Chico News and Review

The Dog Days of Chico

When former First Lady Nancy Reagan made "Just Say No" a popular American iconic phrase, she was stressing personal self-control and responsibility. When the members of the Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees recently voted to approve $18,000 for the use of sniff dogs in Chico-area high schools, they sent a powerful message to all students of the CSUD and a powerful declaration to their teachers and parents that flatly contradicts the value of Nancy Reagan's advice.

Personal responsibility was now being transferred to a dog.

The message to the students was clear: The trustees want a "drug-free zone" at all schools. Who can argue with that? The declaration they sent to parents and teachers, however, was not so clear, and it was something we should all have, at the very least, an opportunity to argue about.

In an election-year decision by the trustees, teachers and students have now been criminalized by "blanket searches," while parents have been asked to accept the premise that their children are so out of control that the schools now have to step in and become a substitute parent for the real ones. Is this the new Chamber of Commerce benchmark for Chico's ideal quality of life?

As responsible parents and teachers of the Chico community, are we going to accept the mindset that says the only way to educate our children is to threaten them with violations of privacy? Does the Board of Trustees really think that Chico-area teachers and parents are also so out of control that they, as trustees, have to entrust a dog with the responsibilities that most caring parents and teachers in Chico already demonstrate every day?

What's more, doesn't the use of sniff dogs in our schools also say to our young people that we, their elders, have abandoned our responsibilities as adults, both as parents and teachers, to model the freedom from addiction for which we now, a priori, criminalize these same young people?

Are we going to simply accept a set of antennae with four legs (or by the same logic, a surveillance system of microphones and cameras) when there are plenty of responsible adults in Chico with two legs who already make it their business, as parents, to teach their children core values and, as teachers, to model the change they want to see their students make?

Why not use that $18,000 allocation to finance a "live" school program that demonstrates to young people the dangers of drug addiction and shows them that it is not only a criminal activity, but also a crisis of spiritual, social and cultural proportions. There is no dog in the world that can teach them that, but as responsible adults, we can.

Just Say No to Drug Dogs

We can all agree that we don't want drugs in our schools. But how best to keep them out is another matter. This week, the Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees voted to start funding the sporadic visits of drug-sniffing dogs to our schools as a way to keep our kids away from drugs.

A demonstration by a friendly Labrador retriever proved popular with some parents who witnessed the dog's drug-ferreting act. The dog's peaceful presence seems like a non-threatening way to get at the problem. As per agreement, for $18,000 a year the dog and its handlers will make unannounced visits to area high schools on "suspicionless searches," checking lockers, restrooms, random classrooms and the students' belongings waiting inside.

But, we have to ask, what kind of message are we sending to our kids? Are they, as the Fourth Amendment instructs, "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures"?

In this case, the searches are blanket searches, meaning there is no suspicion of any individual; instead all are subject. However, the Fourth Amendment says clearly that, if there is no individualized suspicion, there is no right to search. The 9th Circuit Court ruled in 1999, on a local case, Butte County v. Plumas Unified School District, that "[t]o be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, a [seizure] must ordinarily be based on individualized suspicion of wrongdoing."

There must be a better way. As popular as the drug-sniffing approach seems – almost no one has stepped forth to protest, and even the most liberal of the trustees is going along (it's an election year) – the Bill of Rights applies to kids, last time we checked. How would these same parents feel if their places of work were suddenly subjected to drug-sniffing dogs making random visits?

We live in an insecure era. Too many of us are willing to give up our rights because our government tells us that's only way to protect ourselves. Where do we stop? Or is it already too late?

As one letter-writer recently told the Los Angeles Times, which has endorsed the use of drug-sniffing dogs in L.A. schools, "... the experience of having their lockers checked periodically by inquisitive dogs will help prepare the kids for their futures as citizens of a police state."

A Pollution-Free Car in Every Garage

It sounds too good to be true -- an automotive power source that efficiently converts a limitless supply of chemical energy into electricity without producing smog-causing emissions.

But more and more, hydrogen fuel-cell-powered vehicles are being touted as The Answer. To our everyday air quality problems. To the long-term threat that continued burning of fossil fuels poses to the environment and our atmosphere. To skyrocketing gasoline prices, the dwindling supply of petroleum, and America's shaky dependence on foreign oil.

The nascent fuel cell technology appears so promising that many in the automotive and energy industries are already claiming it's just a matter of time before hydrogen becomes the fuel of choice for motor vehicles. A recent article in Popular Science magazine went so far as to opine that the fuel cell might represent the "biggest leap in automotive history -- a practical replacement for the internal combustion engine."

Whoa! Have we discovered a path to energy Nirvana here? Are we finally poised to wean our petrochemically dependent society off the parched and withered teat of Mother Earth's shrinking hydrocarbon deposits, from which we've so selfishly gulped all these years?

After countless false starts and half-hearted efforts to incorporate cleaner, renewable alternative fuels into the energy mix, perhaps we are finally due for some real and lasting change. If it's any indication, fuel cell politics has already made some strange bedfellows, as major automakers and energy corporations find themselves collaborating in earnest with regulators, technology manufacturers and clean-air advocates to develop this cheap and enormously abundant source of power.

But while there are certainly many respected voices who think that fuel cells are positioned to change the face of transportation, most also admit that, as with any groundbreaking technology, there are significant hurdles to clear before hydrogen-powered vehicles gain widespread viability.

