As Federal Government Holds Back on Hydrogen, California Remains Buoyant

June 1, 2009
Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell with mobile refueler

Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell with mobile refueler

To much of the general public, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles remain a novelty from a distant future. And hydrogen advocates haven’t done a very good job in demonstrating fuel-cell vehicles to those outside of Los Angeles or Sacramento. It might pique the interest of more than a few gearheads to see how quickly fuel-cell vehicles can be refueled and what respectable long-distance capabilities they have compared to EVs.

But with hydrogen stations clustered in the Los Angeles region, longer drives have been difficult to implement. This year, fuel-cell advocates, eight automakers, and their vehicles have taken to the road, with the Hydrogen Road Tour, which caught up to in Portland. Going from Chula Vista, California, to Vancouver, British Columbia, the tour has plenty of hands-on stops along the way, and the general public is invited to most events. Making it all possible is a mobile refueling truck provided by PowerTech Labs, a company out of Surrey, BC.

Many fuel-cell critics say that, cost of the vehicles aside, hydrogen is what big oil wants as it will keep us relying on their established infrastructure. Yet oil companies as well as individual stations have been reluctant to invest in hydrogen facilities because the cars simply aren’t out there in numbers yet. That’s begun to change—with about 300 fuel-cell vehicles out in service (they’ve traveled, altogether, more than 2.5 million miles on California roads)—but not as quickly as expected. Earlier this decade California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger envisioned, by 2010, a California with 150 or more hydrogen stations in the state, including a hundred stations along the stretch of Interstate 5. Of course by then it was anticipated that thousands of hydrogen cars would have been delivered. To date, and GM is leasing and testing 100 fuel-cell Chevrolet Equinox SUVs and Honda has delivered seven of its FCX Clarity sedans.

The real cost of these vehicles is tremendous, but the National Hydrogen Association (NHA), an advocate, points out that projected vehicle costs have been reduced by 75 percent.

In revised projections, there will be 700 fuel-cell vehicles in California by 2011 and 4,300 vehicles by 2014, with a 50,000 target for 2017. And by far, Southern California has the largest number of hydrogen-fueled vehicles, and there’s an effort to create hydrogen communities in Santa Monica, Irvine, Torrance, and Newport Beach.

California will stay on course toward a future of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, according to remarks last week from California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger’s speech seemed a response of sorts to the federal government’s decision just three weeks earlier to make massive cuts to federal funding for fuel-cell projects, with Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu explaining that hydrogen vehicles are still 10 to 20 years from viability, with a comprehensive infrastructure or hydrogen economy even more distant.

Although we can’t say that Schwarzenegger was aiming to criticize the federal budget decision, he did take issue with the federal government’s record of abandoning renewable energy and alt-fuel vehicles when the price of oil goes down. California has invested $24 million in hydrogen and fuel cells since he took over the state’s top office; that’s been matched with about $300 million per year from the auto industry, with automakers investing up to a billion dollars each to develop their respective vehicles. And that’s all small change compared to the state of California’s $24 billion (yes, with a ‘B’) budget deficit.

“We, of course, not only celebrate hydrogen-fueled vehicles, we also celebrate electric cars, battery cars, biofuel cars and all of this, said Schwarzenegger. “We don’t want to choose the winners; I think the market will decide that.”

Shell Hydrogen Station in Reykjavik Iceland

Shell Hydrogen Station in Reykjavik Iceland

The so-called Hydrogen Highway—a plan to implement hydrogen infrastructure—has been one of Schwarzenegger’s pet projects since taking office in 2003. California now has more than a third of the hydrogen refueling stations in the U.S., with 26 in the state and 62 total in the U.S., with seven more new public-access stations coming online in California by the end of the year. The plan, with Shell, is to build a chain of hydrogen fueling stations from California up to Vancouver, in time for the Olympics, and then to continue to Alaska. From here on, the emphasis is on public-access stations, and primarily stations that are open 24 hours a day.

Tours like this, showing fuel-cell cars as practical vehicles that can travel long distances and refuel quickly, go a long way toward swaying public opinion and getting people interested in the cars—so that the infrastructure might quickly follow.

What do you think? Is there still a hydrogen future in our lifetime?

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