Twenty years ago, the California Fuel Cell Partnership (CaFCP) started 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 following 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 we have 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. The technology for all hydrogen fuel cell vehicle types continues to improve.

Bill-Elrick-CaFCP-Executive-Director

Source: California Fuel Cell Partnership

“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,” Bill Elrick (right), CaFCP’s Executive Director, enthuses in an exclusive interview with gasworld.

“Now is the time to harness this momentum as we take on a new challenge: how to scale the hydrogen and fuel cell vehicle market so that all Californians will benefit.”

And that’s exactly what the CaFCP is aiming to do. Last July, it released its 2030 vision – the California Fuel Cell Revolution – which it believes is a pathway for revolutionary change towards a fully self-sustaining market with widespread adoption of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

“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.”

California is already leading the way with hydrogen infrastructure in the US and currently has 39 open hydrogen retail stations and around 6,100 FCEVs, but the partnership wants to increase this significantly. It has outlined ambitious goals for 1,000 hydrogen stations and a population of one million FCEVs on the roads by 2030.

1,000 hydrogen stations and one million hydrogen cars could see 693.5 million gallons per year of gasoline displaced and 2.7 million metric tonnes per year of greenhouse gases avoided with today’s energy mix of 33% renewable hydrogen, according to the CaFCP.

“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 explains.

“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.”

“Having just got back from the Fuel Cell Expo in Tokyo and spoken with folks from Japan, Germany and other parts of the European Union, the rest of the world is taking a fleet approach.”

“Fleets absolutely work to introduce any other kind of fuel transportation because you can see what typical daily habits are, where they go and the vehicles usually go back to a home base, so building the infrastructure is a little easier.”

“However, other alternative fuels have shown that fleet success does not turn into consumer success, and that’s why we did it differently on purpose here in California.”

“People don’t get excited when they see the local municipal fleet vehicle going by. You won’t catch them saying ‘wow look at that car, that’s going to be my next car’.”

Bill and CA Governor Brown-blur-edit

Source: California Fuel Cell Partnership

Challenges

But on this revolutionary path towards a fully self-sustaining market with widespread adoption of FCEVs, Elrick recognises there will be challenges. First and foremost, education and awareness.

“Most people are aware of hydrogen, but it’s a seventh-grade science class in the periodic table. That’s kind of where they left it. 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.”

“I’ve been reading more 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.”

“To put it simply, hydrogen itself is an integral part of our energy future and it is going to be the other energy carrier, along with electricity.”

“Most people are aware of hydrogen, but it’s a seventh-grade science class in the periodic table. That’s kind of where they left it.”

“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.”

Elrick highlights policies, private investment and infrastructure development as other challenges.

“To me, they are all the same. Infrastructure is a challenge, but I am digging deeper right back to the core of what our infrastructure challenge is, and that’s the policies and investment to build it. But before we can even get those two to work, we have to start at the education and awareness level.”

Station location

Something unique for hydrogen car drivers in California is the technology available to help them locate the nearest fuelling station. Air Liquide last year launched an app – H2 Station Finder, which first featured only hydrogen stations in California, and the CaFCP also has a station finder map on its website.

With just a few taps, drivers can find the nearest station, get directions to it and view station details such as amenities offered.

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Source: California Fuel Cell Partnership

“The apps in general have been really helpful for the drivers to understand their fuelling and know exactly what’s out there and available to them,” Elrick says.

“A battery vehicle driver has range anxiety. They need to figure out where and when they are going to get their next charge. Our drivers have station anxiety.”

“The Air Liquide app, and the one we have as well, really helps the driver understand when they are going to need fuel and where the stations are on their route. Do they need to go to the one in front of them? Does it have fuel available? Are there any other challenges that might mean they have to go in a different direction and go to a different station?”

“The apps have had a very positive effect and customers have asked for even more capabilities to be added.”

Momentum

Having just returned from one of the largest trade shows for hydrogen and fuel cells in the world, Fuel Cell Expo, Elrick says something felt different this time.

“In previous times we would gather and share our experiences and I would learn a little bit more about how other parts of the world approached this challenge and took it on.”

“This time it was different. 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.”