So what are fuel cells and how do they work? Simply put, fuel cells combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity -- without combustion. Compared to the complexities of the internal-combustion engine, the process of producing energy with the fuel cell is remarkably straightforward. The fuel cell has no moving parts and relies on the most ubiquitous substance in the universe, hydrogen, as its power source. The result is clean energy with no nasty emissions. The only waste is heat and water.

The hydrogen fuel cell concept is no real marvel of science -- in fact, the first fuel cell device was created way back in 1839 by British inventor Sir William Grove. But practical applications remained elusive until the 1960s, when NASA began developing the technology to power equipment onboard its spacecraft. Today, fuel cells continue to provide electricity (and even potable water) for the space shuttle.

Only recently has the technology advanced into the realm of viability for vehicle use. Initially, developing fuel cells for transportation purposes involved bulky and expensive prototypes limited by the techniques of producing and storing hydrogen. But exponential advances in technology and design have brought rapid reductions in the size of the power plants, yielding new models that now feature nearly as much usable interior space as conventional cars.

"The technology has undergone a dramatic curve of improvements. You can liken it to the computer revolution, in that fuel cells have become smaller but much more powerful," says Joe Irvin, spokesman for the Fuel Cell Partnership, a California-based collaborative of automakers, government agencies, manufacturers, and energy companies that comprises the world's foremost test center for fuel-cell-powered vehicles.

Although most fuel cells being tested in vehicles are powered by pure hydrogen, which is stored onboard in secure tanks, engineers are also considering the possibility of installing reformer systems that produce hydrogen from carbon-based fuel sources such as gasoline and methanol.

But if we want fuel cells to run cleanly, why power them with polluting fossil fuels? The answer to that question reveals the most significant challenge facing fuel cell vehicles today.

Though fuel cell vehicles are nearly a market reality, with some automakers projected to roll out limited numbers as early as 2004, the fueling infrastructure needed to service larger numbers will take years, perhaps decades, to establish.

That's why many believe the most likely route for commercialization of fuel cells will be through fleet vehicles. A shift to hydrogen for city buses and delivery trucks would help reduce the cost of manufacturing fuel cells while helping to win public acceptance.

"The first step is going to be fleet use, where you can install a central fueling station to handle many vehicles," says Irvin. Already, hydrogen buses cruise the streets of Chicago and Vancouver.

In the meantime, the first generation of fuel cell passenger cars will most likely use onboard reformers that produce hydrogen from some type of "transition fuel," one that does not necessarily live up to the full potential of clean hydrogen energy.

Nevertheless, this transition approach would allow drivers to fuel up on gasoline or methanol at existing gas stations. And, according to a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report, onboard fuel processors -- even those using gasoline -- represent a major advance in reduction of pollutants over conventional vehicles.

Part of the Fuel Cell Partnership's mission is to explore the different fuel options and test the cars' performance under a wide variety of conditions. But if there is a favored fueling choice, nobody is tipping his hand.

"Hydrogen is the mother's milk of the fuel cell," says Irvin. "But if you want to get fuel cells in front of the consumer early, than to do so might mean using a familiar fuel that is cost-effective in terms of distribution."

But will carmakers really follow through on their promises to deliver cleaner transportation choices to the car-buying public? To some extent, they have no choice but to. Prompted by air quality mandates, car manufacturers are committed to developing models that prove commercially viable.

"Fuel cell vehicles present the opportunity for what we call 'sustainable mobility,'" says Irvin. "It's a way to affordably preserve our concept of a mobile society with much less impact on the environment."

Once infrastructure is in place, the cost of filling up with hydrogen should be much more affordable than gasoline -- and nowhere near as vulnerable to the wild price fluctuations that distinguish the global petroleum market. DOE has said that producing hydrogen for fuel cell use today would cost the equivalent of $1.92 per gallon, about the same as a gallon of gas here in California. That figure would certainly go down as the technology grows and consumer use expands.

Filling up with hydrogen is easy and safe. And, while making fuel cell vehicles safe for the road is no slam-dunk, safety is not considered an obstacle to commercialization. In fact, most experts agree that hydrogen can be at least as safe as today's fuels.

What about vehicle cost? Once enough units are built to establish an acceptable economy of scale, cost won't be an issue. Studies by Ford and General Motors conclude that fuel cell motors eventually could be built for about the same price as an internal-combustion engine.

And performance? So far, the cars being tested seem to be proving the technology can provide good performance in a variety of conventional passenger models, including compacts, SUVs and minivans.

Irvin says fuel cell vehicles may eventually run twice as far between fuelings as current automobiles. "The automakers are confident they will get exceptional range," he says. "It may take some time, but with the efficiency of fuel cells, we could see about a 50 percent improvement or even a potential doubling of the ranges that we're used to, so you might get 600-700 miles per fueling."

So when will significant numbers of fuel-cell-powered vehicles ride on our roads and highways? Forecasts estimate that Americans will see some form of mass production (more than 100,000 vehicles) well before 2010.

With the auto industry, mass transit agencies and technology companies all working to make hydrogen vehicles a reality, where else can help be found? Well, don't look now, but even Big Oil is jumping on the fuel cell bandwagon.

It wasn't long ago that oil executives were openly deriding the notion that fuel cells could ever replace the internal-combustion engine. Now, the world's oil giants -- aware that this new technology could someday put them out of business -- have joined in the hunt for the perfect fuel cell solution.

Hmm, maybe for once it's too good not to be true.