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Mary Nichols: “Fuel cell electric vehicles and battery electric vehicles both have a role to play in the energy transition”

The world stands at a pivotal moment: this year the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is pushing ahead with what will become the nation’s strictest standards on vehicle emissions. This step is particularly significant given the backdrop of a federal government with very different views on the urgency of tackling climate change and pollution. The state’s commitment to addressing these issues will have a major influence on other US states, and ultimately other nations.

Mary D. Nichols, Chair of the CARB since 2007, is a key player in these historic events. Listed in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for her championing of green technology and years of work fighting to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and other pollutants, she has dedicated her entire career to advocating for the environment and public health.

To gain an insight into her role at the CARB, cH2ange spoke to Mary Nichols about her work in building a low carbon economy, her thoughts on the future of mobility, and the role of hydrogen in the energy transition.

Mary D. Nichols, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

In the ten years since your appointment as Chair of the CARB, what would you say are your main achievements?

Perhaps our most significant achievement is that we’ve managed to be within sight of the original goal set in 2006, which was to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Since then, science has advanced considerably and we now know that our goals need to be much more ambitious. But back in 2007 we conducted a comprehensive overview of all the different programs and strategies needed to decarbonize our state’s economy, and we’ve made progress on all of them.

“We’ve seen major improvements in terms of the availability of zero and low emission vehicles based on either hydrogen fuel cells or batteries, and they are beginning to have an impact.“

In California, close to 50% of our emissions of toxic air pollutants and GHGs come from mobile sources. Transportation is therefore our major focal point. This has been the case in California going back to when I first served on the Air Resources Board in 1975, when we began to implement more aggressive controls on motor vehicle emissions. So it is in this area of clean fuels and clean vehicles that we’ve undoubtedly had our largest impact on the world.

What do you think the world of mobility will look like twenty years from now?

People on motorcycles in Hô Chi Minh, Viêt Nam © MM, licence CC BY 2.0

Many countries are growing in prosperity, primarily in Asia, but also Latin America and Africa, which means in future more people will be able to have personal vehicles. If these vehicles are no cleaner than the average vehicle on our roads today, then the effect on society could be disastrous. We’ve already seen this in China and India, where pollution from diesel vehicles and coal burning power plants is having a major impact on people’s health and national economic growth.

“Emerging countries could avoid the expansion of petrol and diesel vehicles, instead going straight to clean vehicles.”

Fortunately we’ve seen major improvements in terms of the availability of zero and low emission vehicles based on either hydrogen fuel cells or batteries, and they are beginning to have an impact. What happens in the next twenty years depends on whether there will be enough of these vehicles on the road to make a measurable difference to air pollution and climate change.

In the same way that cellphones reached many emerging countries before landline telephone infrastructure had been fully developed, these countries could avoid the expansion of petrol and diesel vehicles seen in western countries, instead going straight to clean vehicles. I’m optimistic that this can happen because many of these countries do not have their own domestic oil supply. And importing oil is expensive. A much simpler and cost effective option could be to develop new infrastructure for renewable fuels.

What do you think are the main challenges ahead to reach the Paris Agreement objectives?

The common wisdom after the Paris Agreement was that the next step was really up to the private sector. The leaders of almost every country in the world agreed to take steps to limit emissions, but implementing this plan will take massive amounts of capital, so industry needs to step up to the plate.

“While progress in terms of actual emissions reductions is slow, the first step is about changing minds and changing habits, and that is definitely happening.”

But there has also been much progress: many countries are moving forward on a whole variety of measures, making changes to products and sourcing, changing the ways of doing business, putting the focus on sustainability and the widespread use of life cycle assessments. Overall, while progress in terms of actual emissions reductions is slow, the first step is about changing minds and changing habits, and that is definitely happening.

Do you think fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) technology has a part to play in the energy transition alongside battery electric vehicles (BEVs)?

Yes, absolutely. Electric drive train vehicles include both hydrogen FCEVs and BEVs. We promote both types of vehicle.

“We are now seeing very good progress with hydrogen vehicles.”

