Hydrogen Highway Revisited

Is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to fill California highways with hydrogen-fueled cars visionary — or just hot air?

  • The anatomy of a fuel cell

  • A fuel cell bus fills up at AC Transit's Chevron Station in Oakland

  • California's Hydrogen Highway


Shakespeare said, ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; but omitted, and all of life’s voyage is bound in shallows and regrets,’ ” intoned Terry Tamminen, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, when it was his turn at the podium on an overcast morning in April 2004. “We are afloat upon such a sea at this moment as we face our energy future. But who has the strength to lift our ship of state on a tide of clean, renewable energy that will carry our economy into the 21st century and beyond? Who has the wisdom to set us on course to protect our air, water, public health, and the health of our economy?

“Who has the vision to set sail towards our energy independence now?” Tamminen’s answer, as Shakespeare could not have predicted, was Arnold Schwarzenegger. The last-action-hero-turned-Republican governor, who had won the recall election against Gray Davis the previous October, was still in the honeymoon phase of his first term when he addressed the large crowd of educators, automotive and energy executives and reporters at the University of California at Davis that day. “As you can see, this looks kind of like a movie set here, right?” a beaming Schwarzenegger joked of the photo-op surroundings, which included a gleaming, sky-blue bus with a promise painted on it: “Zero Emissions — Cleans the Air As It Drives.” Moments earlier he had drawn “oohs” and “aahs” when he pulled up to the fuel pump in a hydrogen-powered sports-utility vehicle.

“But of course it will be better,” he said. “Because what you see here today, this is the future of California and the future of our environmental protection.”

Schwarzenegger, heretofore synonymous in many environmentally attuned minds with his proud ownership of a fleet of huge, gas-guzzling Hummers (the civilian version of the four-wheel-drive High Mobility Multipurpose Military Vehicle, or Humvee), had come to Davis to announce Executive Order S-7-04, the establishment of a California Hydrogen Highway Network. By 2010, the governor vowed, every Californian would have access to hydrogen fuel along 21 of the state’s interstate highways, “with a significant and increasing percentage of that hydrogen produced from clean, renewable sources.”

Schwarzenegger’s plan called for an initial 150 to 200 hydrogen-refueling plants throughout the state at an estimated cost of about $90 million, to be funded with corporate, state and federal money. By the end of the decade, Schwarzenegger said, he hoped to see 500,000 hydrogen-consuming vehicles zooming along California roads.

But as the governor made clear, his vision of progress was about both dollars and sense. “As I have said many times, the choice is not between economic progress and environmental protection,” said Schwarzenegger, who, in topping off the SUV he’d arrived in, became the first person to use the inaugural station on his own Hydrogen Highway. “Here in California, growth and protecting our natural beauty go hand in hand. We have an opportunity to prove to the world that a thriving environment and economy can co-exist.

“This vision for California is real and attainable; however, it will take time. So, we must plant the seeds now.”

As of this summer, according to state officials, only 24 fueling stations on the Hydrogen Highway have been built, while another 15 sites have been identified for future development. None of these facilities looks very much like your corner gas station. In fact, they aren’t open to the general public, in large part because no members of the general public are driving hydrogen-powered vehicles. Fewer than 200 hydrogen-fueled autos, buses or vans are actually driving on California’s roads, and most of them are operated as “demonstration projects” by transportation agencies, city or state government fleets or automotive manufacturers.

Hydrogen has long been viewed as a potentially clean alternative to gasoline. In recent years, it has even been touted as the hypothetical basis of the future global economy, wherein the world’s energy infrastructure would be transformed, with fuel-cell-powered cars and buildings all running on non-polluting hydrogen. Hydrogen is plentiful in nature, it can theoretically be obtained in many ways, and fuel-cell vehicles have several potential advantages over gas-guzzlers: They are quiet, pump only water vapor out their tailpipes, and, if the electricity to make hydrogen is harnessed from clean sources, reduce transportation-related carbon emissions to near-zero. Accordingly, most major car companies have prototype hydrogen-powered cars in development, although they carry six-figure price tags and are nowhere near ready for widespread public use. As Tamminen put it: “It’s a simple ‘chicken or the egg’ problem. Who will manufacture hydrogen cars without hydrogen fuel stations? Who will build hydrogen fuel stations if there are no vehicles to use them?”

In truth, though, hydrogen-car technology is years away from dropping an egg, much less hatching a chick. Obstacles include storage (hydrogen-powered cars require much larger tanks than gasoline-powered cars) and finding a pollution-free method to produce hydrogen. (At present, the most economical method uses natural gas and produces carbon dioxide.) Because of these and other logistical dilemmas, carmakers acknowledge that hydrogen-fueled vehicles won’t hit showrooms for at least another decade and aren’t likely to make a significant mainstream impact until mid-century — if then.

Moreover, skeptics of what they call “hydrogen hype” warn that by putting hydrogen at the center of his environmental policy, Schwarzenegger is playing to energy and automotive companies and executives who have been major political funding sources. At the same time, the skeptics say, Schwarzenegger’s green-sounding pro-hydrogen policies discourage the development of more immediately feasible alternatives, including already-established gasoline-electric hybrid technology that greatly increases auto efficiency and greatly reduces auto emissions. The idea of a “hydrogen economy” is a dangerous distraction, they say, created by automakers who should instead be taking urgent measures to cut the greenhouse gas emissions of their current lines of cars and trucks, which account for one-third of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. “A hydrogen car is one of the least-efficient, most-expensive ways to reduce greenhouse gases,” says Joseph Romm, who formerly oversaw U.S. Department of Energy’s hydrogen fuel-cell research and now advises businesses on energy use and greenhouse emissions. “If you want to slow down global warming, you’re not going to do it with a hydrogen car.”