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Hydrogen’s Benefits as Fuel Becoming Obvious

By Mary D. Nichols
San Jose Mercury
January 21, 2008

As we continue to battle smog and soot in too many parts of the state and as gas continues to creep toward $4 a gallon, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hydrogen Highway is looking more like the future of transportation in California. While hydrogen vehicles are still in the early stages of deployment and fuel production is costly, the partnership of auto manufacturers, fuel suppliers and related government agencies is strong.

Hydrogen has the potential to offer monumental benefits by reducing both health-damaging pollutants that create smog and greenhouse gas emissions. When hydrogen is produced by renewable energy such as solar, wind or biomass, it is nearly pollution-free and has little impact on the environment. Even when produced from natural gas, as most hydrogen is today, the reduction in greenhouse gases and pollution is substantial.

Fortunately, we already had a solid infrastructure in the works when the governor signed Senate Bill 1505 in September 2006, boldly calling for a California Hydrogen Highway. Since 2000, automakers have placed more than 175 vehicles, traveling more than 1 million miles, on California roads. More hydrogen vehicles are now registered here than in any other state or country in the world, and we have more fueling stations than any other state. Combined with other emerging alternative fuel technologies – including hybrids, battery electric and compressed natural gas vehicles – the picture looks even more impressive. This state is working aggressively with its partners to wean ourselves off petroleum.

Californians should look ahead with optimism to greater numbers of hydrogen vehicles and stations in the Golden State. We have strong commitments and working relationships with all of the crucial parties that need to be involved: energy companies, automakers, state and federal government, academia and the environmental community. The California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento consists of 33 organizations that believe fuel cell vehicles powered by hydrogen have the potential to change the future of transportation.

California is the hub for hydrogen vehicle research and development projects. Due to substantial investments by the automotive industry, fuel cell vehicles have made remarkable technical progress in the areas of efficiency, range, cost and durability. For example, the Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle has a range of more than 250 miles, which already meets the Department of Energy’s 2010 goal.

Energy companies have also made substantial investments in multiple hydrogen production and delivery options and now believe that clean hydrogen fuel can be offered at competitive prices to fuel cell consumers when they are commercially deployed. With vehicle efficiency accounted for, analysts project hydrogen costs comparable to $1.50 a gallon of gasoline. It’s also worth noting that – contrary to public perception – hydrogen as a fuel source is at least as safe as gasoline and the safety record of the industry is impeccable.

The hydrogen program has been remarkably successful at getting the most for a relatively small state investment: We have invested $25 million in the Hydrogen Highway since 2005 while automakers have spent upward of $300 million a year on vehicle research, development and demonstration.

The next several years will usher in an exciting new area in the use of hydrogen as a fuel source:
  • GM will introduce over 100 vehicles nationwide, 60 of which will be placed in Southern California. They will be leased to private parties and municipalities.
  • Within weeks the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District and BP will dedicate their 100 percent renewable photovoltaic hydrogen station in Sacramento.
  • Honda will later this year begin leasing its new Clarity to private citizens in Southern California.
  • Several hydrogen fuel cell-powered transit buses are already operating as pilot projects in the Bay Area.
  • For our part, the Air Resources Board will release a request for proposals for $7.7 million for three new hydrogen stations and upgrades that will increase the capacity of two existing stations. We will soon unveil a rebate program for Californians buying certain models of alternative fuel vehicles.
Realizing the vision for a clean transportation future will take the sustained efforts of all partners, and we will certainly experience many bumps along the way. We anticipate fuel cell commercialization to occur sometime early in the next decade. And much more progress by the vehicle and infrastructure providers and the state will be needed to make this happen. The challenge before us is to chart a path that recognizes the realities and difficulties in transforming our energy system from one dependent on polluting sources of energy to one that can take full advantage of clean, renewable sources. We are confident that California is up to the challenge.

MARY D. NICHOLS chairs the California Air Resources Board. She wrote this article for the Mercury News.

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