Dream of a Hydrogen Highway Still Alive in California

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Hydrogen, clean energy, automobiles, Leon Kaye, innovation
Hydrogen cars such as the Hyundai Tuscon could have a future.

Over a decade ago, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger drove a shiny new Hummer into a fueling station near Los Angeles International Airport to announce his plans for a “hydrogen highway.” One promise Schwarzenegger touted during the previous year’s recall campaign against Gray Davis was to convert one of his energy-hogging Hummers into one that would run on hydrogen.

It made for a great press event, though observers noted that the alternative fuel vehicle at the venue was not one from Schwarzenegger’s collection, but a prototype built by General Motors. Hydrogen as a vehicle fuel offered many promises. Supporters claimed hydrogen could become a potentially limitless source of fuel with no harmful emissions that could help California meet its ambitious climate change and clean energy goals.

Schwarzenegger’s ambition was to oversee the construction of up to 200 hydrogen fueling stations along California’s most important highways by the end of 2010. But several factors eventually led to the demise of Schwarzenegger’s hydrogen highway. The governor’s declining poll numbers, the 2008-2009 fiscal crisis, American automakers’ struggles and the lack of a viable market all contributed to this project fading away by 2010. Although Schwarzenegger said at the sunset of his administration that he would continue to be an advocate for hydrogen as a transport fuel, he, and much of state, had largely stopped promoting it an option.

The hydrogen highway may have fallen far short of fulfilling its goals, but that doesn’t mean hydrogen lacks a future, despite the many criticisms of this fuel. “There was a lot of technological development that certainly helps us today,” said Catherine Dunwoody, chief of the Fuel Cell Program at the California Air Resources Board (CARB). “The major challenges were really not technology, but were more from a business perspective.”

But hydrogen is making a comeback, even at a time when electric vehicles keep improving in design, range and performance while oil is still mired in a two-year price slump. Two years ago, the California Energy Commission asked several companies to build new hydrogen fuel stations across the state. And more automakers, including Honda, Hyundai and Toyota, have rolled out hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles for sale within California.

From great idea to business success

History is full of new and innovative technology and business ideas that at first seemed great, but were ahead of their time. Often, the enthusiasm was not enough to overcome market realities. Former President Jimmy Carter’s solar panels on the White House. The Coleco Adam and personal computers. Apple’s handheld Newton. Schwarzenegger’s hydrogen Hummer. Project Better Place’s network of battery-changing stations in Israel.

But hydrogen fuel cells are making a comeback for a bevy of reasons, not just because the old hydrogen highway idea was “ahead of its time.” It takes more than just a great idea, capital and a dynamic leader to turn a concept into a dynamic.

As Dunwoody of CARB told TriplePundit, there has been much technological progress with hydrogen over the past 10 to 15 years. And a good part of that occurred under the stewardship of the Schwarzenegger administration.

One of hydrogen’s largest hurdles was funding. A decade ago, those tasked with expanding California’s hydrogen automobile market were struggling to keep the momentum going. The state legislature looked at those grants year-to-year, which made it easy for politicians to find a reason to cut funding for a program that would not necessarily reap short-term results. Some money came from federal programs, which could always cease to arrive after yet another D.C. budget battle.

The funds for the program were often one-off grant programs, which left professionals at the state’s Air Resources Board and Energy Commission struggling to keep the state’s hydrogen fuel programs viable. Dunwoody noted that for the past three to four years, a steady stream of funding from Sacramento has helped the program thrive and allowed the state to build more stations.

That, in turn, helps gain confidence from automakers that are hesitant to invest in a new line of vehicles if there is no infrastructure. “Not having to go year-to-year at the whim of the legislature helps,” Dunwoody explained.

Don’t forget the branding

Branding is another factor that held hydrogen down. Despite the sharp criticisms lobbed at this fuel, hydrogen could have a bright future with abundant feedstock, no noxious emissions and fast refueling. But the “hydrogen highway” moniker did not help its advocates’ cause. Was this a special transport project only for hydrogen cars? Did it really make sense to have a line of hydrogen fuel stations from the border with Mexico to the Oregon state line? Is this a pet project benefiting a few automobile aficionados who are the only one that can afford such a car?

Hence this initiative is now called the California Hydrogen Refueling Network. While the expansion of hydrogen filling stations across California is still the overarching goal, market realities have pushed the concentration of these stations into areas with higher populations.

The bottom line

Hydrogen fuel cells are still a nascent technology. But proponents appear to have solved the “chicken and the egg problem” of whether the infrastructure or the cars need to come first.

California’s commitment to hydrogen as one compelling option for the future of transport has earned the trust of the automakers. Toyota and Hyundai committed to the delivery of a small but steady number of hydrogen-powered cars to the Golden State.

Furthermore, the state’s progress on hydrogen has inspired action across the world, from the Northeastern U.S. to countries such as Germany and Japan.

The hydrogen vehicle market still has a steep mountain to climb here in California. The state has a goal of tens of thousands of such cars on its roads by 2020 (Dunwoody mentioned 44,000 in the interview). So far, about 400 are on the road. The industry is still waiting for the convergence of performance, price and scale if the hydrogen fuel cell car market can even reach that 1 percent threshold claimed by electric vehicles.

Nevertheless, the industry has learned much from its first attempt over a decade ago. “We’re playing a long game and have a clear vision beyond petroleum,” Dunwoody concluded.

Image credit: Hyundai

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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