The Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development for the State of California (nicknamed “GO-Biz”) held an event at the Toyota USA Automobile Museum yesterday. The topic was “Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles and Infrastructure in Your Neighborhood: A state and local workshop.” After opening remarks, approximately 150 attendees from automotive manufacturers, state and local government, fire departments, technology suppliers, molecule providers and a smattering of media outlets listened to a keynote speech from Hector De La Torre, a member of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), followed by two panel discussions and closing remarks. Attendees then had the opportunity to drive five examples of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on public roads near Toyota’s Torrance headquarters.
The thrust of the meeting was to address the chicken-and-egg status of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Until there’s enough infrastructure to support hydrogen refueling, consumers will be unlikely to embrace the technology. Until consumers are ready to embrace the technology, manufacturers will be unable to achieve the economies of scale that will bring prices to reasonable levels. On the infrastructure side, investors are unwilling to build and install fueling stations until there’s more demand. That’s the chicken-and-egg scenario.
The California Fuel Cell Partnership seeks to bring all of the interested parties together to make an omelet. Because the technology is unfamiliar to many city managers, zoning authorities, inspectors and fire officials, they are sometimes unclear about whether to enforce the same rules on hydrogen fueling stations as they do on gasoline and diesel stations. By opening lines of communication, the CAFCP hopes to facilitate more rapid opening of proposed new stations, and appropriate adjustment to existing local regulations.
Currently, California is the leader in hydrogen fueling. Still, the network of stations is sparse. According to Hector De La Torre’s speech, there are 9 public stations currently in operation in California today, with 19 additional stations scheduled to open in the next 18 months. There are 200 fuel cell vehicles operating on California roads, including cars, busses and heavy-duty trucks. Last May, the US Department of Energy launched H2USA, a public-private partnership devoted to expanding the hydrogen fueling infrastructure, but despite the nationwide scope, California remains the focal point.
Five auto manufacturers were represented on the Automotive OEM Panel, which was moderated by Bloomberg’s Alan Ohnsman. General Motors sent Alex Keros, Manager and Senior Project Engineer. Honda’s Manager of FCEV Marketing Stephen Ellis, a visible and vocal proponent of hydrogen, represented his company. Fuel Cell Engineer Kevin Lee spoke on behalf of Hyundai. Ronald Grassman, Mercedes-Benz’s US FCEV Operations General Manager, stood in for the German brand, and Craig Scott, National Manager of Toyota’s Advance Technologies Group, represented the host company. Despite the highly competitive nature of the automotive industry, a surprising level of collegiality and cooperation reigns among the OEMs’ hydrogen fuel cell efforts. For example, manufacturers have collaborated to create a standardized filling valve, simplifying the issue of compatibility from filling station to filling station and vehicle to vehicle. The hydrogen filling station adjacent to Toyota’s national headquarters in Torrance welcomes all brands of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for refueling. The OEMs recognize that in order for the technology to flourish, barriers for suppliers to service all brands with hydrogen must not be erected.
At the close of the event, attendees lined up for the opportunity to drive the five brands of hydrogen vehicle on hand. For drivers who were raised on the gasoline internal combustion engine, fuel cell vehicles are magical and surprising. Their near-silent operation belies the thrill of instant peak torque. With tailpipe emissions limited to pure H2O — just plain old water mist — hydrogen fuel cell vehicles seem like an obvious solution to air quality issues. Critics point out that the journey of hydrogen from well to wheels is not without its energy costs, even if the trip from tank to wheels is highly efficient. The same is true of the electricity that must be harnessed for battery electric vehicles. But still, the efficiency and cleanliness of the hydrogen and electric powertrains is still much greater than the traditional petroleum-based solutions.
The California Fuel Cell Partnership is convinced that hydrogen is the future of transportation, and they are slowly gaining supporters in government and industry to make their conviction into a reality. They are also confident that consumers will come along, just as soon as the economics, convenience and safety issues reach parity with traditional transportation options. It’s hard to argue, and harder to find a reason to dissent.