Column: Hydrogen cars should be a bigger part of California’s battle against carbon emissions
We’ve turned way off course from the “hydrogen highway” that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to chart for California two decades ago.
Now, some state legislators are trying to get us back on the road.
They want the state to invest more money into nurturing the use of hydrogen vehicles, just as California is pouring funds into plug-in electric cars.
They argue that California — and the nation — shouldn’t be putting all its eggs in one basket: plug-in vehicles.
Millions of car owners don’t have their own garages — many even park on the street — so they can’t plug in their vehicles for recharging overnight.
Anyway, California doesn’t have enough grid capacity to recharge all the electric vehicles there will be once gas cars are phased out. And what about the motorist who lives where there’s a blackout caused by — name it — a summer heatwave or a winter atmospheric river or utility company ineptitude?
“Utilities won’t be able to generate enough power to charge all the battery vehicles,” says Terry Tamminen, who was Schwarzenegger’s environmental secretary. “Even if a third of all the cars had batteries, you’d crash the grid every night.”
We’re way below that. Last year, 19% of automobiles sold in California were zero emission vehicles, up from 12% in 2021. In all, 346,000 ZEVs were sold last year — 2,600 of them fueled by hydrogen.
There are roughly 12,000 hydrogen cars on the road in California, a tiny fraction of the more than 14 million total vehicles.
Another problem for the driver of an electric vehicle is that if the battery runs low on a trip from, say, Los Angeles to San Francisco, who wants to pull into a rest stop and wait for an hour for recharging? And there might not even be a hookup readily available.
A hydrogen vehicle can be refilled at a service station in about the same time it takes to top off a gas tank.
That is, if you can find a station that sells hydrogen and the fuel dispenser works. That’s a frustrating problem for the relatively few people who drive hydrogen vehicles, and a dilemma the state should be paying more attention to.
“Sacramento [hydrogen] fueling stations have been down almost as much as they’ve been up,” says John White, a longtime environmental activist who drives a Toyota hydrogen car. “That’s not a good situation.”
There have been nozzle and compression problems — and not enough pumps.
“And there aren’t enough fueling stations,” White points out.
Only two in Sacramento — 62 in the state, including 22 in Los Angeles County and 12 in Orange County. There’s only one in San Diego County. Ten are in Santa Clara County, but just three in San Francisco.
“I’d like to buy a hydrogen car,” says state Sen. Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Hydrogen Energy. “But here’s the problem: We [need] more fueling stations. People have to wait in line to fill up.”
The California Energy Commission spends $20 million annually trying to bolster the hydrogen vehicle industry. Over the years, the commission says it has invested $166 million in hydrogen infrastructure — including incentives for developing fueling stations — and plans to spend a total of $279 million by the end of 2024.
By 2025, the state intends to have spent $500 million on publicly available chargers for electric vehicles.
The hydrogen spending should be enough to bring the station total up to 200, the commission says.
But the ultimate goal of hydrogen advocates is 1,000 stations.
Archuleta last year asked Gov. Gavin Newsom for $300 million over 10 years to help spur the use of hydrogen vehicles. He says 30 legislators joined him in the request. But the governor “said he had other priorities,” the senator says.
He’ll try again this year.
Hydrogen vehicles can travel 300 to 400 miles on a full tank.
And they emit only water vapor, no greenhouse gas emissions.
Some environmentalists criticize hydrogen fuel because the most common way to make it is to throw steam against natural gas, a pollutant. But a cleaner way that’s being developed is to electricize water.
At any rate, when plug-in cars are recharged, the dominant way of generating the electricity is using natural gas.
But there’s another problem with hydrogen cars: the exorbitant cost of filling up a tank — around the equivalent of $16 a gallon or higher.
“The cost of hydrogen has skyrocketed in the last two months,” says Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), who drives a hydrogen vehicle and loves it. “It handles great. Makes no noise. It’s comfortable and fast.
“But it’s challenging to own because it’s a challenge to keep it fueled.”
Newsom, while railing about the “windfall profits” of gasoline producers, should also investigate the excessive cost that consumers must pay for green hydrogen.
No one is arguing that hydrogen vehicles are preferable to plug-ins. It’s that motorists should just have a second option.
“We need the state to have robust support for hydrogen like it does battery vehicles. Government has almost fallen over itself to support battery technology,” says Bill Elrick, strategist for a public-private hydrogen coalition.
State government “is working on it, but not very robustly,” he says.
Schwarzenegger tried in 2004 but was run off the road by skeptics and the Great Recession.
Newsom should get the state back on track.
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