BEVs have moved ahead slightly faster simply due to the timing of developments in battery technology. But we are now seeing very good progress with hydrogen vehicles. Two hydrogen FCEV passenger car models are available in California: the Toyota Mirai, which I drive, and the Honda Clarity. Those who get a chance to experience these cars are very impressed.

Hydrogen refueling station in Anaheim, California. ©AL

California has invested a substantial amount of money and effort to develop a network of hydrogen fuelling stations to enable the effective deployment of FCEVs. We currently have 31 stations and we are opening more every few months. We are spending about 20 million dollars a year, aiming to reach 100 stations by 2023. These stations are located in urban areas as well as along highways.

“Range is a big advantage with hydrogen cars.”

Right now we have 2,000 FCEVs registered. This isn’t a huge number, but it’s steadily increasing. Our projection, given the pace of progress in the industry, is that there will be about 35,000 FCEVs on California’s roads by 2023.

Range is a big advantage with hydrogen cars. It used to be around 250 to 300 miles. Now there are vehicles being certified that will have ranges of over 400 miles. This is obviously very appealing to people who are considering whether they can switch to a hydrogen FCEV as their primary car.

How do you find the driving experience in your own FCEV?

It’s excellent! It’s a really nice car: roomy, very solid and secure. It has all the same advanced features you’d find on the latest conventional gasoline cars. The only difference I notice is when I take it to a station and open the fuel port. It takes no longer to fill than a conventional car, and is actually somewhat easier once you get used to the different nozzle.

Mary D. Nichols with her Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell car.

Are you confident that both hydrogen FCEV and BEV cars can coexist?

Yes I am. There’s no doubt that they are in competition with each other to some extent, in terms of public perception and awareness, and also for the niche in the infrastructure that they can occupy. But I think they can exist side by side quite readily. Not everyone can install a charger at home. Many building owners and landlords are simply not interested in providing electric charging facilities. This is definitely a barrier to the proliferation of BEVs.

“I think FCEV and BEV can exist side by side quite readily.”

The hydrogen model has to overcome concerns about viability. Ultimately if you are just converting natural gas to hydrogen to fuel a hydrogen vehicle, then you don’t have a big enough reduction in GHG emissions to justify a wholesale transformation to that approach. We and many others are working on this right now. We aim to get to the point where there is a sufficient market for renewable hydrogen.

“In California, we’re trying to work on both the chicken and the egg simultaneously, and I think we’re doing pretty well.”

As for many new technologies, it’s a chicken and egg situation: there needs to be enough cars on the road before the production of renewable hydrogen becomes cost effective; while people won’t buy FCEVs until there’s a large enough refueling network. In California, we’re trying to work on both the chicken and the egg simultaneously, and I think we’re doing pretty well. Once FCEVs are out there, and people start to experience them, they will immediately overcome any doubts about whether this is a viable approach.

We are seeing a lot of interest from bus and truck manufacturers seeking to use fuel cell technology because of its high energy density. It may be that we see more hydrogen penetration in the heavy-duty vehicle sector than the light-duty vehicle sector.

You have a strong belief in the hydrogen solution. Have you encountered any high profile doubters along the way?

A few years ago when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Governor of California, I went with him to Washington for the celebration of President Obama’s signing of the order for the US Environmental Protection Agency to begin setting standards for new cars that included GHG emission standards. We met the then Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, a very distinguished Nobel Laureate, and we wanted to lobby him for more funds from the Department of Energy (DOE) to support hydrogen research, development, and deployment. Secretary Chu had actually cut the DOE’s program in his proposed budget, so we tried to convince him to change his mind. And he used an expression that he was quoted saying several times: “making the hydrogen solution work for transportation is like asking angels to dance on the head of a pin”.

I often think about his words as the new developments in hydrogen vehicles continue to roll out. Secretary Chu is a very smart and accomplished man, and he was instrumental in leading the Obama administration’s efforts to advance clean and renewable energy. But on this issue, I’m pleased that we’ve been able to prove him wrong. Hydrogen certainly is working, and California’s beliefs were justified.