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Hydrogen: the building block of an all new energy industry

Hydrogen has opened the door to a whole new way of thinking about energy, according to Bill Elrick, Executive Director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. After spending more than a decade leading the development of the Golden State’s hydrogen network — now one of the most advanced in the world — Bill Elrick has seen hydrogen grow from its early days to blossom into a nascent retail market with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles already replacing traditional cars, buses and trucks, eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and spelling good news for environmental and climate goals. But for this champion of collaboration, the excitement has just begun, as the hydrogen industry seeks to scale up by broadening the number and diversity of stakeholders, expanding its infrastructure network and pursuing synergies with electrical grid.

What is the role of the California Fuel Cell Partnership?

It started twenty years ago as a science experiment to determine if hydrogen fuel cell technology could be used to develop a zero-emission vehicle. Now, after successfully launching the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle market with retail stations and vehicles, we are working towards our next step of establishing a self-sustaining supply and demand that achieves and exceeds our original environmental goals.

Now that these vehicles are available to customers, we are seeing them make the switch. Every time they do that, we’re saving nearly 700 gallons of gas a year and almost 3 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per vehicle, per year.

Bill Elrick with former California Governor Jerry Brown at the West Governor’s Conference (2017)

Today, the Fuel Cell Partnership is a public-private venture of automakers, energy companies, local, state and federal government agencies and others, all working together with the same common vision of commercializing hydrogen fuel cell technology. As we enter the retail market, we have begun to expand the players in order to involve the full retail and supply chain, including engineering and construction companies building the stations, local governments for permitting, research institutions including universities and national labs, as well as tank and nozzle companies.

Have you observed any change in the government’s determination to tackle hydrogen development?

Government interaction has been integral to our group since its foundation. The state of California has provided support, leadership and drive, as well as incentives to reach our goals faster. Government commitment has remained steadfast since the beginning, but now it has increased its demands from industry. This is for two main reasons: to achieve a self-sustaining market more rapidly, as well as to make progress on our environmental and climate goals, which appear all the more urgent in light of the latest reports.

What environmental impact has the Partnership’s promotion of FCEV had in California?

Now that these vehicles are available to customers, we are seeing them make the switch. It’s not just their second or third vehicle in a family: they are actually switching their primary vehicle from a conventional fuel vehicle to a FCEV. Every time they do that, we’re saving nearly 700 gallons of gas a year and almost 3 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per vehicle, per year.

Infrastructure is one of the main points people bring up when discussing the setbacks to hydrogen. How is it evolving in California?

We are currently in a transition phase. Up to now, we have focused primarily on launching the market. We wanted to build enough stations to enable the first vehicle sales, which is why we focused on early market clusters, primarily in metro areas but also with connector and destination stations around the state, so that customers could get the full value of the vehicle and replace their traditional gasoline vehicle.

I would feel more comfortable with a non-toxic element like hydrogen, than trying to market gasoline or diesel today if it had to start over.

Now we are transitioning this market towards scale, with our goal being a self-sustaining market. To do this, we are expanding coverage beyond those initial clusters, so that other areas of the state can purchase these vehicles and use them. Station capacity and capability have also progressed much faster than expected.

Our first stations included just a single hose or nozzle, but we are already seeing the need to move to much larger stations, capable of fueling hundreds of cars a day and offering multiple hoses and nozzles at a site. Things are constantly evolving. The big change now is transitioning from the market launch to market scale deployment — including statewide station coverage and cost reductions to create a self-sustaining market, offering the same ubiquity and utility as traditional fuels.

Visit California Highway 1 Re-Opening Rally Event. Credit: CaFCP

What is the current strategy for expanding the hydrogen infrastructure network?

Our strategy now is to transition from launching the market to designing a self-sufficient market that doesn’t require a strong government push, but which operates via a market pull mechanism. We recently published our 2030 Vision, which details what a self-sustaining market looks like, when we could get there, and outlines some of the metrics along the way. Next year, we will release an update or addendums to our 2030 Vision, providing specific actions we want to take. Everything we are doing now amounts to transitioning to scale at speed.

California is one of the most advanced states on the planet in terms of hydrogen infrastructure. What factors account for this success and can it be replicated elsewhere in the world?

