Remember when spotting a Tesla on the road was like finding a four-leaf clover? Now, the sleek electric cars and SUVs are all over Southern California. As for hybrids, if you throw a rock in LA, odds are good it’ll hit a Prius.
But the latest clean transportation technology, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, are still pretty scarce. As Governor Gavin Newsom issues an executive order banning the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles in California by 2035, regulators have given the green light to spending $39 million to help build three dozen new hydrogen fueling stations across the Golden State.
Alan Ohnsman says filling up one of these new fuel cell vehicles is pretty similar to what we’re used to now. “You pull up, and you pop open the tank cover, and you attach the nozzle, and it takes four to five minutes — slightly longer than a gasoline fill,” says Ohnsman. He should know. The senior editor for future mobility at Forbes Magazine drives a fuel cell vehicle. He says California is one of just a handful of places in the world already offering retail hydrogen fuel stations for drivers.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are electric. Ohnsman says the difference between them and battery-powered transportation is that in a battery powered car, you’re using stored electricity. In a hydrogen vehicle, you’re actually making electricity on-demand from the hydrogen.
With fewer than 9,000 hydrogen vehicles on the road in California, Ohnsman thinks the state backing more specialized fueling stations will help spur consumer interest in investing in the zero-emissions technology. “The manufacturers have the vehicles, but they’re not going to sell those vehicles if there’s no one to buy them, and people aren’t going to buy them if they don’t have a place to fuel them,” says Ohnsman. Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai all offer fuel cell vehicles.
Large industrial manufacturers are also looking into making hydrogen powered semi-trucks. That too could spur adoption of the vehicles. “Conceivably, if you begin seeing [fueling] stations open up to support commercial vehicles and give access to the public, well then you’re expanding the network quite dramatically and increasing the likelihood that more consumers would say, ‘You know what, I could actually take a long trip in this car; it’s not just my commuter vehicle now,’” Ohnsman says.
When it comes to trucking, Ohnsman says hydrogen makes more sense as a next generation technology than batteries. “The challenge of pushing a big truck 500 miles is — you’re talking about a multi-ton battery pack,” says Ohnsman. “If you have a heavy battery, that means you can’t haul as much stuff in the back of the truck, and that’s a big deal for trucking companies. A hydrogen system is about weight-equivalent with a heavy-duty diesel system.”
Ohnsman believes giving a boost to hydrogen across the marketplace, like California’s investment in fueling stations, will help familiarize people with it and could convince them to make the switch.
This interview is part of a weeklong collaboration between KCRW and hundreds of other media partners called "Covering Climate Now."