Out West student blog

Decarbonizing the rail industry: how hydrogen helps

Photo by Craig Marolf on Unsplash

David Lee, '24
Hometown: McAllen, Texas
Area of Study: Environmental Systems Engineering
Intern, California Air Resources Board

David Lee works on zero-emission technologies in the rail industry during his summer internship with the California Air Resources Board

Coming into my fellowship at the California Air Resources Board (CARB), I was confident and in high spirits -- the past spring quarter marked my gateway to the nuances of the energy sphere, via a curriculum that I had curated to provide me a basis for the summer. I was eager to apply my newfound, yet broad, foundation. Unsurprisingly, it made only a marginal difference. 

CARB pioneers approaches for dealing with air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions, setting examples for what's possible. These approaches are commonly followed by other states, and then often, other nations. And in the past couple of years -- right at the onset of innovative heavy-duty transportation technologies -- CARB has begun to tackle the potential for decarbonizing locomotives. That's where I came in. My work this summer has centered on establishing a comprehensive foundation for how zero-emission technologies, especially hydrogen, can begin playing a role in the rail industry. Expected green hydrogen supply in coming decades has the ability to not just meet major U.S. railroads' carbon reduction commitments, but also in reducing harmful criteria pollutants (eg. NOx, PM), providing billions in revenue, significantly increasing fuel efficiency, and much more. A part of this project has also included delving into unpacking how trucking, rail's main competitor, has been at the forefront of utilizing zero-emission technologies. Though rail transport is currently more fuel-efficient and cost-effective, the case may change in coming years if rail fails to respond to the truck industry's rapid efforts. 

Though the spring taught me plenty about hydrogen's novelty for a net-zero U.S. economy, what it didn't prepare me for was the number of accompanying obstacles that come with trying to utilize that potential. I was exposed to the lengths that costs, resource availability, and long-term projection intersect with state regulation in both conversations with my team and in research of my own. I've also learned that cost doesn't mean everything, and sometimes, even anything at all. Through having the privilege to sit in on meetings with the Chair, I've witnessed the unique ability CARB has in bringing contrasting priorities together to make the best of both business interests and in mitigating climate effects. 

Besides the work itself, it has been such a pleasure being able to work with CARB's Transportation and Toxics Division. My advisors have been an enormous help along the way and I won't forget my time with them this summer, despite working from across the country. The next decade will mark a dramatic shift in national, and international, transportation regulation, and I am more than grateful to have been a part of it. 

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Photo courtesy of Brandon Kapelow

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