By Mark Glover, October 20, 2013
An information dash shows fuel cell
information in a hydrogen fuel cell car from carmaker Nissan in front of
the California Fuel Cell Partnership building in West Sacramento,
Calif, on Monday, October 14, 2013.
Remember the Hydrogen Highway?
It was front-page news less
than a decade ago, and the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West
Sacramento was ground zero for what was touted as a forward-looking
effort to green the Golden State.
Approved in 2004 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger,
who promoted it with action film hero gusto, the Hydrogen Highway
envisioned construction of an extensive network of hydrogen filling
stations to serve drivers of zero-emission fuel-cell vehicles –
bettering California’s air quality,
enhancing the Golden State’s reputation as a leader in national
environmental policy and lessening U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Hydrogen has long been viewed by advocates and environmentalists as
an attractive option, because it can easily be pumped into a vehicle
tank, with the bonus of no emissions of either greenhouse gases
or smog-forming pollutants. In a fuel-cell vehicle, hydrogen combines
with oxygen, yielding a current that drives an electric motor. The
tailpipe spews nothing but water vapor and heat.
that hydrogen can be produced in abundance by American companies.
Environmentalists simply say that it’s not oil, with all its pollution
and price-volatility baggage.
Critics noted then and now that much
hydrogen is processed from natural gas and that alternative methods are
costly. That did not deter Schwarzenegger, who was a welcome visitor at
the fuel cell partnership headquarters. President George W. Bush also dropped by for a visit in 2006, talking up hydrogen technology.
Today, the high-flying promise of those days remains unfulfilled.
are just nine hydrogen fueling stations open to the public statewide,
and only about 225 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in operation.
the past 10 years, automakers have invested millions of dollars and tens
of thousands of engineering hours developing hybrids, full electric
vehicles and plug-ins. As battery-powered electric vehicles took center
stage, construction of electric charging stations increased. Hydrogen
stations fell off the public radar, as did the Hydrogen Highway.
backers of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles say “not so fast.” They contend
that development of the critical filling station infrastructure and fuel
cell vehicles was always a long-term proposition and that the Hydrogen
Highway will soon wend its way back into public consciousness.
Recent events show that California still sees a future for hydrogen.
Jerry Brown just signed Assembly Bill 8 into law. It extends, until
Jan. 1, 2024, existing fees on motor vehicles, boat registrations and
new tires. The fees fund programs to accelerate the turnover of older
vehicles and development of advanced, environmentally friendly
Officials at the fuel cell partnership said the
measure provides funding for at least 100 hydrogen stations with a
commitment of up to $20 million a year from the California Energy
Commission’s Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology
Program. Last year, the partnership released “A California Road Map”
recommending 68 stations in strategic locations to launch the commercial
market and at least 100 stations to sustain it.
operated with the understanding that the (fueling) infrastructure has to
be in place first, and now we’re getting closer to that,” said
Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the fuel cell partnership, a
public-private collaboration of auto manufacturers,
experts, energy providers, fuel cell technology firms and government
agencies working to promote commercialization of fuel cell vehicles. “So
with AB 8 ... and automakers getting ready to bring their technology to
market, it’s an exciting time.”
Dunwoody said she never begrudged
electric vehicles’ time in the spotlight, considering it “a natural
progression of the technology ... What’s significant to understand now
is that (consumers) are going to have a choice of technologies in the
University of California, Davis, professor Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies
at UCD and regarded as one of the nation’s most influential experts on
transportation technology and policy, characterized AB 8’s passage as a
“One of the biggest obstacles to introducing
fuel cell electric vehicles was the lack of fueling certainty. No more.
The passage of AB 8 sends a clear signal to automakers, consumers and
others that California will launch a market for FCEVs,” Sperling said.
AB 8 was not warmly received in all corners, including the Sierra Club,
a longtime advocate of environmentally friendly fuels. The Sierra Club
joined a host of critics who decried the measure for shifting the cost
of building new stations from oil companies
to consumers. Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, characterized his AB 8
as a compromise that at least allows hydrogen fueling infrastructure to
get a foothold.
Of course, hydrogen stations won’t be of much use
unless someone is building the fuel cell cars that need them. And
there’s movement on that front, too.
Toyota will unveil its upcoming fuel cell vehicle concept next month at the Tokyo Motor Show.
fuel cell vehicle reportedly is based on a Lexus sedan’s architecture
with a range of more than 300 miles. Toyota hopes to commence sales of
the model in the United States, Japan and Europe by 2015. That would
dovetail with Dunwoody’s hope of seeing 60 hydrogen fueling stations
developed over the next five years; she said Japan and Germany have even
more ambitious goals for building hydrogen fueling stations.
Ogiso, managing officer of Toyota Motor Corp., said the auto-producing
giant wants to sell “tens of thousands” Toyota FCVs a year “by sometime
in the 2020s.”
Critics are doubtful, saying the vehicle’s hydrogen
fuel cell technology is complex and costly, which will likely make the
cost of the Toyota FCV prohibitive.
James Sweeney, a Stanford
University engineering professor with an extensive background in energy
and economic policy issues, is not a fan of the Hydrogen Highway and
believes it was a byproduct of state government “betting” that hydrogen
would emerge as the “technological winner” among multiple options.
said other electric vehicle technologies – plug-ins, for example – have
proved reliable and affordable. He said hydrogen technology remains “a
very expensive way of generating electricity ... Fuel cells
are expensive.” Were it his money, Sweeney said, he “would not spend a
nickel” on hydrogen development. He said he would be inclined to invest
in more affordable “new technological ideas” or expand on proven
electric vehicle technologies.
Others are not betting against
Toyota, remembering that it introduced the then-exotic Prius
gas-electric hybrid to the U.S. and other markets in 2000, with a
sticker price of less than $20,000. The Prius set off a
hybrid-production race among automakers worldwide, and global sales
topped the 3 million threshold in June this year. California is the top
market for U.S. Prius sales; it was the state’s top-selling new car in
2012 with 60,688 registrations, according to the Sacramento-based
California New Car Dealers Association.
“The fact that it’s Toyota
makes it a bit different,” said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst for Santa
Monica-based TrueCar.com. “The Prius was not a profitable proposition at
the beginning, but you had a lot of early adopters. I think there’s a
lot of support for hydrogen, and I think you’ll have early adapters
adopters (in California) for it.”
Also, Toyota is not a lone voice
in the wilderness. Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz are developing fuel
cell vehicles for introduction in the short term.
Bienenfeld, assistant vice president of environment and energy strategy
for Honda Motor Co., cited continued advancements in fuel cell vehicle
technology and said “California's planned investments in hydrogen
refueling will be a key enabler to create this market.”
electric vehicles represent the next generation of electric vehicle
technology,” said John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor
America. “Their refueling speed and range will delight their owners, and
we’ll all share the environmental benefits. We’re excited to be working
with California to bring H2EV technology and infrastructure to market
as quickly as possible.”
Krafcik’s remarks came amid this month’s announcement that the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development would work to streamline the permitting process
for zero-emission vehicle fueling stations to expand California’s
hydrogen and electric vehicle capacity. GO-Biz said it will work with
local, state and federal government agencies; hydrogen station
developers; electric vehicle regional planners; auto companies and
others to facilitate and accelerate permitting/building of both the
hydrogen fueling stations and EV charging facilities.
GO-Biz director, said “California is a world leader in zero emission
technology, and our infrastructure needs to reflect that dynamism.”
The California Energy Commission
approved $300,000 in funding for GO-Biz over the next two years, with
an eye on meeting a goal of 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the
road by 2025.