The biggest factor is commitment: California has always committed to strong, aggressive environmental goals. The state’s commitment to hydrogen and fuel cell technology has allowed us to get where we are today. To develop hydrogen, it takes strong leadership, good planning and commitment to provide the necessary resources. I think this is a model that others can follow, but everyone needs to develop their own approaches and methods to get there. Lately, we have seen the market start to take off globally.

How would you inspire commitment among your members?

Opening of a new hydrogen station. Credit: CaFCP

I think we have to show them value. Whether for the consumer or the next partner that can help us resolve a challenge, there is an opportunity to show hydrogen as a value product in several ways to get them on board, especially in terms of new objectives like California’s 100% renewable target.

What’s exciting for me is seeing how hydrogen-powered transportation is just one small piece of a larger energy transformation.

Now that we are circling around larger numbers, such as the 1,000 stations outlined in our 2030 Vision document for California, there is a business case for supply chain manufacturers to invest in developing better technology in order to be a part of this movement.

What are the next big steps?

We have a vision now of where we want to go, so the next step is to identify specific actions to make that happen. The three that jump out are putting in place a policy environment that is conducive to the market and gets private investment flowing in terms of scaling up the activities; next, we need to look at the production of new dedicated hydrogen, especially on the renewable and decarbonized side; and thirdly, we need to get our statewide network of stations up and running. That has been our limiting factor here in California, and that is the piece that will make it exciting and tangible not just for market stakeholders, but also for consumers to go into their dealership and purchase vehicles.

How has the hydrogen fuel station network grown in California to achieve that goal?

We now have 39 retail hydrogen stations open and operating, with another 25 in development. The 1,000 hydrogen stations we are targeting are placed strategically around the state. This would provide nearly all Californians with access to purchase a fuel cell vehicle and use it just as they would a gasoline vehicle.

Is it safe to build hydrogen stations so close to where people live?

Yes, we have all the necessary safety codes and standards in place. People are used to gasoline and diesel, while hydrogen has a newness and unfamiliarity about it. By nature all energy has the power for danger if not handled properly, yet I would feel more comfortable with a non-toxic element like hydrogen, than trying to market gasoline or diesel today if it had to start over.

What measures do you think can bring down the cost of delivering hydrogen in order to expand fueling infrastructure?

The number one way to bring down costs for hydrogen or the components of fuel cells is scale. We are now looking at new market approaches to secure private investment, because that will create a sustainable market over time. We are also seeking to implement technical change, notably by exploring liquid hydrogen or pipeline use, in order to reach our goal.

What can be done to lower the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable sources?

Hydrogen & Fuel Cells North America at Anaheim Convention Center, California Credit: CaFCP

One of the more interesting avenues for lowering the cost of renewable hydrogen is to focus on the synergies between hydrogen and electricity. In California we have a new 100% renewable goal for the electric market. As we work towards that side of the energy transition, we will find that hydrogen offers a very clear opportunity and value, in terms of storage, grid resiliency and penetration of renewables into areas where electricity alone is not enough. I think that will be an exciting time for us, as we find that hydrogen and electricity as energy carriers have the potential to take us farther than either one could on its own. At the same time, it will be challenging since it’s a whole group of stakeholders who have never played in the same sandbox before. That means we will need to interact and listen in order to understand each other, identify the values and opportunities, and overcome the challenges along the way.

You stated the initial question for you was finding out whether hydrogen could replace gasoline. What would your answer be today?

Yes, absolutely! We can replace conventional fuel vehicles with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, from individual light-duty passenger cars all the way up to fleets of medium and heavy-duty vehicles. It’s wonderful to see the heavy-duty sector come in rapidly behind light-duty, and make the transition much faster than we were able to do at the beginning of light-duty, since much of the groundwork is already done.

A Hydrogen Council report indicates that the combined tally of goals by governments could reach about 3,000 total hydrogen stations and support a total of 2 million hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2025. Is this a realistic goal in your view?

It’s challenging, but it’s realistic. To help us get there, we will need to count on new players from across the supply chain, including public and private entities. Going back to what we’ve seen in California, I think it takes those three elements of resources, planning and leadership to do it. What is really exciting is to see the formation of the Hydrogen Council providing that leadership on a global scale, and already seeing a positive reaction in that it is spurring more in California as far as the planning and resources that we need at the local level to make that happen. It is absolutely challenging, but at the same time it is inspiring and puts more excitement into the efforts underway.

