Some Notes on Hydrogen

Whilst a fair bit of the trip so far has been on the power generation (and associated decarbonisation) side of things, I also took the opportunity, particularly in California, to spend a little time on hydrogen – and particularly hydrogen vehicles. Again, California is an interesting case study, as they produce a lot of (grey, fossil-fuel-derived) hydrogen for use in their petroleum industry, they are also one of few jurisdictions in the world that have sought to establish a ‘hydrogen highway’ to encourage the uptake of hydrogen fuel cell cars. As part of my research, I met with some owners (largely by loitering near a couple of the State’s hydrogen refueling stations), owner organisations, State Government staff, and those promoting the industry in an attempt to understand what the experience has been for those who actually own and operate vehicles.

This will probably be the most controversial post on this blog to date, but the experiment hasn’t been a roaring success:

  • The fueling network build-out (whilst still in the order of 50+ stations) ended up smaller than initially envisaged, and this is believed to have impacted the take-up of vehicles
  • The reliability of fueling stations, whilst improving, was initially a little patchy, which also discouraged the take-up of vehicles
  • Whilst refueling itself takes a similar amount of time to an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle, wait times for fuel can extend to multiple hours
  • There is still a generally low level of understanding of hydrogen, as a substance and especially as an energy source
  • Despite a wider push to keep adding more stations, Shell have recently decided to get out of the game
  • Sales of new hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have largely stalled, with automakers offering significant incentives for people to purchase them
  • The price of hydrogen has increased significantly, with the ‘mile per gallon’ cost 3-4x of and ICE vehicle

What does that mean for owners, and why are people buying them?

  • With the incentives, the cars are actually pretty cheap – until the supplied $15,000 fuel card runs out
  • I only spoke with Toyota Mirai owners, but they universally praised the build quality and ride of the vehicles
  • For many, when the fuel card runs out, they will get rid of the car, as hydrogen is too expensive (one owner did say he’d consider buying another and starting over with a new fuel card though)
  • Range anxiety is an issue, and the refueling network is less extensive than that for electric vehicles
  • People genuinely like the fact that their vehicle is zero emissions (even though most realise that the source of hydrogen is not)
  • For many, their hydrogen vehicle is their second (or even third) vehicle, as there’s a risk to having one as a daily driver

And for the hydrogen mobility sector?

  • There is increased focus (and government incentivisation) for heavy duty vehicle applications (trucks, shipping) rather than light vehicles, as these are harder sectors to electrify
    • Some of those involved in the light vehicle sector see this as a rising tide that will lift all boats
  • As with many other projects, the time it takes to get approval to build a hydrogen refueling station was cited as a key challenge, in part due to the novelty of the technology
  • Subsidies have been essential to getting to the industry to where it currently is, but even they haven’t been enough to outcompete with electric vehicles – which are ubiquitous on Californian roads
  • Policies like the Low Carbon Fuel Standard in California, and some of the associated incentives that go with it, have assisted to a point – they have also given a leg up to cleaner drop-in fuels like biodiesel
  • California, and the Federal Government are still investing heavily in hydrogen, including renewable hydrogen

There is a fair bit that others (who spend more time in this space than me) have said about the use case for hydrogen in the light vehicle sector – and much of it is a variation of “don’t”. Michael Liebreich’s Hydrogen Ladder is a good example. To be clear, Liebreich is not anti-hydrogen, but sees it not as a swiss army knife for the transition, but a tool that has some specific applications, and is outclassed by electrification or other technologies in some of the domains where it’s currently being used or suggested. There is also the argument that, as we look to produce less carbon intensive hydrogen (the colours appear to be less popular, but I’m talking about the ‘blue’ and ‘green’ versions for the most part) we should first use this to try to replace the grey hydrogen and derivatives (like ammonia) that currently exist, before trying to push it into more novel applications.

In any event, I’ve only scratched the surface here and am looking forward to spending some time in Rotterdam at the World Hydrogen Summit in a few weeks to learn more about the sector.

1 thought on “Some Notes on Hydrogen”

  1. Very nicely written, objective/unbiased and open-minded exploration Nils. Good to see you getting some hands-on experience!

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