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Tina Casey headshot

California Joins Push For National Fuel Cell EV Network


California has just joined the Obama administration's new public-private partnership H2 USA, and that should go a long way towards helping fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) secure a place in the electric vehicle market of the future.

H2 USA was created last year in order to kickstart the FCEV market, which right now faces a classic chicken-and-egg problem. FCEVs promise greater range and flexibility than their lithium-ion battery cousins, but very few public FCEV refueling opportunities exist right now (that's the chicken), and the private sector is reluctant to start building them until more FCEVs are on the road (that's the egg).

Given California's history of leveraging its huge auto market in support of new clean technology, it looks like the logjam is about to break.

A (very) brief FCEV primer

For those of you new to the topic, a fuel cell produces electricity through a chemical reaction based on hydrogen gas, rather than storing electrical charge in a battery.

Compared to battery EVs, FCEVs take only a few minutes to fuel up, which is potentially a major advantage -- once a convenient network of hydrogen fueling stations is established.

As an alternative to diesel engines, FCEVs are becoming commonplace in large business warehouse fleets, where quick refueling combines with onsite refueling for a killer combination for forklifts and other equipment.

The Department of Defense is also working directly with General Motors to develop a consumer-friendly FCEV infrastructure in Hawaii.

Another major boost is coming from a new FCEV technology partnership announced last year between GM and Honda.

California kickstarts FCEV market

California's Air Resources Board and Energy Department announced the new development last week, with the mission of enticing early adopters into the market while identifying strategies to lower costs.

The announcement teased out the interesting point that although California is a global leader in adopting new zero-emission technology, it is still the 12th single largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world.

The fuel cell initiative is just one part of a broader goal to reduce the state's carbon footprint. To that effect, in 2012 Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order that established a goal of supporting 1 million zero-emission vehicles in California by 2020, by ensuring that refueling and other related infrastructure is in place.

H2 USA also includes seven other states, which together are planning for 2.2 million zero-emission vehicles by 2025.

The 800-pound fossil fuel gorilla in the FCEV market

FCEVs do share one important characteristic with EVs, and that is a general dependency on fossil sources in their fuel supply chain.

For EVs, the problem is that the U.S. electricity market is still heavily dependent on coal. Natural gas, with its attendant fracking issues, is increasingly a part of the picture, too.

That issue could become moot in the near future as wind, solar and other renewables continue to penetrate the grid. Another growing part of the market is onsite solar combined with battery storage for individual homeowners as well as business sites and public charging stations.

The situation is a little more complicated for FCEVs. Manufacturing hydrogen gas requires tremendous amounts of energy, typically in the form of fossil natural gas.

Fortunately, two renewable energy solutions are already emerging. One is the development of photoelectrochemical cells, which use sunlight to power the reaction that produces hydrogen gas. Another potential solution is the use of renewable biogas rather than fossil natural gas.

Bottom line: In the big picture, like EVs, right now FCEVs depend on a supply chain that is at least partly nonrenewable, but that could change sooner rather than later.

Image credit: Planned FCEV hydrogen stations in California courtesy of ARB

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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