JUICE: Cruising the Hydrogen Highway

11 Jun 2018

Fuel cell vehicles, powered by hydrogen made from water and renewable power, have long been the Holy Grail when it comes to creating a clean energy economy.

After decades of effort to push the technology toward commercial reality, fuel cell vehicles are beginning to gain traction with car-makers, energy companies, state officials, and most importantly drivers.

California now sports 5,000 hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles, including cars and public transit buses. And, according to Bill Elrick, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, more are on the way.

Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and other auto companies have made fuel cell vehicles available. Elrick added that drivers are leasing and purchasing them then fueling them up from a growing number of hydrogen pumps located at gas stations.

To date, according to the partnership, the state has 35 commercial hydrogen fueling stations and 29 more under development with the help of $131.6 million of California Energy Commission money aimed at seeing the state has 100 stations.

Ultimately, said Gia Vacin, an advisor to Gov. Jerry Brown, the aim is to see that the state has 200 hydrogen fuel pumps by 2025.

By 2030, Vacin says the Brown Administration expects California will have a million fuel cell vehicles on the road and some 1,000 hydrogen fueling stations.

Yet, it’s widely acknowledged that to make sure the vehicles are truly zero emissions likely will require development of electrolysis facilities. Hydrogen can be made by running renewable power through water to split it into hydrogen and oxygen. Today, most of the hydrogen used by fuel cell vehicles is made by reforming natural gas, which is not an emissions-free process since the fuel is carbon-based.

One reason is that electrolysis remains largely uneconomical due to the substantial amounts of electricity the process requires coupled with the cost of power in California. Electricity here, Energy Information Administration data show, is more expensive than in all but six other states in the nation.

“Electricity costs is the limiting factor when you talk about electrolysis,” said Vacin. Power contributes to a cost for hydrogen of about $15 a kilogram by the time it’s made, compressed, shipped, stored, and dispensed at local filling stations, she explained.

A kilogram in today’s fuel cell cars gets drivers about 60 to 70 miles down the road so it’s almost double the cost to fuel up than filling up a gasoline-powered model. Accordingly, Vacin said that the goal is to get renewable hydrogen down to about $9 a kilogram, which would be competitive with fueling a gasoline-powered car that got 30 miles per gallon.

Some improvement in the energy efficiency of electrolysis is possible, according to a panel of hydrogen energy and vehicle experts who spoke June 8 and 9 at a California Public Utilities Commission meeting on power rate design for zero emissions vehicles. However, they outlined two other potential strategies for cutting the cost of electricity for electrolysis.

One avenue, said Omar Jose Guerra Fernandez, a National Renewable Energy Laboratory researcher, is to build solar or wind power plants next to electrolytic hydrogen production plants and use their power to make hydrogen, without having to pay for transmission and distribution costs. Such a direct access approach reduces the cost of power to as little as 5 cents/kwh.

Today, noted one panelist, power to run one of the state’s only electrolysis units in Riverside County costs 13 cents/kWh.

The other option discussed last week was for the California Public Utilities Commission to redesign power rates to incentivize hydrogen producers to use excess solar power from the grid that is now sold out of state when production isn’t curtailed due to the lack of a market.

CPUC Member Carl Peterman expressed interest in entertaining the suggestion and admitted that until last week the commission hadn’t really given hydrogen the same emphasis that it’s placed on encouraging battery electric vehicles with its ratemaking authority. Days later, the U.S. Department of Energy asked for ideas on how to eliminate regulatory barriers to hydrogen energy.

That could point to the day when hydrogen producers will enjoy more favorable power rates than they get today though the details remain to be seen.

—William J. Kelly


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