Governor, Legislature must help hydrogen power California’s clean transportation future

By Jack Brouwer, Special to CalMatters

The Olympics have been postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the planning for the Tokyo Games has already delivered an instructive lesson about the future of clean transportation.

            About 100 hydrogen-powered buses are being readied to shuttle spectators to Olympic venues, and plans call for battery electric vehicles to run in a continuous loop through the Olympic Village to transport athletes.

            Californians should be heartened by this commitment to clean-fuel diversity, as it affirms the wisdom of the state’s pursuit of carbon-free transportation solutions.

            For more than a decade, California has been investing in clean-transportation infrastructure, spending up to $100 million annually. Because transportation accounts for more than 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, dramatic advancement in this sector is imperative.

Much of the attention to date has been focused on battery electric vehicles. But there are limitations to the massive deployment of these vehicles, and state policymakers have wisely recognized the need for another zero-emissions alternative: hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

Yes, these two types of vehicles are both powered by electricity. The difference is that hydrogen fuel cells generate their own electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen, while plug-in electrical vehicles store electricity in a battery.

            Both options will be essential to meet our clean transportation needs.

State officials have recognized – and must continue to recognize – that battery electric vehicles cannot meet every consumer’s need.

Unlike electric cars whose batteries must be recharged every 100 to 200 miles by plugging them into the grid, hydrogen vehicles have a range of 300-plus miles, similar to vehicles with gasoline engines.

Unlike plug-in vehicles whose batteries can take many hours to recharge (and 30 minutes or more even with “fast-charging”), hydrogen vehicles can be refueled in 3-5 minutes to get drivers back on the road.

For super-commuters who live far distant from their jobs, or for people who use their cars for work (for example, Uber and Lyft drivers), these are essential advantages without which driving a zero-emission vehicle would be impossible.

Finally, any person using a vehicle to carry a large payload, such as delivery vans, commercial trucks and long-haul semi-tractor trailer rigs, can much more easily drive with zero emissions using hydrogen since it is much lighter than batteries.

Speaking about hydrogen, a clean-transportation expert in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration told a reporter recently: “Its moment is due.”

A new report published by the Hydrogen Council shows that the cost of hydrogen solutions will fall sharply within the next decade, sooner than previously expected. As scale-up of hydrogen production, distribution and dispensing continues, cost is projected to decrease by up to 50 percent by 2030 for a wide range of applications. This will make hydrogen competitive with other low-carbon alternatives and, in some cases, even competitive with conventional polluting options.

The technology of hydrogen production and fuel cells has advanced, and its efficiency is being proven every day – in thousands of hydrogen-powered forklifts in warehouses across the nation, in lighter-weight trucks that can deliver more goods per load, and in an increasing number of cars around the world.

In 2020, we are poised for progress in the drive to put more zero-emission vehicles on California highways. As evidence of that conviction, major automakers including Toyota, energy suppliers such as Air Liquide and Shell, and California start-up and hydrogen retailer FirstElement Fuel have recently formed the California Hydrogen Coalition to further speed the development and deployment of this technology.

Victory in this critical front in the battle against climate change and air pollution is achievable. Ultimately, when the medals for clean transportation success are awarded, plug-in electrics and hydrogen fuel cells will both be on the podium.

_____

Jack Brouwer is associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, and associate director of Advanced Power and Energy Program at the University of California, Irvine, [email protected]

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