IRVINE, Calif. – Since President George W. Bush powered a van on hydrogen 15 years ago, the promise of fuel-powered cars and trucks has been near empty.
That hydrogen pump in Washington shut down a long time ago. But in California, the beginnings of a hydrogen economy can finally come to light after many crises and starts.
Dozens of hydrogen-powered buses ply the city streets, as more and more refueling stations appear from San Diego to San Francisco, funded by state and federal governments. With the costs of producing and shipping hydrogen falling, California is setting ambitious goals to phase out fossil-fueled vehicles in favor of batteries and hydrogen. Major auto and energy companies like Toyota Motor and Royal Dutch Shell have pledged to supply more cars and gas stations.
“In previous cycles, something was always missing,” said Matthew Blieske, Global Head of Hydrogen Products at Shell. “There was a policy missing, or the technology wasn’t quite ready, or people weren’t that serious about decarbonization. We no longer see these barriers.
Some energy executives have said they expect investments in hydrogen to accelerate under the leadership of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has made climate change a big part of his campaign and has proposed a $ 2 trillion plan to tackle the problem.
A recent study by McKinsey & Company estimated that the hydrogen economy could generate $ 140 billion in annual revenue by 2030 and support 700,000 jobs. The study predicted that hydrogen could meet 14% of total U.S. energy demand by 2050.
The use of hydrogen, the lightest and most abundant substance in the universe, is still in its infancy, and California is determined to be its birthplace in the United States, with $ 20 million in annual funding. of California Energy Commission dollars through vehicle registration fees. California will have spent around $ 230 million on hydrogen projects by the end of 2023. The state now has about 40 gas stations, with dozens more under construction. While those numbers are small compared to the state’s 10,000 gas stations, officials have high hopes.
With around 7,500 hydrogen vehicles in circulation, an aggressive state program of cap-and-trade incentives and subsidies foresees 50,000 light-duty hydrogen vehicles by the middle of the decade and a network of 1 000 hydrogen stations by 2030. The infrastructure needed for the production and transportation and distribution of gas alone will cost around $ 10 billion, according to California hydrogen researchers, who expect investment private and government.
Other states are much further behind. A large majority of the country’s hydrogen fueling stations and vehicles are in California.
Hydrogen vehicles are similar to electric cars. But unlike electric cars, which have large batteries, these cars have hydrogen tanks and fuel cells that turn gas into electricity. Cars fill up and accelerate quickly, and they can travel several hundred kilometers with a full tank. They emit only water vapor, which makes them attractive to cities in California trying to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
“Almost all objective analyzes to achieve zero emissions include hydrogen,” said Jack Brouwer, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California at Irvine.
Mr Brouwer doesn’t think hydrogen will soon become the dominant energy source, but he argues that it has great potential as a fuel for vehicles, power plants and appliances. Hydrogen, he said, will complement the use of lithium-ion batteries, solar panels, wind turbines and natural gas.
UC Irvine has experimented with hydrogen for years and has formed partnerships with local governments and large corporations to popularize its use in Southern California.
A little over ten years ago, Tim Brown worked on gasoline systems at General Motors. He returned to school in 2004, studied hydrogen with Mr. Brouwer and “became a believer”.
Five years after receiving his doctorate in 2008, he founded First Element Fuel, which operates 21 hydrogen refueling stations, including a four-pump unit at an Arco gas station in Fountain Valley, about a 10-minute drive from the ‘UC Irvine. The company plans to build up to 80 stations across the state, under the True Zero brand.
One recent afternoon, Karen Harelson pulled up to the Arco station in her Toyota Mirai, a hydrogen-powered sedan she bought two years ago. “Personally, I don’t think they should make another car without it,” said Ms Harelson, 66, a retired professor at Golden West College. “It’s the best car I’ve ever had. The problem is, there just aren’t enough stations around.
It’s a common complaint. Due to the scarcity of hydrogen pumps, car owners often stand in line. But unlike battery-powered electric cars, which can take anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours to fully charge, hydrogen-powered cars, like gasoline-powered ones, fill up in under 10 minutes and are good for 300 miles or more on a tank. full.
