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Over a decade ago, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced plans for a “hydrogen highway.” He dreamed of converting the day's most popular vehicles -- SUVs and Hummers -- into zero-emission cars powered by hydrogen. But he proved to be ahead of his time, and the idea quickly languished.
But thanks to new technologies and renewed interest from the public and private sectors, the hydrogen economy is in the headlines once again. And this time it may be for real.
For those of you new to the topic, here's a quick rundown: Fuel cell electric vehicles are a lot like their battery-powered cousins. Both run on electricity. And both are zero-emissions at the tailpipe.
But standard electric vehicles must be charged, while fuel cell vehicles can create energy on-the-go from a chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen. Fuel cell cars can be filled with hydrogen almost as quickly as a gasoline-powered car.
A hydrogen reaction can also be used as an energy source beyond the transportation sector. The only hitch is that the main source of hydrogen is still natural gas. This presents a problem for those seeking a truly low-impact form of power. But it also leaves the door open for renewable energy innovations that intersect with the hydrogen economy.
These trends and more are brining the hydrogen economy closer to scale -- and to a renewable energy future.
1. Fuel cell passenger cars inch toward the mainstream
Compared to traditional EVs, fuel cell vehicles proved slow to catch on in the mainstream passenger vehicle market. They're still more expensive to produce, and fueling stations are few and far between. But collaborative efforts to deploy a fueling network and bring down the price of fuel cells may soon change that.
Toyota was first to the jump with its mass-market fuel cell Mirai. 3p economic correspondent Bill Roth test-drove the Mirai at Sustainable Brands 2016, and even compared it side-by-side with the all-electric Tesla Model S.
Another Japanese automaker was quick on its heels: Honda began delivering its fuel cell Clarity at the end of last year and made headlines for a big-ticket partnership with American auto giant General Motors. The two will collaborate to mass-produce hydrogen fuel cells for EVs, with the aim of bringing down price.
With innovation happening quickly in the hydrogen vehicle space, 12 new fuel cell vehicles are poised to hit the market within the next three years, Business Insider reported this week.
2. Fuel cell vehicles take on deliveries
Logistics giant UPS will begin testing fuel cell delivery trucks later this year. The first-of-its-kind pilot will put fuel cell trucks on the company's demanding delivery routes, forcing them to meet — or beat — the performance of conventional UPS vehicles.
The U.S. Department of Energy, Unique Electric Solutions and the University of Texas collaborated with UPS on the project. The first medium-duty truck will hit the streets of Sacramento, California, by year's end.
This isn't the company's first foray into the hydrogen economy. UPS ordered 125 hybrid electric trucks from Ohio-based electric vehicle company Workhorse last spring. By the fall, it was laying plans for 200 more. And its so-called "Rolling Laboratory" is also looking into alternative and renewable sources for hydrogen.
3. The race for an alternative-fuel truck
Elon Musk pitched a new all-electric truck for Tesla last month. But competition from the hydrogen sector may prove fiercer than the cleantech mogul anticipated.
Days after Tesla's announcement, Japanese automaker Toyota unveiled a fuel cell truck feasibility study at the Port of Los Angeles.
The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are entering the 12th year of an ongoing emissions-reduction project. They've already made significant progress. But the use of diesel vehicles on the port is inflating emissions numbers.
Enter the hydrogen fuel cell EV -- which produces zero tailpipe emissions and can be refueled quickly and easily. The heavy-duty vehicles are expected to perform side-by-side with their diesel-powered counterparts.
But Toyota isn't the only dog in this race: A Utah startup called Nikola Motor Co. already has a head start. Last year it linked up with legacy trucking company Ryder for an ambitious project that includes a network of renewable hydrogen stations.
4. Compact fueling stations pave the way
Fuel cell electric vehicles can refill faster than conventional EVs. But there's a catch: Hydrogen fueling stations are harder to install, piping hydrogen into them can be difficult, and they tend to take up more space than electric vehicle stations.
But SimpleFuel, a project of three stakeholder companies, is out to change this. Its compact system uses electricity to split water and create hydrogen. When linked with a renewable energy source like wind or solar, a system like this could pave the way for renewable hydrogen on a mass scale.
And the SimpleFuel team says its onsite hydrogen generation and fueling station is small enough to be installed at businesses, public buildings and large residential complexes. While it's not quite as easy as plugging a conventional EV into a home outlet, it's certainly a start. And it could propel the three little known companies -- Ivys Energy Solutions and McPhy Energy North America of Massachusetts and PDC Machines of Pennsylvania -- into the spotlight.
5. Hydrogen forklifts make waves
Electric vehicle fueling stations still far outnumber their hydrogen counterparts. This presents a huge roadblock for fuel cell EV adoption in the mass market. But logistics is a key area where hydrogen is poised to reign supreme.
And the lowly forklift offers a prime example. Think of it this way: If a company opts for electric forklifts to cut emissions, those vehicles must be left to charge for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Some warehouses operate 24 hours a day, so charging overnight isn't a viable solution. And forcing drivers to stop their work for a lengthy charge will slow down operations.
Fuel cell forklifts, on the other hand, can be refueled in mere minutes -- just like a gasoline-powered vehicle. Both Toshiba and Amazon are looking into fuel cell forklifts to cut emissions at their warehouses and fulfillment centers. Amazon even sunk $600 million into the project, indicating the e-commerce giant thinks the hydrogen economy may be for real, too.
6. The 'hydrogen fuel cell hotel' turns heads
In February, Radisson Blu teamed up with energy company E.ON to launch a new fuel cell system at its iconic hotel in Frankfurt, Germany.
“The use of fuel cell technology allows the Radisson Blu hotel to generate a large share of the energy needed to run the hotel free of emissions,” the companies said in a press announcement.
As 3p clean energy correspondent Tina Casey pointed out, the move "signals that hydrogen fuel cell technology is mature and capable of providing a significant amount of power for major structures."
Starting in late summer, the fuel cells will supply about 3 gigawatt-hours of electricity and 2 GWh of heat to the hotel, the companies said. That's enough to help the hotel eliminate 600 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.
7. A nod from the military lends confidence
It turns out hydrogen vehicles are tailor-made for military use.
"In vehicles and aircraft, they combine range and power with stealth. They create no airborne emissions; they run quietly; and they operate at lower temperatures, giving away less of a thermal footprint than diesel or other combustible fuels," 3p's Tina Casey reported in January. "Similar factors make hydrogen fuel cells attractive for stationary power supply."
In partnership with General Motors, the Department of Defense is exploring the use of hydrogen-fueled SUVs and drones for tactical operations.
8. Water-splitting and solar power offer hope for renewable hydrogen
Again, the main source of hydrogen is still natural gas. While we have the technology to split hydrogen from water, the process remains energy-intensive and cost prohibitive in most cases.
A breakthrough that combines water-splitting with renewable energy can bring down price and make hydrogen a truly sustainable fuel. And innovators are getting closer.
The Energy Department ramped up its water-splitting initiatives last fall by linking six national laboratories in an initiative called HydroGEN. And in March, DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in partnership with the the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis and the California Institute of Technology, identified 12 new catalysts that can split hydrogen from water.
Their research aims to use these catalysts to bring down the price of water-splitting while incorporating solar energy.
Image credits: 1) UPS 2) Toyota 3) General Motors (all press use only)
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.