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Fuel Cells Could Power a Streetcar Revival

Hydrogen power is one way to untether trolleys

3 min read

Advocates of hydrogen-fuel-cell propulsion have a new target for their technology: trolleys. At the Fifth International Hydrail conference, held 11 and 12 June in Charlotte, N.C., engineers and transit planners concluded that streetcars are an ideal early application for hydrogen propulsion. Traditional trolley cars have drawn their power from catenaries, unsightly overhead electricity supply lines running along city streets. Hydrogen-powered streetcars will eliminate the wires, which otherwise might stand in the way of a streetcar comeback.

At first blush, streetcars may not seem worth devoting much effort to. Many Americans think of them as a quaint anachronism retained by a few cities like New Orleans for nostalgia’s sake. But more than a dozen municipalities around the world have restarted and extended trolley car lines because they attract wealthier riders than buses and inspire new, high-density property development. What’s more, streetcars—because of the low rolling resistance of steel wheels on rails—require much less energy than the rubber-tired buses that elbowed them aside decades ago. For these and other reasons, says the American Public Transit Association, some 50 cities in the United States are planning new streetcar lines.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images
Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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