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Which comes first, hydrogen-powered cars or the fueling stations?

May 19, 2014 at 6:27 PM EDT
After spending more than a decade and billions of dollars on developing zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, carmakers are planning to release their models in California. But despite the state’s large demand for cars and tough air quality standards, California lacks a network of fueling stations. Scott Shafer and Sheraz Sadiq of KQED in San Francisco have the story.

GWEN IFILL: After more than a decade of experimenting, carmakers are planning to release a new generation of hydrogen-powered vehicles in California. The state has made a major commitment to alternative energy sources. But the new cars face an uncertain future.

Our partners at KQED San Francisco filed this report, narrated by Scott Shafer and produced by Sheraz Sadiq.

SCOTT SHAFER: Like most people, Bill Holloway commutes to work, driving 75 miles from his home in Alameda, California. But then again, most people don’t make their commute in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

BILL HOLLOWAY: I drive a very rare car. There’s only a handful on lease here in Northern California.

SCOTT SHAFER: This rare car uses hydrogen, instead of gasoline, and emits only water vapor, instead of harmful pollution.

BILL HOLLOWAY: The economy in this Mercedes is great. I average 58 miles per kilogram of hydrogen, which is the same as 58 miles per gallon in gas. I picked a hydrogen car because I was able to drive one of the early experimental models, and I’m kind of a geek.

SCOTT SHAFER: Carmakers have spent more than a decade and invested billions of dollars to develop the technology.

Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, thinks that investment is about to pay off.

CATHERINE DUNWOODY, Executive Director, California Fuel Cell Partnership: Having been involved in this now for 15 years and seeing the evolution of the technology, you know, these guys are serious. They really see the fuel cell vehicle as the future of automotive technology.

SCOTT SHAFER: In 2014, Hyundai will release a new fuel cell SUV in California, followed by new models from Toyota and Honda in 2015. But even with the rollout of these new hydrogen cars, drivers may hit a roadblock when it’s time to refuel.

BILL HOLLOWAY: My biggest complaint about this fuel cell car and fuel cell cars in general is, there’s nowhere to fill them up.

SCOTT SHAFER: For now, there’s just one place Holloway can go to refuel his car in Northern California, at this station in Emeryville owned and operated by A.C. Transit. Twelve of its public buses run on hydrogen.

At the hydrogen pump, filling up is remarkably similar to filling up at a regular gas station.

BILL HOLLOWAY: It only takes four or five minutes to fill, the same as filling up a regular gasoline car, so I had to make no adjustments at all.

SCOTT SHAFER: On a per-mile basis, hydrogen costs about as much as gasoline. And like gasoline, hydrogen is flammable. But it disperses quickly if it leaks because it is lighter than air.

BILL HOLLOWAY: I never worried about the safety of the hydrogen. The hydrogen tanks are buried in the middle, in the safest place in the car.

SCOTT SHAFER: The tanks also store hydrogen at high pressure, a recent innovation that has doubled the driving range of fuel cell cars, says Tim Lipman, co-director of U.C. Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center.

TIM LIPMAN, University of California, Berkeley: So what’s very different now than several years ago, is that we’re able to store a lot more hydrogen on board the vehicle because we have gone to higher storage pressures that are now giving us a driving range of 250 or even 300 miles.

SCOTT SHAFER: Most battery electric cars can only travel 80 or so miles before needing to be recharged for several hours. A fuel cell car also needs electricity to power its electric motor, but, here, the electricity is made on board, from hydrogen, inside a fuel cell stack.

TIM LIPMAN: Here is a fuel cell stack that is very similar to the type that you would see in a fuel cell-powered car. Each cell has a special membrane material in the middle that splits the hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons. The protons are now charged particles called ions that can go through this membrane material. But the electrons cannot.

SCOTT SHAFER: So the electrons go around the membrane and generate electricity. Oxygen from the air also flows in and binds with the electrons and ions to produce water and heat, the only tailpipe emissions.

But, like electric cars, fuel cell cars still need a fuel source.

TIM LIPMAN: Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can be zero-emission vehicles. But the only way you can do that is to use a renewable source for the hydrogen, and that could be solar power or wind power.

SCOTT SHAFER: Still, most hydrogen generated in the U.S. is made with methane, a natural gas.

TIM LIPMAN: Even though there’s some CO2 produced from that process, it’s still about 50 percent less than burning gasoline in a combustion engine.

SCOTT SHAFER: In October 2013, California, Oregon, New York and five other states pledged to put more than three million zero-emission vehicles on their roads by 2025. With the nation’s largest car market and its tough air quality standards, California is critical to the success of fuel cell cars and the infrastructure the cars require to take off.

BILL HOLLOWAY: I can’t go on a long trip. If they had more fueling stations, they would have more cars they could sell. If there were more cars, they would have more fueling stations. We have a chicken-and-egg problem.

SCOTT SHAFER: So, in 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed a new law that provides $20 million a year to build at least 100 hydrogen refueling stations in California by 2024. Nineteen new stations are already in development.

CATHERINE DUNWOODY: The state funding helps offset the risk to these small and medium-sized businesses to make this investment, to move forward with hydrogen fuel technology.

SCOTT SHAFER: But James Sweeney, a Stanford University expert on energy policy, questions the use of public dollars to help build hydrogen stations.

JAMES SWEENEY, Stanford University: The state wants to build hydrogen fueling infrastructure, with no knowledge as to whether there’s going to be a significant number of vehicles that will use those. It’s a recipe for risking taxpayer funds for what may be a total waste of money.

SCOTT SHAFER: This isn’t the first time California has tried to promote a vision of a hydrogen highway.

FMR. GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, R, Calif.: All across our highway system, hundreds of hydrogen fueling stations will be built.

SCOTT SHAFER: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan relied on private investors to help build up to 100 hydrogen stations by 2010. But the plan failed.

CATHERINE DUNWOODY: I think the original plan timing was ambitious, and I think that the cars really have come so far since the 2004 plan was established.

SCOTT SHAFER: Even so, will drivers choose hydrogen when electric cars and other clean vehicles are already on the road?

TIM LIPMAN: It really drives just like any other car, with a gas pedal and a brake. That’s an emergency brake if you need it. Have fun.

When people get to test-drive these cars, they will be very impressed by the performance, at how similar they are to conventional vehicles.

SCOTT SHAFER: While driving these cars may be easy, both fuel cell advocates and automakers know that their success depends on building more refueling stations soon.