Whatever happened to the Hydrogen Highway?

The Sacramento BeeOctober 30, 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.

Supporters add 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.

There are just nine hydrogen fueling stations open to the public statewide, and only about 225 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in operation.

Over 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.

But 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.

Gov. 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 technologies.

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.

“We’ve always 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 future.”

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 landmark occurrence.

“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.

Toyota’s 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.

Satoshi 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.

Sweeney 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.

Robert 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.”

“Hydrogen-powered 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.

Kish Rajan, 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.

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