On-Ramp to the Hydrogen Highway

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will advocate that California invest $54 million in public money to help build a network of up to 100 hydrogen fueling stations statewide within five years, according to new details of his "Hydrogen Highway" plan.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will advocate that California invest $54 million in public money to help build a network of up to 100 hydrogen fueling stations statewide within five years, according to new details of his "Hydrogen Highway" plan.

A team of more than 200 scientists, automakers and environmentalists spent a year drafting the 144-page document, which the governor requested last year, calling hydrogen-powered cars a way to reduce smog, slow global warming and wean the nation from oil.

The "California Hydrogen Highway Blueprint" is set to be formally unveiled Thursday in Sacramento. If state lawmakers approve funding, California would move ahead of the 13 other states pursuing hydrogen initiatives.

The plan concludes that California can help speed a national transition from gasoline vehicles to environmentally friendly hydrogen fuel cell cars -- whose tailpipes emit only water vapor.

The money would provide matching funds to industry to build up to 100 hydrogen fueling stations in the Bay Area, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego. Because 39 already exist or are planned soon, 61 new stations, at a cost of about $1 million each, would need to be built by 2010, the report says. Funding also would provide state grants to automakers of $10,000 per vehicle.

"The idea is that if you build it, they will come," said Alan Lloyd, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. "You have to lay the groundwork."

Schwarzenegger in April 2004 called for up to 200 stations 20 miles apart on major freeways. But experts working on the plan concluded it would be best to group stations first where most people live, Lloyd said. As a result, the document sets a goal of 250 stations statewide linking north and south in Phase 2, which he said could occur by 2015.

Every major automaker already is developing hydrogen vehicles. General Motors, Toyota, Honda and others have a few prototypes on U.S. highways, leased to government fleets or universities. None are for sale yet to consumers.

Supporters of the plan include automakers and energy companies, with tentative endorsement by some environmentalists. Yet skeptics say broad use of fuel cell vehicles is still decades away because of problems with cost, vehicle range and questions over how to produce large amounts of hydrogen cleanly.

"My general response is two words: Wildly premature. What's the rush?" said Joseph Romm, a former assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration and author of "The Hype About Hydrogen."

"These vehicles are so far from being ready for prime time that you may be building equipment that is obsolete."

For example, most hydrogen vehicles have a range of only about 150 miles between fill-ups, compared with up to 450 miles for typical gasoline cars. Also, hydrogen is produced by separating it from water with electricity or from natural gas with heat. Unless the energy to make it comes from renewable sources, like wind or solar rather than coal, it could produce more pollution and greenhouse gases than simply converting America's auto fleet to hybrid gas-electric vehicles, Romm said.

Last year, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicles won't hit showrooms until at least 2015.

The technical hurdles are sizable, Lloyd conceded.

But he said California needs to move aggressively to help solve the "chicken and the egg problem" by sharing risk with the private sector. Carmakers won't build hydrogen-powered vehicles if there aren't places to refuel them, he said, yet energy companies won't build fueling stations unless there are hydrogen vehicles on the road.

"I'm not naive," said Lloyd, a career scientist with a doctorate in gas kinetics. "There are clearly issues that have to be addressed. But in order to move away from our addiction to petroleum, it is going to take a long time, and it is going to take infrastructure. It is important that we make a logical, very measured start."

Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas. A fuel cell produces electricity by taking in oxygen and hydrogen, then separating protons and electrons in a membrane, and routing the electrons to create an electrical current that powers the vehicle's motor.

About 90 hydrogen vehicles are on California roads in demonstration projects. The Schwarzenegger blueprint sets a goal of 2,000 by 2010, with 1,200 fuel cell vehicles and 800 retooled internal combustion engine cars running on hydrogen.

The cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco lease several fuel cell vehicles now. In March, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority began operating three hydrogen buses in Milpitas under a pilot project.

Among the most promising fuel cell vehicles is the Honda FCX. A four-seat car with air bags and anti-lock brakes, it has a top speed of 93 miles per hour, and can travel up to 190 miles on a hydrogen fill-up. Honda has leased 14 to U.S. cities. Such custom prototypes cost about $1 million each to build. Mass manufacture will reduce some costs, but the technology costs still must fall considerably for the cars to be commercially viable.

How soon before they could be for sale to the public?

"It could be 10 to 15 years," said Honda spokeswoman Sara Pines. "It could be as early as eight years. It depends on the infrastructure. It has to be practical for the consumer to fill them up. We are a nation of convenience."

Ron Cogan, editor of Green Car Journal, praised the Schwarzenegger effort.

"Sometimes you have to take a calculated risk because the upside is so great and the downside is small," he said. "Where will we be 20 years from now, competing for oil with China and India if we don't work on long-term projects to develop other sources of energy?"

Bill Magavern, a Sierra Club lobbyist in Sacramento, criticized the Bush administration's $1.2 billion hydrogen research program, calling it a smoke screen to avoid raising gas mileage standards now. But because California already has laws requiring automakers to build hybrids and reduce greenhouse emissions by 2009, the Schwarzenegger blueprint may make sense, he said. The plan calls for 20 percent of hydrogen to be made from renewable energy by 2010. Magavern said he would like to see 50 percent.

Roland Hwang, vehicle policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, called the plan "a reasonable first step."

"It moves us forward in a prudent way without breaking the bank," he said. "California is saying if we help put the stations in, we're expecting Detroit to provide the vehicles."

The blueprint team included Hwang; officials from Ford, General Motors, PG&E, Chevron and other companies; scientists from the University of California-Davis and Sandia National Labs; and federal and state agencies.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News