Can hydrogen cars beat electric?

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Driving his hydrogen-powered Mercedes-Benz SUV test vehicle, Loki Efaw, an IT manager at a bank, is a rare breed . There are only about 200 hydrogen cars on the streets of California. Efaw chose to lease the car, which is part of test by Mercedes, because of his environmental convictions and interest in trying new technologies. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

This hydrogen filling station in Torrance is one of only 9 such hydrogen fueling statons in California. Using $46 million in taxpayer dollars, the state will be installing 26 more in the coming months, but it hopes that will grow into hundreds of hydrogen stations in the coming years. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
This hydrogen filling station in Torrance is one of only nine such hydrogen fueling stations in California. Using $46 million in taxpayer dollars, the state will be installing 26 more in the coming months, but it hopes that will grow into hundreds of hydrogen stations in the coming years. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

California has big plans for hydrogen fueled vehicles in the coming years as part of its effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.

If your high school chemistry didn’t stick, here are some hydrogen facts: Sitting first on the periodic table, it’s the most abundant element in the universe, the raw material responsible for thermonuclear reactions in stars, including our sun. And, of course, when you combine hydrogen with oxygen you get water. It’s hydrogen after all that’s the “H” in H20.

If you use hydrogen as a fuel in fuel cell vehicles no pollution is created as the cars are driven. Without going too deep into the science and engineering, fuel cell cars combine hydrogen in their tanks with oxygen to produce electricity that powers an electric motor that propels the car forward. The only “emission” that comes out of the tailpipe is a few puffs of water vapor, not carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and soot. That, the thinking goes, will make hydrogen-fueled cars attractive to drivers who want to contribute to reducing greenhouse gases and who love adopting new technologies early.

Hydrogen cars also enjoy a distinct advantage over plug-in electric cars when it comes to range. Cars fueled by hydrogen can travel about as many miles as gasoline fueled vehicles do on a full tank. That’s way more distance than most electric cars, which often need to recharge their batteries before they’ve traveled a 100 miles from the home or office.

But there’s a big roadblock in the way of hydrogen cars in California. With only nine hydrogen fueling stations in the state, there are few places for them to fill up with hydrogen. Unless more stations are built, hydrogen car drivers like Loki Efaw say it will be difficult to make the cars mainstream. “And so we have the chicken and the egg problem,” says Efaw. “How do you sell more hydrogen fueled cars when there’s no place to get fuel.”

Driving his hydrogen-powered Mercedes-Benz SUV test vehicle, Loki Efaw, an IT manager at a bank, is a rare breed . There are only about 200 hydrogen cars on the streets of California. Efaw chose to lease the car, which is part of test by Mercedes, because of his environmental convictions and interest in trying new technologies. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Efaw about to fill his tank with super-cooled liquid hydrogen. It takes about 10 minutes to fill the car with hydrogen because sensors must equalize the pressure of the hydrogen between the pump and tank. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Efaw about to fill his tank with super-cooled liquid hydrogen. It takes about 10 minutes to fill the car with hydrogen because sensors must equalize the pressure of the hydrogen between the pump and tank. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

But California has a developed a hydrogen infrastructure roadmap to solve that problem. Earlier this year, the California Energy Commission approved spending $46 million on building dozens of hydrogen fueling stations in the state, with most of them concentrated around Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

And that’s just the beginning of the state’s plans for hydrogen, says Bill Elrick, exeuctive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, which represents public agencies and private companies promoting hydrogen in the Golden State. “Once we get 50 to 100 stations,” says Elrick, “we need to start expanding that so that it becomes hundreds, so that we can reach more and more people with every station that comes online.”

These plans go back over a decade. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, famous for driving a hydrogen-powered Hummer dreamed of building a “Hydrogen Highway” in California and beyond. He envisioned Sacramento partnering with leaders in other states and Canada to build hydrogen fueling stations all along the West Coast. But many of those ambitious plans withered because of the sheer expense of building hydrogen infrastructure.

As California embarks on creating a scaled back version of the “Hydrogen Highway”, critics of the technology, many of whom are environmentalists, are concerned. They note that since a lot of hydrogen is  produced from natural gas, it’s not as clean and green as it seems. They also wonder why California should spend money developing a hydrogen fueling infrastructure from scratch, when battery technology for plug-in electric cars is improving and the country is already wired for electricity.

“Electricity starts out with one huge advantage, which is pretty much the whole country is electrified,” says Joseph Romm, author of the “Hype About Hydrogen” and a former official in the U.S. Energy Department during the Clinton Administration. “Whereas hydrogen is an unusual chemical, other than a few places in the country there is not hydrogen near you within one hundred miles,” says Romm. He would much rather California spend its money supporting plug-in electric vehicles than going down the hydrogen road.

But state officials and business interests promoting hydrogen say both plug-in electric vehicles and hydrogen powered cars need to both be on California’s roads if the state is going to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets. Costs, they say, will come down as more hydrogen stations are built. They also promise that a big segment of the driving public will choose the cars as more automobile companies, like Toyota, start selling hydrogen-fueled cars.

Listen below for more as we visit a handful of hydrogen fueling stations in the state.

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Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was an especially prominent proponent of hydrogen fueled vehicles, using his brawn to show that the cars could also be macho, like this hydrogen-powered Hummer. He also talked about his dream of building a “Hydrogen Highway” along  the West Coast. (State of California)
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Big automakers are starting to produce hydrogen fueled cars for mass market sales. The Toyota FCV, with a 300 mile range, will be available next year in California. (Toyota)