CLEAN TECH: Back to the Future on the Hydrogen Highway

By Published On: September 4, 2014

Remember the hydrogen highway? It’s back and may change the dynamics regarding the future role of utilities in providing energy for transportation. The presumption for the past several years has been that electric utilities would play the key role in providing transport-tation energy for zero emission vehicles. But fuel cell vehicles could mean additional business for the state’s gas utilities too. Amid great fanfare, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004 promised California would create a hydrogen highway after converting his Hummer to run on the gas. The advance of battery electric and plug-in hybrid cars soon eclipsed Schwarzenegger’s vision. But automakers and state agencies have continued quietly working on hydrogen cars powered with fuel cells, which now appear poised for commercialization. To solve the “Which came first, chicken or egg?” problem, the state has been supporting a network of hydrogen fueling stations so people can drive hydrogen cars. Stepping up earlier this year, the California Energy Commission provided $46.6 million in funding for 28 new hydrogen filling stations, which will bring the total number in the state when completed to 54. “With this funding, California will accelerate the construction of a reliable and affordable refueling infrastructure to support the commercial market launch of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles,” said commissioner Janea Scott announcing the funds in July. The Energy Commission and other agencies plan to see that 100 hydrogen fueling stations are built by 2020. As the fueling network grows and automakers begin to roll out fuel cell vehicles, hydrogen cars may yet become serious contenders in the state’s bid to see 1 million zero emissions models on the road by 2020 and 1.5 million by 2025. Seven other states are working with California to add another 1.8 million zero-emissions cars to the road, which could bring the national total to 3.3 million by 2025. Unlike battery electric cars, fuel cell vehicles can be quickly refilled and travel up to 300 miles before needing to be refueled. Battery electric cars, by contrast, go only about 100 miles on a charge and take a minimum of 30 minutes to recharge with a fast charging system. Fuel cell cars also can use hydrogen made from so-called “renewable methane” captured at farms, landfills, sewage treatment plants, and other facilities. The Energy Commission’s recent funding for the 28 new fueling stations requires they serve hydrogen made with at least 33 percent renewable methane, which cuts greenhouse gas emissions. The extra range and quicker fills that fuel cell vehicles offer could prove attractive to motorists and open a significant market for natural gas utilities in providing transportation energy, as well as electric utilities that supply the power to charge battery electric cars. General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes, Nissan, and Toyota all are testing fuel cell vehicles, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Ford also has been testing fuel cell vehicles since 2005. Hyundai, earlier this year, began leasing its hydrogen fuel cell powered Tucson model in the U.S. “Fuel cell cars are not vehicles of the future,” observed California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols. “They’re here now.” Yet hydrogen vehicles remain miniscule in number. So far, according to an Air Board assessment of hydrogen vehicles in June, there are just 125 registered hydrogen vehicles in the state, which has a total of 26 million vehicles. But automakers project that number will grow to 6,650 by the end of 2017 and to 18,500 by 2020 before taking off. The vehicles run by converting hydrogen held in their tanks to an electrical current using an onboard fuel cell. The current then powers an electric motor for propulsion. Hydrogen typically is captured by treating hydrogen-rich natural gas or methane.

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