Some proponents of hydrogen believe its greatest use will be in larger vehicles. Among them, SunLine Transit, which serves Palm Springs and other towns in Riverside County.
The transit system has 17 hydrogen buses and plans to add 10 over the next year. SunLine has used more than $ 27 million in grants over the past 10 years to purchase the vehicles and equipment needed to produce hydrogen, which it manufactures using grid electricity and panels solar. The transportation agency already sells compressed natural gas, which powers most of its buses, to commercial and government agencies, and it also plans to sell hydrogen.
Lauren Skiver, CEO and CEO of SunLine, said she invited other transportation and utility agencies to see how far hydrogen has come, but often encountered disbelief and ambivalence.
“We try to meet them all the time: ‘Look at what we’re doing on hydrogen,’” Ms. Skiver said. “They are not at all interested.”
There are good reasons to be skeptical.
Although there have been many technical advances, hydrogen remains expensive to manufacture and transport. Fuel cell vehicles also cost more than comparable electric cars. A Toyota Mirai sells for almost $ 60,000 before subsidies. A Tesla Model 3 starts at around $ 38,000 before subsidies. Then there is the chicken or egg question of trying to get people to buy hydrogen vehicles before there is a full fueling infrastructure.
Critics, including Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, point out that the hydrogen promoters have long failed to deliver on their promises.
In his State of the Union address in 2003, President Bush said that “the first car driven by a child born today could be hydrogen powered and pollution free”. These hopes were mainly driven by the rising price of oil and natural gas at the time. After the boom in hydraulic fracturing helped drive down energy prices, hydrogen took a back seat.
Yet the potential of hydrogen continues to attract governments, researchers and businesses. Countries like France, Germany, China, Australia, South Korea and Japan have invested tens of billions of dollars in hydrogen, in part to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and fight the climate change.
Toyota, Hyundai, Daimler and several other automakers are betting on hydrogen cars and trucks. And Shell is building hydrogen stations in Europe and California.
According to some experts, the best use of hydrogen is to power trucks, buses and planes. This is because fuel contains energy in a smaller, lighter package than the current generation of batteries, leaving more room for cargo and passengers. Hyundai is set to launch the first mass-produced fuel cell heavy truck in a few months. Toyota, which has been testing fuel cell trucks at the Port of Los Angeles since 2017, recently announced that it will develop fuel cell trucks for North America.
Hydrogen poses a long-term threat to oil companies because it could compete with diesel and jet fuel. This is also the reason why many major European oil and gas companies, like Shell and BP, have sought to integrate hydrogen in a transition to a more low carbon future.
Today, most of the hydrogen is extracted from natural gas in a process that requires a lot of energy and emits carbon dioxide. But combined with carbon capture and sequestration, the process can be environmentally sustainable.
Over time, government officials and researchers expect most hydrogen to be produced without emissions. The cleanest hydrogen production comes from using renewable electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The equipment to do this is expensive, but costs have come down in recent years, especially as wind and solar power have become the cheapest ways to generate electricity.
European oil companies are also investing in renewable energies in order to eventually be able to combine hydrogen production with solar and wind farms.
“Oil companies are very well placed to play in this area,” said Joan Ogden, an researcher at the University of California at Davis. “They know how to make large-scale molecules better than anyone, they already use a lot of hydrogen in petroleum refining, and they are used to providing transportation fuels.
Companies are also exploring other approaches.
Air Liquide, a French company, is building a $ 150 million plant outside Las Vegas that will turn biogas from decomposed organic waste into hydrogen, which it plans to sell in California. The plant will begin operations at the end of next year. Air Liquide is building another plant on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls to supply the Northeast.
“We see hydrogen as an energy carrier of the future,” said Michael Graff, CEO of America Air Liquide Holdings.
The hydrogen industry may be in its infancy, but its interest is robust and growing, said Michael Webber, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and director of science and technology at Engie, a French energy company.
“The hydrogen customers are there,” Mr. Webber said. “They are just waiting for the hydrogen to appear.”
Ivan Penn reported from Irvine and Clifford Krauss from Houston.