Subsidized hydrogen fuel cell cars for the wealthy in California


Chris Somerville,Philomathia Professor of Alternative Energy
The University of California Berkeley

The California Energy Commission (CEC) has announced that it will spent $46.6 million to build 28 hydrogen fuel ling stations in California.  The CEC justifies the use of state funds for this purpose as supporting the Governors goals of building a zero emissions infrastructure capable of supporting up to 1 million vehicles by 2020. However, the effect on emissions will be negligible and, coming on the heels of years of major reductions in government support for needed services, the decision reflects a striking disregard for the common good.  The funds to be squandered on hydrogen fueling stations come out of state funds that should be going to more effective ways of reducing GHG emissions, or into essential services such as education that have been ravaged by budget cuts.

The overall goal of reducing GHG emissions is important and it is appropriate for the state to encourage practices that reduce GHG emissions in all sectors of the economy.  However, hydrogen fuel cell cars are not readily available,  and if they do become available from suppliers such as Toyota, they are projected to cost approximately $100,000. The number of people who would spend $100,000 for a car that can only be fuelled at a few dozen stations in California, and essentially nowhere elsewhere in the country, is small.  The proposed hydrogen fueling stations are subsidies arranged by bureaucratic ideologues for wealthy technophiles rather than serious attempts to reduce GHG emissions.

Furthermore, hydrogen fuel cell cars are zero-emission in name only.  Although hydrogen can be made by electrolysis of water, in practice, hydrogen is made from methane. Thus, fuel cell cars have similar emissions to electric cars charged with electricity made from natural gas.  Because it is relatively inexpensive to install charging stations in homes or in public places, the 46.6 million would accomplish a lot more toward enabling expansion of the electrified fleet than by building 28 widely scattered hydrogen fuelling stations.  Another option would be to support expansion of the infrastructure for E85 (15% gasoline, 85% ethanol) fuelling stations.  With about 39 million flex fuel vehicles (FFV) worldwide, the technology is well tested and, in the USA, Chrysler, Ford, GM, Nissan and Toyota all offer flex fuel vehicles as standard equipment in some models at no additional cost.

However, there are only about 70 E85 fuelling stations in California.  The $46.6 M would cover about half the cost of installing 1,000 more stations which would be about 10% of all filling stations in California. If the FFV were hybrids using ethanol produced from energy crops like switchgrass, urban waste, forest slash or crop residues, the GHG emissions would be less than those fuelled by hydrogen.  Unlike the hypothetical hydrogen vehicles, FFV are available to all consumers at no extra cost and can move freely throughout the USA.

The decision by CEC to waste money on hydrogen infrastructure indicates an alarming level of indifference to the financial struggle than many Californians experience every day in obtaining services from their government.  Wasting funds on projects that will not lead to useful decreases in GHG emissions for many decades, if ever, while ignoring inexpensive practical improvements that can create change today is a lost opportunity at best and dangerous to the overall goals at worst.  At some point, quixotic  use of government funds to support low carbon energy projects will jeopardize public support for the overall goal of moving the state towards a low carbon energy economy.

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