Remember the Hydrogen Highway?
It was front-page news less than a decade ago, and the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento was ground zero for what was touted as a forward-looking effort to green the Golden State.
Approved in 2004 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promoted it with action film hero gusto, the Hydrogen Highway envisioned construction of an extensive network of hydrogen filling stations to serve drivers of zero-emission fuel-cell vehicles -- bettering California's air quality, enhancing the Golden State's reputation as a leader in national environmental policy and lessening U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Hydrogen has long been viewed by advocates and environmentalists as an attractive option, because it can easily be pumped into a vehicle tank, with the bonus of no emissions of either greenhouse gases or smog-forming pollutants. In a fuel-cell vehicle, hydrogen combines with oxygen, yielding a current that drives an electric motor. The tailpipe spews nothing but water vapor and heat.
Supporters add that hydrogen can be produced in abundance by American companies. Environmentalists simply say that it's not oil, with all its pollution and price-volatility baggage.
Critics noted then and now that much hydrogen is processed from natural gas and that alternative methods are costly. That did not deter Schwarzenegger, who was a welcome visitor at the fuel cell partnership headquarters. President George W. Bush also dropped by for a visit in 2006, talking up hydrogen technology.
Today, the high-flying promise of those days remains unfulfilled.
There are just nine hydrogen fueling stations open to the public statewide, and only about 225 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in operation.
Over the past 10 years, automakers have invested millions of dollars and tens of thousands of engineering hours developing hybrids, full electric vehicles and plug-ins. As battery-powered electric vehicles took center stage, construction of electric charging stations increased. Hydrogen stations fell off the public radar, as did the Hydrogen Highway.
But backers of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles say "not so fast." They contend that development of the critical filling station infrastructure and fuel cell vehicles was always a long-term proposition and that the Hydrogen Highway will soon wend its way back into public consciousness.
Recent events show that California still sees a future for hydrogen.
Gov. Jerry Brown just signed Assembly Bill 8 into law. It extends, until Jan. 1, 2024, existing fees on motor vehicles, boat registrations and new tires. The fees fund programs to accelerate the turnover of older vehicles and development of advanced, environmentally friendly technologies.
Officials at the fuel cell partnership said the measure provides funding for at least 100 hydrogen stations with a commitment of up to $20 million a year from the California Energy Commission's Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program. Last year, the partnership released "A California Road Map" recommending 68 stations in strategic locations to launch the commercial market and at least 100 stations to sustain it.
"We've always operated with the understanding that the (fueling) infrastructure has to be in place first, and now we're getting closer to that," said Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the fuel cell partnership, a public-private collaboration of auto manufacturers, experts, energy providers, fuel cell technology firms and government agencies working to promote commercialization of fuel cell vehicles. "So with AB 8 ... and automakers getting ready to bring their technology to market, it's an exciting time."
Dunwoody said she never begrudged electric vehicles' time in the spotlight, considering it "a natural progression of the technology ... What's significant to understand now is that (consumers) are going to have a choice of technologies in the future."
Gov. Jerry Brown has approved a plan to construct 100 hydrogen fueling stations across the state by 2024.
Governors want to put 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles on road within 12 years.
In predictive computer models, FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles) frequently achieved a higher projected market share than battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and hybrids.