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Thanks to Arnold, California to Pave the Hydrogen Highway

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced on April 20, 2004 his vision for the California Hydrogen Highway Network and signed an Executive Order outlining that vision.

"The goal of the California Hydrogen Highway Network initiative is to support and catalyze a rapid transition to a clean, hydrogen transportation economy in California, thereby reducing our dependence on foreign oil, and protecting our citizens from health harms related to vehicle emissions. We have an opportunity to deal with these problems by investing in California's ability to innovate our way to a clean hydrogen future, thus bringing jobs, investment, and continued economic prosperity to California. We have an opportunity to prove to the world that a thriving environment and economy can co-exist." (Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's California Hydrogen Highway Network Action Plan)

The Hydrogen Highway

California took a symbolic first step toward a statewide "hydrogen highway" with the dedication of a fueling station Tuesday, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave an executive order creating a public and private partnership to build a hydrogen highway in California by 2010.

"Californians invent the future, and we are about to do it again," Schwarzenegger said in a prepared statement. "We have an opportunity to prove to the world that a thriving environment and economy can coexist. This vision for California is real and attainable; however, it will take time, so we must plant the seeds now." He said he hoped to create jobs through more hydrogen research and to "prove to the world that a thriving environment and economy can coexist.''

The executive order, which Schwarzenegger announced at a hydrogen fueling station at the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) at the University of California at Berkeley, states that the hydrogen highway can lead to energy independence, reduce global warming and provide economic and work-force benefits to help California.

The California hydrogen highway is an ambitious plan to line the state's highways with hydrogen fueling stations in just six years and usher in an age of more environmentally friendly vehicles.

The plan calls on academic experts, the auto industry and the government to work together on a hydrogen infrastructure plan. If successful the plan would ignite a profound transportation transformation. Some have compared it to the country's move from the horse and buggy to the Model T at the beginning of the last century.

The hydrogen highway plan states that a network of 150 to 200 hydrogen fueling stations throughout the state would cost approximately $90 million, primarily from private investment. No state funding for the project was announced in the executive order.


The Hype About Hydrogen
The Hype About Hydrogen


Dissenting Voices

Earlier this year a nonpartisan panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the first hydrogen vehicles wouldn't hit showrooms until 2015 at the earliest.

There are plenty of problems to be solved before hydrogen goes mainstream:

  • Currently, hydrogen costs at least 10 times as much as a combustible engine.

  • Hydrogen storage raises logistical and safety issues.

  • Some methods of refining hydrogen create pollution.

Building a hydrogen highway now is very premature, according to Joe Romm, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Energy and Climate Solutions. Romm, who worked for five years for the Department of Energy as an assistant secretary of energy for President Bill Clinton, said there would not be a viable market for hydrogen-powered cars for at least 20 to 30 years.

Some methods to refine hydrogen for use in cars utilize electricity or natural gas and create pollution, noted Romm. "You use a lot of fossil fuels at the front end to get to hydrogen at the back end,'' Romm said.

Romm is concerned that government officials are putting too much emphasis on hydrogen to the detriment of hybrid technology that is already successful, through models like the Toyota Prius or hybrid Honda Civic. "It's discouraging for me as a clean-energy advocate that people are putting claims out that aren't based on reality," Romm said of assertions that a move from petroleum to hydrogen is on the horizon. The cost of producing hydrogen from renewable sources is between $10 to $20 per gallon of gasoline equivalent, said Romm, who wrote the book "The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate'' which was published earlier this year.

Romm is concerned that companies and government agencies that are touting hydrogen as an energy panacea may be pulling a bait and switch on the public -- priming consumers to support funding for "green" hydrogen while it will more likely be produced using fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal.

Because the technology is currently cost-prohibitive, Romm projects that hydrogen will first be used in internal-combustion engines, which will do little to improve air quality. "It's a big mistake to rush cars out with inadequate technology," said Romm, who would prefer that money be directed to research and development instead of building hydrogen fuel stations.

Romm said that if hydrogen stations are to be built, they should be located inside cities like Los Angeles that have poor air quality, not on highways far from urban centers.

