Editor's Note: This is a collaboration between digital journalist Susan Carpenter and multimedia journalist Kristopher Gee. To watch the video report that accompanies this story, please click the arrow above.
Quick: Name a car that can travel more than 300 miles per tank, refuel in just five minutes, and emit zero greenhouse gases. If you couldn't come up with a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, or HFCEV, don't be embarrassed.
"Maybe 10 percent of Californians could name a fuel cell vehicle that's currently for sale," said Scott Hardman, an electric vehicle researcher at the UC-Davis Institute of Transportation Studies that conducts annual surveys on EV awareness. "More than half the state doesn't even know Tesla exists."
California has its work cut out if it's going to meet Gov. Gavin Newsom's goal that all new passenger vehicle sales be 100 percent zero-emissions by 2035. While plug-ins, or battery-powered vehicles, are better known, HFCEVs are another option. With Thursday being National Hydrogen Day, allow us to introduce the other, lesser-known, hydrogen-powered EV.
Unlike a battery electric vehicle from Tesla, Chevy, or Nissan, which drivers must charge to get the electricity that propels the car, HFCEVs make their electricity while they're being driven. The vehicle generates electricity with an electrochemical reaction when hydrogen from the fuel tank combines with oxygen from the air inside a fuel cell that drives the motor. The car emits nothing but water from its tailpipe since it's fueled with gaseous hydrogen pumped into the car's tank from a dispenser in a similar manner to gas.
The California Air Resources Board estimates that HFCEVs are about seven years behind battery-powered EVs, even though the technology has been in development for more than 25 years. For example, Toyota started developing its Mirai HFCEV at the same time it started developing its Prius hybrid — in the early '90s. Hyundai has been working on hydrogen fuel cells for 20 years, even though its first commercially available HFCEV, the Nexo, has only been on the market for two years.
"We saw that to get to a point where we could have sustainable transportation meant we needed more electrification" than just the Prius, said Jackie Birdsall, senior engineer in the Fuel Cell Vehicle Group of Toyota Motor North America. While working on the battery technology in the Prius, Toyota "also needed a vehicle that can be fully electric with a quick refill time and a longer range."
However, getting it to market wasn't just a matter of developing the vehicle but working with government agencies on codes and standards for a car that used an entirely different fuel.
"There was so much behind the scenes work that had to be done to safely launch this vehicle," Birdsall said of the Mirai. About 6,200 Mirais have been sold in the U.S. since the sedan first came on the market in 2015.
Of the 27.7 million passenger vehicles registered in California, about 10,000 are HFCEVs.
Currently, just three models are available: The Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity, and Hyundai Nexo. More models are expected from other manufacturers as the infrastructure evolves, including the Nikola Badger pickup truck that's expected in 2022.
With a refill time that's similar to gas, HFCEVs most closely replicate the experience of a gas-powered car, only with zero emissions. They are quiet and accelerate quickly.
For some drivers, battery electric vehicles don't offer enough range and take too long to refuel. Even the longest-range EVs that can travel 300+ miles per charge are limited by a lack of public charging infrastructure and the amount of time it takes to refuel, often at least 30 minutes, even with a fast charger.
The ideal candidate for a fuel cell vehicle is someone who wants a zero-emissions vehicle but can't charge a battery-electric car at their home or work and who lives near a fueling station.
Many hydrogen fueling stations are located at the same places that serve up gas and diesel, including a Shell station in Torrance, an Arco in South Pasadena, and a Chevron in Harbor City.
There are currently 42 hydrogen fueling stations in California, the majority of which are in Southern California. Many of those stations are clustered in the early-adopter areas of West L.A., Torrance, and Irvine, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, although stations are dotting the path northward through Coalinga to the Bay Area and up to Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, as well as south toward San Diego.
Another 20 stations are in development, with an additional 100+ expected to be built by 2023, following a California Energy Commission funding plan the agency recommended last month. The California Fuel Cell Partnership projects there will be 1,000 stations by 2030.
While that number pales in comparison to the 10,000 gas stations and approximately 7,000 public EV chargers in the state, it represents a significant investment that will support more HFCEVs moving forward. Each hydrogen station costs about $3.5 million. Today's stations are built with four fueling positions and can fill as many as 400 cars per day.
"Ultimately, hydrogen is a very democratic solution," said Tyson Eckerle, deputy director of zero emissions vehicles market development in Newsom's Office of Business and Economic Development. "You put one station into a neighborhood, and everyone can use it 24/7, so it really opens the market for multi-family housing, for larger vehicles that need to go longer range, and for people road-tripping."
Hydrogen gas is charged in kilograms, rather than gallons. It currently costs about $12 per kilogram. The equivalent gasoline cost is about $6 per gallon. University of California, Irvine researchers project that hydrogen will be cost-competitive with gasoline by 2030.
California requires that one-third of the hydrogen used to fuel HFCEVs is made from renewable sources. The dominant method for making hydrogen is a process that uses natural gas called steam methane reformation, but more producers are using electrolysis that separates the hydrogen from water using electricity, often with renewables such as wind and solar.
The company Air Liquide is building a renewable hydrogen production plant in North Las Vegas intended to serve vehicles in the west; the plant will provide enough fuel for more than 40,000 passenger vehicles.
HFCEVs cost more than an average gas-powered car — about $58,000. The Toyota Mirai has a sticker price of $58,550, the Honda Clairty Fuel Cell is $58,490, and the Hyundai Nexo is $58,735. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average transaction price for a light vehicle purchased in the U.S. in September was $38,723.
Incentives help reduce the price. Drivers who buy or lease a HFCEV can receive a federal tax credit of up to $8,000, and California offers a $4,500 rebate on HFCEVs as part of its Clean Vehicle Rebate Project.
Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai all include three years of free fuel for drivers who lease or buy a HFCEV. Hyundai estimates the fuel value savings at $13,000 over three years.
The California Fuel Cell Partnership estimates that the higher upfront cost of the HFCEV is offset within three years, similar to a battery-electric vehicle.