For the last two weeks, we’ve heard from two hydrogen fuel cell car drivers in California – Raoul Renaud, a retired former California Energy Commission attorney, and Tadashi Ogitsu, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Renaud told H2 View that moving from a battery car to a fuel cell car was a “no brainer” because with hydrogen his behaviour didn’t change: he refuels at a gas station, it takes five minutes and then off he goes for another 300 or more miles.
Ogitsu said he weighed up the pros and cons of a battery electric versus hydrogen fuel cell car, eventually deciding on the latter due to the long driving range it offered. He told H2 View about his record drive range – 550.3 miles (880 kilometres) over about a week on a single tank of hydrogen.
But what’s the bigger picture like across California. How many other Renaud’s and Ogitsu’s are there? Is there widespread adoption of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and can hydrogen replace gasoline in California?
To answer these questions, H2 View spoke with Bill Elrick, Executive Director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership (CaFCP) – an industry/government collaboration aimed at expanding the market for FCEVs to help create a cleaner, more energy-diverse future with zero emission vehicles – for the final part of this exclusive three-part series.
It’s no secret Elrick has an inexhaustible enthusiasm for the widespread adoption of hydrogen as an alternative fuel source and he is confident the CaFCP can meet its 2030 goal of 1,000 hydrogen stations and one million FCEVs. Currently, California has 40 hydrogen stations and more than 6,000 FCEVs.
“We believe this is absolutely achievable in California. We’re seeing our consumers take these [FCEV] vehicles as fast as we can build stations, meaning our station network is our limiting factor for the roll out of more vehicles,” Elrick explained.
“For us, it’s ‘can’t put more vehicles on the road until we have more stations’, whereas other countries and regions are seeing the opposite effect. They have stations, but they’re working on the fleet models, they haven’t gone after the consumer.”
“The vast majority of the drivers here in California are everyday citizens that are deciding to choose this. That’s very different to the rest of the world.”
“We purposely went after the consumer market and not the fleet market like other countries around the world. Our drivers today are those folks seeing the billboards, hearing the commercials and understanding what the technology can offer them. They’re also making that choice for the zero emission vehicle.”
This year, the CaFCP is celebrating its 20th anniversary and 20 years of helping to shape and move the market from initial research and development days, through early demonstrations and into today’s early retail marketplace.
The partnership began in 1999 with a question: can we successfully replace gasoline with hydrogen as a transportation fuel? No single company or government entity could answer that alone. To move forward, the best scientists, engineers, policy experts and consumer specialists were needed at the same table.
What transpired over the next two decades was an unprecedented collaboration among leaders in government and industry. This spirit of partnership, driven by a shared mission and hard-earned trust, is the very foundation of the growing fuel cell market in California today.
“Thousands of fuel cell cars are on California roads today and drivers can refuel and travel across most of the state; fuel cell buses have exceeded lifetime and performance expectations, transforming public transit opportunities; and the technology for all hydrogen fuel cell vehicle types continues to improve,” Elrick said.
“So, the answer today is a resounding yes – hydrogen can replace gasoline and diesel in California and fuel cell vehicles can thrive in a retail environment.”
Elrick said the CaFCP is seeing growing US and global interest for hydrogen, including a concentrated effort to move from an early government push to market pull.
“In addition, we’re seeing an increased recognition of the larger role that hydrogen can play in the energy transition, not just as an input for mobility,” he told H2 View.
Earlier in the year, Elrick said he attended Fuel Cell Expo in Tokyo, Japan, where it was clear to him there was a momentum for hydrogen that was different than ever before.
“First and foremost, the supply chain is now intermingling across the world. It’s no longer different regions working on their own region in a bubble, it’s not so myopic anymore, but everyone is realising that we’re dealing with same players and the same stakeholders. There’s starting to become a global market place.”
“In the few meetings I had we sat and shared our experiences from our regions, and it felt different. It feels like there’s a momentum that is different, stronger and much more global than it ever was in a way that’s truly exciting.”
For Elrick, the biggest misconception around hydrogen right now is that hydrogen and fuel cell electric cars, buses and trucks are not ready for primetime or are still in the development phase, or that hydrogen and batteries are not complimentary.
“We need to create that education and awareness level so people can see everything from what hydrogen is, to where it plays into the energy system,” he said.
“That’s something we’ve actually been spending a lot of time this year on – answering the why hydrogen question for multiple audiences – so they can see why they should care about this.”
“It could be because they value the environmental challenges in front of us and they want to do what they can to help; it could be a consumer and they want to know why this technology could work for them, and they’re in the right spot and position to purchase or lease a FCEV; or it could be for a policy maker to look at some of the environmental or other regulations they’re putting into place, and how they might be open to policy development and creating an opportunity for the market to progress further.”
“I’m just focused on transportation here, but when we look at where hydrogen is going to start to hit so many other markets and applications that these audiences may care more about, I have to be more aware of that and be ready to help answer a broader question that gets them excited as to what they can do.”
Elrick said he had been reading about the beginning of electricity and how Thomas Edison and others introduced it to the masses.
“I think this is about where we are with hydrogen. I think we’re at a very similar moment in history where a handful of people and a handful of places around the world are creating opportunities that in a decade or so from now people will look back on and really understand the impact of what we’re doing,” he said.
“If I go forward another one hundred years or so to where hydrogen is so commonly placed, it’s so ubiquitous, I’m not sure what that energy system looks like, but I see hydrogen and electricity being the foundation for everything we do with energy and energy use.”
The focus now for the CaFCP is turning its 2030 vision into a reality.
“How do we go from building 10 stations a year to 100, what does that renewable pathway look like and how do we encourage that sooner so we are bringing 100% renewable decarbonised transportation to the market faster?” Elrick said.
“We’re working on what the exact actions are we need to take to make that vision a reality, as well as really nailing down the why hydrogen question for a number of audiences that need to better understand and be engaged in the market as it develops.”
“It all starts with the right market policies and private investment that helps scale everything up and bring those costs down.”