California Jump-Starts the Hydrogen Economy

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 18, 2013

A bill soon to be signed by California Governor Jerry Brown could make fuel-cell cars practical, in one state at least.

California has nine public fueling stations now--on its way to 100, thanks to new state funding. (California Fuel Cell Partnership) The big challenge for hydrogen isn’t the cars—they’ve been ready, if costly, for years—it’s the infrastructure. The lack of $1 million-plus hydrogen fueling stations is the main reason electric cars have taken off while fuel cells were left on the sidelines. The bill, AB8/SB11,  is financed through registration fees and provide state funding for at least 100 public hydrogen stations in California, with $20 million a year through 2024.
One hundred stations! That’s major. The bill is an alternative to a rather novel regulation pushed forward by the California Air Resources Board called Clean Fuels Outlet—it would have required oil companies that sell gas in the state to install hydrogen stations once the number of fuel-cell cars on the road reached 20,000. Not only is there a chicken-and-egg problem with that, but you can imagine what the oil companies thought of it--they threatened to sue.  
The auto industry is cautiously optimistic that California, at least, will be ready for the hydrogen cars it plans to put in showrooms. There’s finally a date for that—2015. Four automakers—Hyundai, Daimler, Toyota and Honda—are committed to 2015, with Hyundai likely to be the first to market. Both Honda and Mercedes are now leasing hydrogen cars in California, though not many of them.
Keith Malone, a spokesman for the public-private California Fuel Cell Partnership, says the current bill’s approach is better than Clean Fuels Outlet, because it’s not dependent on fuel-cell sales actually taking off—it puts hydrogen stations on the ground immediately. In this case, you definitely have to build it before they’ll come.
 Hydrogen stations cost $1 million to $2 million, versus $10,000 or so for a public EV charge port. (California Fuel Cell Partnership)Malone thinks California will have 20 public hydrogen stations by the end of next year. There are nine now, mostly in Los Angeles and Orange County, with one near Berkeley. Silicon Valley is also a target area.
California’s likely to be the only state with a robust hydrogen network, at least for the near future, though New York could get its act together. “Absolutely, California is the hydrogen epicenter,” said Malone. “It’s definitely the leader in the U.S.—nowhere else is even close at this point.”
The partnership’s goal is to have 68 stations operating in California by 2016. To give you some sense of scale, if all 100 planned stations were online they could service maybe 50,000 cars. The automakers are hoping to sell the vehicles for around $50,000 by 2015, though it’s unlikely they’ll make money at that price—fuel cells are still expensive.
 Toyota has Highlander test cars on the road, and Honda and Mercedes are already providing leases to state residents. (California Fuel Cell Partnership)I’ve driven just about every hydrogen car, and I can tell you that consumers will like them. They’re smooth, quiet, powerful, can be refueled in five minutes just like gas cars, and easily reach 300 miles of range. I spent a month with a borrowed Toyota Highlander, and loved it, but also soon ran into infrastructure limitations—the nearest hydrogen station was 40 miles away. Who wants an 80-mile round trip just to fuel up?
Governor Brown has until October 13 to sign the hydrogen bill, which he said he’d do.
There is fuel-cell news from other states, too. The Big Island of Hawaii is home to the world’s most active volcano, and by December it’s huge Volcanoes National Park will be patrolled by a pair of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell buses. Two buses are a modest start in “a multi-agency vision to transition the island of Hawaii to a hydrogen economy independent of fossil fuels.”  That makes sense in a state where both electricity and gasoline are really expensive, though EVs probably have a head start in the islands.
The park's pilot program, which will last two years, is in a way nothing new—fuel cells have long been in the planning stage, waiting for ever-distant commercialization. General Motors is also testing fuel cell cars in Hawaii, with the idea of running them on hydrogen from existing pipelines. But, in fact, hydrogen power is finally about to move to the next stage, with actual sales now only two years off.

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