The automotive industry will be reshaped during the next 20 years, Romm said -- but by hybrid gas/electric cars, not hydrogen vehicles. "The government does not have a good track record at picking winners" in the energy sector, Romm said.



Hydrogen Posture Plan

Adobe PDF

National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap

plans from the DOE

Hydrogen Facilities

Dan Sperling, director of ITS, said the executive order "sends a signal to energy and car companies, as well as to consumers and citizens, that the state is committed to pursuing the use of hydrogen." California is the largest market for vehicles in the United States and has some of the toughest laws for controlling vehicular emissions. Sperling said this order would partially address the "chicken and egg" dilemma of which comes first, the hydrogen cars or the fueling stations.

Refueling a Clean Energy MINI at a station in Europe

Sperling said the market shift to hydrogen will be a slow process, and automakers need projects like the hydrogen highway to feel assured that there will be stations available when fuel-cell cars are ready. "You don't want to walk into the church and not have the groom show up."

Sperling said the ITS facility is now used to power two fuel-cell cars from Toyota that use hydrogen, and two internal-combustion-engine buses that use a mixture of natural gas and hydrogen. The ITS facility currently can accommodate only a small fleet of vehicles, but Sperling hopes that someday it will be expanded to become an important hydrogen distribution center. California has two other hydrogen fueling stations in Richmond and Sacramento, but ITS was the first to meet Schwarzenegger's criteria for capacity and public availability of hydrogen.

Sperling said the station relies on liquid hydrogen delivered by tanker truck and then gasified on site so that it can be put into vehicles' pressurized gas tanks. The long-term goal is to produce hydrogen there from renewable sources, Sperling said, and ITS is developing wind, biomass or solar energy sources. But Sperling says that for now, natural gas is by far the easiest and cheapest method for creating hydrogen.

Sperling said the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Toyota funded the hydrogen refueling station, and he's hopeful that additional money will become available next week, when Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is expected to make funding announcements at the National Hydrogen Association meeting in Long Beach, California.

Over the next five years DOE will invest $1.7 billion in research and development of advanced hybrid vehicle components, fuel cells, and hydrogen infrastructure technologies, as part of the FreedomCAR Partnership and President’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative.

Sign up for on-line news: You can register with DOE if you'd like to receive current news—including notices about new reports, upcoming meetings, or solicitations issued—via email from DOE's Hydrogen, Fuel Cells & Infrastructure Technologies Program.

Sperling believes that now is the time for the federal and state governments to accelerate hydrogen development as an antidote to global warming. "There's an old Chinese proverb that says the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next-best time is now."

After fueling up Tuesday, Schwarzenegger signed an executive order calling for his Environmental Protection Agency secretary, Terry Tamminen, to draw up a blueprint for the so-called "Hydrogen Highway Network'' by January. Tamminen will examine everything from how to finance the network to where the 200 stations will be located. Currently, there are 17 hydrogen fueling sites in California, including the one at UC Davis.

There are about 60 hydrogen-powered vehicles in operation in the state now. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the city of San Francisco recently began leasing two such cars from Honda, and AC Transit uses a hydrogen-powered bus along routes in Oakland and Berkeley.

First California Hydrogen Fueling Station for vehicles was officially opened in Richmond, California in October 2002.

In his speech, Schwarzenegger stated the importance of clean air and a healthy environment. Schwarzenegger said fueling cars with hydrogen would reduce the state's health problems by minimizing emission and smog. "A healthy environment is a healthy economy," he said. "Let's make California a healthier and cleaner place for everyone."



About UC Davis

According to a university press release, UC Davis leads the nation in studying issues related to technology and transportation. Additionally, UC Davis is the home to the Institute of Transportation Studies, a group of 100 researchers that specialize in transportation technologies, energy and environmental impacts and travel behavior. The institution is funded by over $6 million in contracts and grants.

The event at UC Davis was attended by about 250 invited audience members, including ITS faculty and students, private car manufacturers and members of the California Environmental Protection Agency. Information booths and model cars were also on display throughout the yard.

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