What obstacles will need to be overcome to achieve this goal by 2025?

I look at this question in two different ways. The main one is securing leadership and commitment in a broader stakeholder base throughout the world. There have been pockets in California, Europe, Japan and other areas who have been working on this and shown leadership in various ways. But, here in the US, we have 50 states, so we’re going to have to bring in 49 other states, many of whom know little about hydrogen, as well as the various stakeholders in the market. The other big challenge is reaching scale. It’s going to be challenging to put aside some of the success we have had, in order to think new and differently to reach our ultimate goal.

California Highway 1 Re-Opening Rally Event. Credit: CaFCP

What role will non-vehicle hydrogen applications play in the expansion of hydrogen vehicle infrastructure and the broader roll-out of the hydrogen economy?

To get where we want to go in terms of our long-term environmental and climate goals, we’re looking at a complete energy transition, which refers to implementing renewables and the full decarbonization of all energies, for transportation, power, industry, buildings, etc. We’re looking at the synergies of hydrogen and electricity and how they complement each other, in all markets both individually and independently, but even more so in how they operate as a system. The transition to a system of energy using those two energy carriers is going to deliver the real potential and the real opportunity. And those conversations are just getting underway in California, so we’re eager to learn and listen to hear more about what others have done around the world to bring the different pieces together. It’s clear that different parts of the world have proceeded down different avenues at different speeds, so this is where it gets really exciting to collaborate on a global scale.

We often talk about mobility and energy storage, but we rarely talk about how to link all the various energy sources together. How does that notion of the system change the way we think about energy?

Throughout the life of the Partnership, we’ve always looked at hydrogen as fuel for vehicles. But while researching and writing the 2030 Vision, I was happy to see the opportunities for hydrogen that stretch well beyond vehicles. With the Hydrogen Council coming on board, it brought another spotlight to this question.

The biggest factor is commitment: California has always committed to strong, aggressive environmental goals.

What’s exciting for me is seeing how hydrogen-powered transportation is just one small piece of a larger energy transformation. If the future we aspire to is decarbonized and renewable, it’s clear that hydrogen is not just integral, but it is actually a leading piece of the puzzle. Hydrogen and electricity belong together as the energy carriers. Looking around the world in terms of power-to-gas, energy storage and getting renewables into new and different applications beyond transportation, it’s been inspiring for me to watch hydrogen open the door towards a complete rethinking of the word energy. We made sure to recognize this incredible potential in our 2030 Vision, because we did not want to miss this crucial opportunity to shed light on this broader vision of the future.

You have mentioned the importance of thinking new and different in order to achieve scale in the hydrogen industry. How do you go about doing this?

At our last board meeting we recognized that while we are proud of our initial success in the market, what we’re doing now is still insufficient to reach the scale we need, whether in terms of the amount of hydrogen available, or the number of stations and the ability to build new stations by the hundreds each year. Historically, here in the US we have focused on hydrogen campaigns and industrial use, meaning we would focus on a specific hydrogen project for a space mission for a couple of months and then move on or dedicated hydrogen production for a refinery. Now we are looking at a fundamental rethinking of energy, transportation and hydrogen’s role in this system. The speakers at our board meeting recognized that this is very challenging, but also very doable. It just requires us to think differently, in that we now have a gaseous or potentially liquid form of hydrogen to move around, we have technologies from other industries that we have used at different scales but which we haven’t applied in this retail environment: all the pieces are there, we just have to take a step back and deploy them in innovative new ways.

We’re looking at a complete energy transition, which refers to implementing renewables and the full decarbonization of all energies, for transportation, power, industry, buildings…

Toyota Mirai event at the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento Credit: CaFCP

At our last board meeting we recognized that while we are proud of our initial success in launching the market in California, this was insufficient to reach the scale needed for success, whether in terms of the policy environment and private investment, or in how that fuel is produced and ultimately reaches the retail customer. We were so focused on the initial steps that for a time we didn’t look far enough into the future to map out the later steps needed to fully build the market, nor the impact hydrogen can have in both the transportation and the energy markets. While still focused on transportation, the Partnership is now looking more closely at all these opportunities for greater success. The speakers at our board meeting recognized that this is very challenging, yet also very doable. It requires us to think differently, yet all the pieces are there, we just need to take a step back and deploy them in innovative new ways.