The flood of new hybrid and pure electric cars on the market now is a huge step in reducing our use of petroleum. And, as we transition away from oil and towards a zero emissions future, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles are one of the power platforms primed to help take us there. But just how far off is that hydrogen horizon?
Fuel Cell Electric cars, or FCEVs, provide drivers with the same benefits as current gasoline vehicles, with a comparable driving range and refueling in just a few minutes. FCEVs don’t use combustion, so they return better fuel economy than today’s cars, and also reduce emissions by 50 to 90 percent. Most experts point to 2015 as the year when fuel cell vehicles will enter the US market in significant quantities. Many automakers have production-ready FCEV models on the road already and fuel cell costs have come down by 80 percent in just the past few years. Honda has been leasing their FCX Clarity to consumers since July of 2008. And the FCEV Toyota Highlander can travel 430 miles on a single tank of hydrogen while achieving the equivalent of nearly 70 gasoline miles per gallon.
SCOTT SAMUELSEN: The automobile companies are moving to a future of hydrogen as a fuel and a fuel cell as the engine underneath the hood.
JOHN DAVIS: One carmaker that is firmly committed to Hydrogen as its fuel of the future is Mercedes-Benz. Introduced at the recent Frankfurt Motor Show, this F125 fuel-cell powered sedan Concept is exactly the kind of car Mercedes expects to be building in the coming decades. Earlier this year, Mercedes took three of their B-Class fuel cell hatchbacks on an around the world journey, running exclusively on hydrogen, the cars covered more than 18,000 miles over 125 days without a powertrain breakdown. But that exercise also pointed out the major challenge in Hydrogen’s widespread deployment: building an Infrastructure. Virtually all of the hydrogen used by the cars was dispensed from mobile tankers and compressed at each fuel stop. But considerable progress is being made. California’s Air Resources Board, and Energy Commission have invested heavily in co-funding public/private partnerships to build hydrogen infrastructure. The state now has more than thirty hydrogen fueling stations open or under development. And, if adequate fueling is available, they expect to have up to 53,000 fuel cell vehicles on the road in California alone by the end of 2017.
JAMES PROVENZANO: The way I’m getting hydrogen right now is from a station in West Los Angeles, at a Shell station and they’re electrolyzing water using renewable energy. So this car, from the whole operation of the vehicle is non-polluting. No other car can match that right now.
JOHN DAVIS: The challenge of building hydrogen infrastructure has spawned some truly outside-the-box thinking. Located in Fountain Valley, California, the world’s first tri-generation fuel cell produces hydrogen, heat, and electricity, using biogas generated by the Orange County Sanitation District’s wastewater treatment facility. The hydrogen produced by the system is sent to a hydrogen fueling station that is open to the public and can support up to 50 FCEV fill-ups per day. The fuel cell also produces 250 kW of power for use by the wastewater treatment plant. This innovative on-site approach to hydrogen generation, co-funded by the state, industry and the U.S. Department of Energy is shaping how the infrastructure challenge will be met nationwide.
Hydrogen has great potential for use in larger vehicles as well: The Connecticut Department of Transportation and AC Transit in California already have several hydrogen fuel cell buses in daily operation on urban loops. And other cities are jumping on board the hydrogen bus as well. Private and corporate investors have stepped up too: General Motors is testing a new generation of their Chevrolet FCEV in Hawaii in partnership with The Gas Company.
DANIEL O’CONNELL: One of the things that we're working on is how to put the infrastructure in on a state by state basis. In our case we’ve chosen Hawaii because it offers us a great opportunity to test-bed the hydrogen fuel cell as well as the hydrogen infrastructure in a contained environment.
JOHN DAVIS: The tipping point to widespread hydrogen fuel cell vehicle acceptability will be reached when the amount of vehicles and fueling stations is enough to attract significant public support AND private investment. Thanks to continued collaboration between energy suppliers, carmakers and government, the promise of hydrogen as the fuel of the future is becoming a reality, right here and now!