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Column: Column: Hydrogen cars should be a bigger part of California’s battle against carbon emissions

We have strayed far from the “hydrogen highway” that former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to map for California two decades ago.

Now some state legislators are trying to get us back on track.

They want the state to invest more money in boosting the use of hydrogen-powered vehicles, just as California is pouring money into plug-in electric cars.

They argue that California – and the nation – shouldn’t put all its eggs in one basket: plug-in vehicles.

Millions of car owners don’t have their own garage – many even park on the street – so they can’t plug their vehicles in to charge overnight.

Either way, California doesn’t have enough grid capacity to charge all the electric vehicles that will be there once gas-powered cars are phased out. And what about the motorist who lives where a blackout has been caused by – you name it – a summer heat wave or a winter atmospheric river or utility incompetence?

“Utilities will not be able to generate enough power to charge all battery vehicles,” said Terry Tamminen, Schwarzenegger environmental secretary. “Even if a third of all cars had batteries, you’d just crash it every night.”

We are far below that. Last year, 19% of cars sold in California were zero-emission vehicles, up from 12% in 2021. A total of 346,000 ZEVs were sold last year, of which 2,600 were hydrogen-powered.

There are about 12,000 hydrogen cars on the road in California, a small fraction of the more than 14 million vehicles in total.

Another problem for the electric vehicle driver is that if the battery runs low on a drive from, say, Los Angeles to San Francisco, who wants to stop at a rest stop and wait an hour to recharge? And maybe there is not even a connection available.

A hydrogen vehicle can be refilled at a filling station in about the same time as filling a petrol tank.

That is, if you can find a station that sells hydrogen and the fuel pump is working. That is a frustrating problem for the relatively few people who drive on hydrogen, and a dilemma that the state should pay more attention to.

“Gas stations in Sacramento (hydrogen) are down almost as much as they’ve been,” said John White, a longtime environmentalist who drives a Toyota hydrogen car. “That’s not a good situation.”

There have been nozzle and compression issues – and not enough pumping.

“And there aren’t enough gas stations,” White notes.

Only two in Sacramento – 62 in the state, including 22 in Los Angeles County and 12 in Orange County. There’s only one in San Diego County. Ten are in Santa Clara County, but only three in San Francisco.

“I would like to buy a hydrogen car,” said Sen. Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Hydrogen Energy. “But here’s the problem: we (need) more filling stations. People have to wait in line to fill up.”

The California Energy Commission spends $20 million annually to strengthen the hydrogen car industry. The commission says it has invested $166 million over the years in hydrogen infrastructure — including incentives for refueling station development — and plans to spend a total of $279 million by the end of 2024.

By 2025, the state aims to spend $500 million on publicly available electric vehicle chargers.

The hydrogen expenditure should be sufficient to bring the station total to 200, the committee says.

But the ultimate goal of hydrogen proponents is 1,000 stations.

Archuleta last year asked Governor Gavin Newsom for $300 million over 10 years to boost the use of hydrogen-powered vehicles. He says 30 lawmakers have joined the request. But the governor “said he had other priorities,” says the senator.

This year he tries again.

Hydrogen vehicles can travel 300 to 400 miles on a full tank.

And they only emit water vapor, no greenhouse gas emissions.

Some environmentalists criticize hydrogen fuel because the most common way to make it is to throw steam at natural gas, a pollutant. But a cleaner way that is being developed is to make water electrical.

In any case, when plug-in cars are being charged, natural gas is the dominant way to generate electricity.

But there’s another problem with hydrogen cars: the exorbitant cost of filling up a tank – roughly the equivalent of $16 a gallon or more.

“The cost of hydrogen has skyrocketed in the past two months,” said Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), who drives and loves a hydrogen vehicle. “It handles great. Makes no sound. It’s comfortable and fast.

“But it’s a challenge to own because it’s a challenge to fuel it.”

Newsom, while railing about the “windfalls” of gasoline producers, should also examine the outrageous costs that consumers must pay for green hydrogen.

No one is arguing that hydrogen-powered vehicles are preferable to plug-ins. It’s that motorists just need to have a second option.

“We need the state to have robust support for hydrogen, just like battery vehicles. The government has almost fallen over itself to support battery technology,” said Bill Elrick, strategist for a public-private hydrogen coalition.

The state government “is working on it, but not very vigorously,” he says.

Schwarzenegger tried it in 2004, but got sidetracked by skeptics and the Great Recession.

Newsom should get the state back on track.