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Environment and Transportation Play a Role at Green Cities Conference

International mayors meeting at the Green Cities conference in San Francisco (through June 5) are hearing about environmentally friendly forms of transportation. Many alternatives to gasoline-burning cars are becoming available.

Some are more practical than others. Many San Franciscans have bicycles, which are not especially useful in the busy central city, where trolleys, buses, cable cars and rapid rail are better options. San Francisco artist Teddy Wiant drives a very noisy old Mercedes.

His car uses recycled cooking oil as fuel.

"This is used vegetable oil that comes from restaurants from around San Francisco, and basically all that needs to be done is to let is settle for a week, and then filter it down to an acceptable level," he explains. "Then all you have to do is heat the vegetable oil before it reaches the engine, and you're running fine."

He says the car isn't always this noisy. It just needs a tune-up.

He was showing his car to visitors at the Green Cities conference, an international meeting of mayors leading up to World Environment Day June 5.

More than a dozen cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells were also on display, and many environmentalists look to fuel cell cars to revolutionize transportation. Still in the prototype stage, their only emission is water vapor. Matt Forrest of Daimler Chrysler took a reporter for a test drive in a new hydrogen-powered Mercedes, producing far less noise than Teddy Wiant's cooking-oil-powered car.

"There's not much sound," he said. "In fact, the ignition is on right now and it's not that loud. The loudest noise at slow speeds is the compressor motor in this particular car, but as you get up to freeway speed, the predominant noise is actually the tire noise."

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is still in the testing phase, and it is expensive. A hydrogen-fueled bus is already in use in nearby Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Two more buses are being converted to use hydrogen fuel cells, says Jamie Levin of Alameda-Contra Costa Transit.

"They're prototypes or demonstration vehicles," he said. "We'll have them in service by the end of this year and early next year."

Mr. Levin says the hydrogen bus on display here cost $3 million, but adds that when buses such as this one are produced in large quantities, the price will come down quickly.

Chris White of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a trade group involving research companies and all the major automakers, says efforts are underway to build hydrogen refueling stations throughout the state. There are 16 today, and 10 more are scheduled in the next year.

She notes that hydrogen, a component of water on earth, is the most common element on the universe.

"It also can be made by any country in the world, and that's one of the biggest benefits, the fact that no country or no region of the world will own the fuel supply," she said. "It can be made as easily from solar power in Sudan as it can be from geothermal energy in Norway, and it can be made by wind power here in windy old San Francisco.

Dave Barthmuss of General Motors proudly shows a GM prototype hydrogen fuel cell car. He says the technology needs some refinement before the cars can be mass produced. One problem today is price. Including research and development costs, the cars can have a price tag of one million dollars. The other problem is driving range. New technology promises to extend the range to 450 kilometers on a single tank of fuel, which Mr. Barthmuss says is needed to make the cars practical. He says his company looks forward to a thriving consumer market for hydrogen vehicles.

"Our incentive from a manufacturing standpoint is to make money," he said. "We want to be the company out there to supply the 88 percent of the world that doesn't have access to a car or truck. This is a key competitive marketing race, and we all believe that if we're going to go after other countries and grow our market share, it's got to be done sustainable, and that's where hydrogen comes into play."

Mr. Barthmuss says General Motors expects hydrogen fuel cell cars to be on the showroom floor by the end of the decade, and to be selling briskly by 2020, when the fueling infrastructure will be in place.