Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles are building momentum in California

Audio interview: large-scale hydrogen plant planned for North Las Vegas is intended to supply the west coast with hydrogen fuel

A hydrogen refueling station in Berkeley, California - photo: California Fuel Cell Partnership

California has the largest number of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) of any state and one of the largest hydrogen refueling station networks in the world. The state has been a leader in the regulatory encouragement of hydrogen as a fuel source for cars, busses and trucks for nearly 20 years.

“I am going to encourage the building of a hydrogen highway to take us to the environmental future,” said then Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger during his 2004 State of the State Address. “I intend to show the world that economic growth and the environment can coexist.”

On April 4 of 2004, Schwarzenegger signed an executive order that began development of the California Hydrogen Blueprint Plan. The stated goal was to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses from transportation as part of the state’s larger and exemplary efforts to zero out the release of carbon.

But to sculpt an entire transportation sector from top-to-bottom and side-to-side requires regulators, fuel manufacturers, vehicle makers, and consumers to align and form an economically sustainable market, which has proven to be difficult. While lithium-ion powered electric vehicle sales have risen sharply in recent years, FCEV sales have risen as well yet are still tiny in scale.

In recent years though, the number of manufacturers making and selling hydrogen fuel cell vehicles has increased. Model selection has improved, and prices have come down. Access to fuel has been limited in scope, and that’s about to change.

According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the cost of building refueling infrastructure in California is also beginning to benefit from economies of scale. With state and private funding, there are currently 45 hydrogen stations in California. Nine more are in construction, 36 in permitting, and 16 more proposed.

A New Hydrogen Plant in Nevada

There are several ways to make hydrogen, and all of them are energy intensive. The carbon emission occurs when the hydrogen is created, however the only emission from an FCEV is water vapor.

According to the consulting firm Wood McKenzie and the U.S. Department of Energy, global demand for hydrogen in 2020 was roughly 70 million metric tons. Hydrogen has traditionally been used in oil refining, ammonia production, and steel manufacturing.

The most common method is the steam-methane reforming process. In broad terms, high temperature steam is used to extract hydrogen from natural gas or coal.

Even though hydrogen made using the steam-methane reforming process has a notable carbon footprint, the US Department of Energy says the overall carbon emissions for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles using steam-methane process hydrogen are still half that of internal combustion vehicles.

The Air Liquide hydrogen plant expected to open early next year in North Las Vegas will produce hydrogen from “renewable natural gas upgraded from biogas using our advanced separation membrane technology.” The plant is expected to produce 30 tons of liquid hydrogen a day. Air Liquide’s $150 million investment represents a big first step in expanding hydrogen supply to the western US and enabling the market in California to continue its growth to a projected 200 hydrogen refueling stations by 2025.

Electrolysis

Another, potentially greener, way to make hydrogen involves the use of electricity to zap water to separate hydrogen molecules, a process known as electrolysis. According to the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, almost all hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas or coal using the steam-methane reforming process, but in California, the law mandates that 40 percent of all hydrogen sold at state-funded stations be produced using non-hydrocarbon source material and energy from renewable resources like solar, geothermal, and wind.

California’s clean energy standard for hydrogen production implies that the state is encouraging hydrogen manufacturing to turn from the use of hydrocarbons to cleaner means like electrolysis to harvest hydrogen molecules.

With legislation like SB18 now under consideration, California lawmakers are working to set hydrogen fuel on its final pathway to an industry of zero carbon emissions.

California is laying the foundation for other regions of the country to adopt proven technology and expand the use of hydrogen fuel cell technology. Trucking, both local and long haul, may first help spread hydrogen infrastructure beyond California’s borders.

The California Fuel Cell Partnership is made up of the largest vehicle manufacturers on the planet to include, Toyota, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Ford, Audi, Nissan and others. The partnership also includes the US Department of Energy, national labs, and academic institutions.

For a global look at hydrogen as a vehicle fuel source, we spoke with Keith Malone, spokesperson for the California Fuel Cell Partnership.


See music credits below.

What is the difference between a battery-powered electric vehicle and a fuel cell electric vehicle?

In a lithium battery-powered electric vehicle, a battery stores electricity that drives an electric motor. Depending on the charging system, recharging a lithium battery can take hours.

Through an electro-chemical process, a hydrogen fuel cell converts hydrogen to electricity. The electricity from the fuel cell drives an electric motor. The hydrogen tank can be refilled in five minutes, and a full tank delivers a range similar to gas-powered vehicles.

Every FCEV available in California comes with $15,000 in fuel vouchers and, depending on income, a $4,500 to $7,000 rebate from the California Clean Vehicle Rebate Project.

The Totota Mirai –

The Hyundai Nexo –

The Honda Clarity –

GM hydrotech for vehicles, rail and maritime uses – 

Audio h-tron quattro –

Nissan X-Trail FCV –

Mercedes-Benz GLC F-Cell –

Nikola Energy FCEV Semi –

Music credits as reported to the Public Radio Exchange, in order of appearance

Song: Open The Light
Artist: Boards of Canada
Album: Music has the right to children
Label: Warp Records
Date: 1996
Duration: 3:07

Song: Eyesdown
Artist: Bonobo
Album: Black Sands
Label: Ninja Tune
Date: 2010
Duration: 53

Song: Animals
Artist: Bonobo
Album: Black Sands
Label: Ninja Tune
Date: 2010
Duration: 2:14

Song: Chic Punk
Artist: Montefroid
Album: Trip Hop Chilled Electronica
Label: Native State Records
Date: 2007
Duration: 1:22

Song: Rue The Whirl
Artist: Boards of Canada
Album: Music has the right to children
Label: Warp Records
Date: 1996
Duration: 1:12

Song: Sweet as He Could Be
Artist: Tonisterical
Album: Trip Hop Chilled Electronica
Label: Native State Records
Date: 2007
Duration: 1:22

Song: D Song
Artist: Bonobo
Album: Dial “M” for Monkey
Label: Ninja Tune
Date: 2003
Duration: 1:24

Song: Cirrus
Artist: Bonobo
Album: The North Borders
Label: Ninja Tune
Date: 2017
Duration: 1:15

Song: Moko Le Dzen (Ruf Dug Disco Dub)
Artist: The Jagger Botchway Group
Album: Odze Odze
Label: Cultures of Soul Records
Date: 2016
Duration: 1:09