One more reason you’ll be driving electric vehicles and plugs in soon — not hydrogen fuel cell cars

Fueling stations for fuel cell cars — even ones that generate hydrogen from fossil fuels and emit large amounts of greenhouse gases — cost 1000 times what charging stations for electric vehicles and plug in hybrid electric vehicles cost.

There are countless reasons hydrogen fuel cell cars are not going to achieve significant market penetration or be a major contributor to reducing CO2 or oil use for many decades, if ever (see “The Last Car You Would Ever Buy “” Literally” and links below).

One of those reasons is the incredible cost of charging stations — especially relative to the competition (see “California Hydrogen Highway R.I.P.”). Two news items that recently popped up in my inbox underscore this fatal flaw. On the one hand, Energy Daily reports:

NU Developing Charging Stations For Plug-In Electric Vehicles

Northeast Utilities announced last week it is in the initial stages of developing an electric charging infrastructure for plug-in electric vehicles…. Two NU operating companies, The Connecticut Light & Power Co. and Western Massachusetts Electric Co. are proposing to build a network of 575 charging stations over the next two years.

The plan calls for a mix of home-based, workplace and publicly accessible sites in the utilities’ existing service territories. The companies are collaborating with New England-based Environment Northeast, the Greater New Haven Clean Cities Coalition and the town of West Hartford, Conn., on key aspects of the project, including location of stations and results monitoring. NU said it was asking DOE for federal funding of $693,750 which is 50 percent of the project’s total estimated cost of $1.38 million.

So this is about $2400 per charging station.

Then I got this astounding press release last week, “Fill ‘er up: Prof awarded $2.1M to build hydrogen fueling station at UCLA.” Somehow UCLA thinks this is a positive news story about hydrogen. You be the judge:

Vasilios Manousiouthakis, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been awarded $2.1 million in grant funding to build a state-of-the-art hydrogen fueling station on the UCLA campus.

A $1.7 million grant from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and a $400,000 grant from the state’s Mobile Source Air Pollution Reduction Review Committee (MSRC) will go toward the construction of one of the largest hydrogen fueling stations in California, with a capacity to produce 140 kilograms of hydrogen a day for use in hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Memo to CARB: Hydrogen is dead, folks. Get over it and move on! In the throes of the greatest recession since the Great Depression, with serious air quality problems remaining in Los Angeles, this has got to be the least effective use of your money.

“The grants will enable UCLA to achieve a number of its long-term goals for promoting sustainability, both on campus and in the greater Los Angeles region,” said Michael Swords, executive director of Strategic Research Initiatives at UCLA. “The development of this hydrogen fueling station will also provide our students with a state-of-the-art learning and research facility where they can study and evaluate the logistics of hydrogen generation, distribution and supply “” all of this while also providing a much needed boost to the development of the ‘hydrogen highway’ here in California.”

The station, which will be available for use by the public, will be run by UCLA Engineering’s Hydrogen Engineering Research Consortium (HERC), which Manousiouthakis directs. The consortium was established in 2005 after UCLA partnered with DaimlerChrysler Corp. and global energy company BP to help demonstrate elements of the hydrogen economy infrastructure.

“The goal of HERC is to accelerate the onset of the hydrogen economy through the development and demonstration of technologies for the production, storage, transportation and use of hydrogen,” Manousiouthakis said. “The new UCLA hydrogen fueling station will prove to be another milestone achievement in our efforts”….

Major energy providers and automotive manufacturers view hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles as the most sustainable mobility solution in the long term. Manousiouthakis, a systems engineering expert who focuses on the development of novel hydrogen production methods, believes that hydrogen production based on the reforming of natural gas “” a process that involves the endothermic transformation of natural gas and water into hydrogen and carbon dioxide “” is the most economical route for hydrogen production today.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles generate minimal to no pollution and emit 50 percent less greenhouse gases and 90 percent less volatile organic, smog-forming and toxic emissions than today’s gasoline-powered vehicles, even when powered by hydrogen produced from natural gas.

Not. First off, there are any commercial hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, so this claim has no basis in fact (see L.A. Times: “Hydrogen fuel-cell technology won’t work in cars.” Duh.). Second, if we are talking about new cars, then the correct comparison is not between some imaginary, nonexistent commercial FCV and some lousy gasoline-powered vehicle. If you compare a FCV to the Toyota Prius on a full well-to-wheels lifecycle analysis, and I have, then even crediting this imaginary commercial FCV with pretty good performance, it simply doesn’t have substantially lower GHG emissions run on hydrogen from natural gas than the current Prius. And the next generation Prius looks to be even better.


And the truly appropriate comparison is between the imaginary commercial FCV and a very soon-to-be commercial plug in hybrid. The FCV running on hydrogen from natural gas probably has more than double the life-cycle GHGs as the plug in when it is running on electricity from the California grid.

“With this station, we aim to show that methane reforming-based stations essentially provide an answer to the question of hydrogen infrastructure,” Manousiouthakis said. “The proposed fueling station will demonstrate that we can effectively utilize the existing natural gas infrastructure to deliver hydrogen on-site. We won’t have to build new pipelines for hydrogen.”

And how would spending $2.1million for one fueling station running on natural gas possibly show that the infrastructure problem for hydrogen cars is not significant? Talk about an ivory tower perspective.

The current environmental outlook for California is grim, and change is critical. California’s air pollution is among the worst in the world, and, according to HERC, if the state were a country, it would be world’s fifth-largest producer of global warming emissions. More than 60 percent of the state’s air pollution comes from mobile sources.

That’s why CARB’s money shouldn’t be wasted on hydrogen fueling stations, particularly ones that run on fossil fuels.

The grants from CARB and MSRC are part of a statewide initiative to help defray the costs of expanding and improving California’s network of natural gas and hydrogen fueling stations. CARB in particular is helping to advance Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “hydrogen highway” initiative to promote the creation of a hydrogen refueling network.

The hydrogen highway is never going to be built because it makes no sense and the state has no money anyway.

The only thing keeping the hydrogen dream on life support now is federal R&D. But after some $2 billion spent this decade on this relatively pointless exercise by the Bush Administration, it’s time to pull the plug.


I repeat, it is time for President Obama and Energy Secretary Chu to drastically scale back the federal hydrogen fuel cell vehicle program, to a small basic research program focused on long-term breakthroughs in hydrogen storage, fuel cells, and renewable hydrogen. This could free up some $1 billion in Obama’s first term alone for more important R&D and more urgent deployment efforts (see “An introduction to the core climate solutions”).

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