It was love at first drive for Chris Schneider and his Honda Clarity.
“This is the most rewarding automotive experience I’ve ever had, and I’ve driven lots of different vehicles with all kinds of technologies,” the 61-year-old said on a recent Sunday morning while fueling up.
Schneider’s car is a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, and Schneider is filling up at the only station in San Diego County that carries the fuel to keep his car running, a Shell station in Carmel Valley.
Because the market for hydrogen-powered cars is in its infancy, there are only about 3,000 fuel cell vehicles on the road, with 31 fueling stations in California to keep them rolling.
The stations are concentrated in Los Angeles and Orange counties and the San Francisco Bay Area, where the population and buying power are more likely to include early adopters.
But the state government is making an investment in hydrogen fuel cell stations to the tune of $20 million a year, and boosters of the technology promise San Diego and other parts of the state will soon find an onramp.
“The cars are coming,” said Keith Malone, spokesman for the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a public-private partnership based in West Sacramento that was established to move fuel cell electric vehicles closer to market.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles run on compressed hydrogen fed into a fuel cell "stack" that produces electricity. Combined with oxygen pulled from the air, the motor propels the vehicle.
The cars’ backers say they combine the best of internal combustion and plug-in electric vehicles.
Like plug-in electric vehicles, they run quietly and produce no greenhouse gases. Their only emissions are a few drops of water that come out of the cars’ tailpipes.
And while it can take hours to charge a fully electric car, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can fill up in about 3 to 5 minutes — just a bit longer than it takes to fuel a car or truck with gasoline.
The cars also boast Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy ratings of better than 300 miles per fill-up.
Toyota, Hyundai and Honda have taken the early lead, and the Asian automakers are rolling out their fleets of U.S. cars strictly in California, where the state Legislature has passed bills aimed at dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“California has a huge base of buyers, so it makes sense from a volume perspective because of how many vehicles are sold here,” said Jeremy Acevedo, pricing and industry analyst for Edmunds.com. “On top of that, you have a base of buyers that are proven to be very receptive to alternative fuel vehicles.”
The California Energy Commission has a goal of constructing at least 100 hydrogen stations across the state by 2020.
Should state policymakers even be in the hydrogen fuel cell business?
“It’s picking winners to the ultimate degree,” said Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, which advocates free-market economic policies. “What do they know about what future technology is going to be?”
Lawrence Kopp, a commercial real estate agent whose office is in Solana Beach, Calif., drives a Toyota Mirai and estimated that he’s one of fewer than 20 Mirai owners in the area.
“At the time, I thought, this is kind of neat,” Kopp said. “Nobody is going to have this car.”
Kopp said refueling is a big issue, especially given that his San Marcos home is 35 minutes from the Carmel Valley station.
“You have to plan around things,” Kopp said. “OK, do I need fuel, do I need to go out of my way?”
Kopp is leasing the car for $536 a month and, as an incentive offered by Toyota, gets $15,000 in free hydrogen fuel during the three-year lease.
Schneider, the Clarity owner, runs a Honda dealership in La Crosse, Wis. He frequently visits his daughter in Solano Beach and leased his car in February from a dealer in Irvine. He pays $369 a month for three years and also received $15,000 in hydrogen fuel cards.
Instead of gasoline, the pump dispenses compressed hydrogen and rather than gallons the fuel is measured in kilograms.
“Welcome to the metric system,” Schneider said on his recent fuel stop. It took 4.7 kilograms to fill up his Clarity, coming to $78.32.
“To be able to refuel in less than five minutes, you know, that’s just not accomplishable” with battery electric vehicles, Schneider said. “Hydrogen is certainly the best solution at the moment.”
Elon Musk would disagree. He’s a harsh critic of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles — although Musk is hardly a disinterested observer because, as co-founder of EV-maker Tesla Motors, his cars compete in a rival automobile technology.
Musk has called hydrogen cars “fool cells” and “mind-boggingly stupid,” complaining that using hydrogen to store energy is less efficient than using electricity to charge batteries.
Because the production of hydrogen often involves natural gas, some critics of fuel cell technology say it is not as clean as it has been billed. Although natural gas burns much cleaner than, say, coal, gas is still a fossil fuel.
Malone of the Fuel Cell Partnership said promoting hydrogen cars does not come at the expense of a growing all-electric vehicle market.
“We believe in both pathways,” Malone said. “Both have their strengths, and both have their challenges.”
Transportation accounts for about 35% to 40% of California's greenhouse gas emissions.
Gov. Jerry Brown wants 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on California's highways by 2025 and Mary Nichols, the head of the California Air Resources Board, wants 100% of new vehicles sold in the state to meet zero-emission standards by 2030.
Clean energy vehicles, however, still make up a small percentage of the California auto market, where roughly 2 million new internal combustion cars and trucks are sold each year.
There are 341,200 plug-in or fully electric vehicles in the state, accounting for less than 5% of California’s market share.
The 3,000 hydrogen-fueled cars represent an even tinier subset. And that figure accounts for virtually the entire U.S., since the state — for now — is the only place where consumers can buy them.
“It’s important to keep in perspective we’re building something new,” Malone said, pointing out that Toyota did not launch the Mirai in California until late 2015.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are expensive — the sticker price on a new Mirai is $57,500 — but, like fully electric vehicles, they come with financial incentives.
California gives battery-electric cars a rebate of $2,500 and offers $5,000 for those who buy or lease hydrogen cars. The state recently placed rebate restrictions on high-income earners who buy or lease electric vehicles, but those restrictions don’t apply to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The federal government tax credit of up to $8,000 expired at the end of 2016.
And like hybrids and battery-powered electrics, owners of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles receive those much-desired stickers that allow them to drive in the HOV lane, even if traveling alone.
The California Public Utilities Commission has approved $197 million for the state’s big three investor-owned utilities in the state — Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas & Electric — to construct EV charging stations and an additional $1 billion is under review.
Developing a hydrogen fuel cell fueling network of 100 stations by 2024 has been estimated to cost $225 million (with allocations coming to about $20 million per year), and members of the Fuel Cell Partnership are working on a strategy that would see 500 to 1,000 hydrogen stations erected across California.
Malone said research from UC Irvine estimates a network of 100 hydrogen fuel stations would mean about half the drivers in California would be within 10 minutes of any station.
“Some say 100 stations isn’t a lot,” Malone said. “Just to keep some things in perspective, California has 9,000 gas stations. And of those 9,000 gas stations, only 1,800 of them are providing 50% of the fuel” for the state’s gasoline-powered cars and trucks.
Schneider, whose dealership in Wisconsin features advanced fuel vehicles, sees a future in which battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars coexist — perhaps within the same car.
“A battery electric vehicle that had a hydrogen tank for backup would be something that would be really nice,” Schneider said.
That’s what Mercedes-Benz executives seem to have in mind. The German automaker recently announced plans to sell a GLC F-Cell SUV in the U.S. by late 2019 that it promises will be “the world’s first electric vehicle with fuel-cell/battery powertrain.”
South Korean automaker Hyundai already has a fuel-cell version of its popular Tucson SUV available at selected California dealers.
But no country seems more committed to the future of hydrogen fuel cell cars than Japan.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his country wants 40,000 hydrogen vehicles on its roads by 2020 and 900 fueling stations installed by 2030 — the same year it wants the stations to become profitable.
Government subsidies for hydrogen-fueled vehicles in Japan are expected to expire in about 2020.
Tokyo is hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics and the government wants to use the games to promote fuel cell technology, with athletes driven to venues in hydrogen-powered buses or cars such as a Clarity or Mirai.
The word mirai is Japanese for “future.”