speak). Electric trains stopped by power outages in Japan during the recent tragedy might help switch their two pioneering passenger hydrail projects off the test track and onto the main line production. And, surely, the implications of China’s hydrail announcement last year will prod the West to remember Napoleon’s sage observation.
Actually, since the recession highlights a general need to contain both risks and costs, it could have positive results. If hydrail technology were not unaccountably shunned by the general media, considerable economic recovery and Green innovation Fedbux might already have watered a seedling hydrolley (fuel cell hybrid streetcar) industry.
In fact, that very nearly happened here.
Dale Hill, the visionary founder of Proterra, Inc., (which recently settled in Greenville, South Carolina and drew kudos from the White House, the US Secretary of Transportation, and the Federal Transit Administration) would have set up shop in North Carolina if hydrogen savvy had been a little more advanced.
But SC Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, co-founder with of the Senate Hydrogen Caucus with his Democrat colleague, the recently retired Senator Byron Dorgan of South Dakota, knew better than anyone that the oderant in hydrogen gas is money. He and other SC visionary leaders lured Proterra, with its 1,300± new transit vehicle jobs, and about $80 million in mostly Government investment, to SC.
But Proterra’s SC products are buses; hydrolley manufacturing may still be up for grabs.
HK: Which sector of the hydrail industry has the most growth potential right now?
ST: Without doubt it’s hydrogen hybrid streetcars or “hydrolleys.”
Circa 2007, the new streetcar line forecast for the US (per the American Public Transportation Association) was fifty-three new lines or “alignments.” Back then, when the copper price was only about 1/4 of today’s, streetcar track electrification was already pushing $7 million per mile.
If the average alignment length were—say—around seven miles, then electrifying each new line would cost roughly $50 million. That’s well over $2.5 billion, nationally, to buy a nicely updated 120-year-old design.
If the US were to build them, then we’d have to maintain them; to expand them; and (some say even worse) to look at them until salvage time brought relief. My guess: the transit world will wait for hydrolleys rather than string up all that superstructure.
As San Antonio transit chief Keith Parker said in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, ”The biggest issue with [hydrogen trolleys] is that there isn’t one on the ground and running, so municipalities don’t have anything to test that would allow us to make a decision…”
With major transit vehicle makers introducing wireless [albeit intermittent externally powered] streetcars left and right, it’s only a matter of time until the simpler hydrolley solution supplants that costly cosmetic fix. Then we’ll see hydrail growth (on steroids!) as the streetcar revival reboots.