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Hydrogen cars: the new kid on the block?

By Jana Fischback

{A different version of this blog was published in the Wenatchee World.]

Sometimes my work in sustainability gives me this excited feeling, like, the future is now. I’m especially appreciative of that lately, where it feels we live in a crazy, crazy world. Despite the troubles we’re facing, people are still working toward a clean energy future, and that keeps me optimistic for what our future holds. One example of this is the potential of renewable hydrogen, and the role that NCW has in its development as a fuel source.

This week the Washington State Senate has a hearing on a new bill sponsored by senator Brad Hawkins, regarding hydrogen vehicles.* If you’re not very familiar with hydrogen fueled vehicles, don’t feel bad. In fact, you probably haven’t ever seen one in person before. That’s because there aren’t any in Washington yet. How can I be so sure? The nearest fueling station is in Vancouver B.C. If you want to fuel up in America, the next nearest public hydrogen station you’ll find is in Sacramento.

But if hydrogen does sound familiar, that’s because you’ve probably heard of the recent bills that Hawkins has introduced. The first was SB 5588, passed in 2019, which allows Washington state PUDs to produce, distribute and sell hydrogen. Douglas County PUD is taking advantage of this change and will be producing hydrogen fuel locally with what is essentially excess energy, produced by hydropower. According to Gary Ivory, Douglas County PUD’s General Manager, this is helpful in springtime where melting snow and lots of wind mean there is a lot of electricity produced in the area. But because spilling too much water introduces gas which can negatively impact fish, he said the PUD is forced to generate power anyway, which results in negative pricing. Now, the PUD can use that surplus energy to produce hydrogen fuel, which can be used for industrial processes or transportation fuel. One example of its use: over the last few years, both Amazon and Walmart have introduced hydrogen powered forklifts in their warehouses.

Hawkins’ second hydrogen bill, SB 5000, which has a hearing this Wednesday, would offer buyers of hydrogen cars tax incentives in the same fashion as electric cars. It’s a pilot program, phased in over eight years. His hope is that this incentive would encourage the adoption of hydrogen powered vehicles in our state, providing some additional demand for locally produced renewable hydrogen. As Hawkins put it, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg problem: no fueling stations means no one can buy the cars, but if there’s no demand for hydrogen cars, there’s no need for a fueling station.

Is a fueling station in the future for NCW? Probably not in the near future. Ivory said their renewable hydrogen production facility should be up and running by the end of 2021. They’re able to upgrade as the demand increases, with the long term hope that if there is the demand, they would build a local fueling station where people can purchase the fuel. At the beginning, though, they’ll be selling directly to gas suppliers who use the fuel in industrial processes.

From an environmental perspective, “renewable” hydrogen is much better choice than burning fossil fuels. While hydrogen made elsewhere has a carbon footprint due to the electricity used to make it, renewable hydrogen made with hydropower is obviously carbon-free. Therefore, even though it’s an energy-intensive process, it’s clean the whole way through. The only “exhaust” from a hydrogen-fueled car is water vapor.

But why not just drive an electric car? We’ve already got lots of EVs to choose from, from a very affordable Nissan Leaf to a very fast Tesla Model S. Well, many people may see the appeal of a fuel that is similar to what we’re used to; a hydrogen vehicle will take about as long to fill up as your gas-powered car, and will go about as far: only 4-5 minutes and 300+ miles, respectively. So once there are fueling stations, there won’t be the range anxiety that comes along with an EV. There’s also great potential for heavy duty vehicles to make the switch to hydrogen, according to Roxana Bekemohammadi, Executive Director of Western States Hydrogen Alliance. She says hydrogen could easily replace gas powered transit buses, mid-weight trucks, even semi trucks.

However, one could also ask, why the extra step? If you can power a car with electricity, why go through the whole process of creating hydrogen with it, rather than just plug in, charge up, and go? As Hawkins points out, diversifying our fuels is a good thing, and he believes we should be "technologically neutral" by not just offering electric cars the advantage of tax incentives when hydrogen fuel may prove to be just as successful, or more so, in the future. He compares it to gas and diesel; both currently co-exist, giving consumers the option of which kind of car they’d like to drive. Ivory also pointed to difficulties we’d face if everyone drove electric vehicles and wanted to charge at the same time. It could put a burden on the electric grid if a big portion of the community came home from work at 5pm and plugged in.

One last thing to consider. Hydrogen cars are expensive, as most new technologies are. Senator Hawkins’ proposed bill is meant to relieve some of that cost by reducing the amount of taxes paid, similar to incentives for electric vehicles. The big difference here is that there is a $45,000 cap on the price of new electric cars that qualify for these incentives. That easily covers a new Chevy Bolt, Nissan Leaf, or even the BMW i3. However, you can’t get a hydrogen car for that much, with the Toyota Mirai ranging from $49,500 - $66,000, so Hawkin’s bill doesn't include a cap. That raises the question of equity - do we really need to be offering tax breaks for $50,000+ cars? On this, I see both sides. In order to get the cost to come down, we'd need to be able to mass produce the car to achieve quantities of scale, which can only happen once a bigger portion of people are ready to make the switch to hydrogen. Again, the chicken and the egg.

The advantage that a hydrogen car has on the equity issue, though, is that it's more accessible for those of lower income who live in an apartment or rent a home, where they're not easily able to charge an electric car overnight. Once the cost comes down and used vehicles become available, the help of reduced taxes could incentivize people across income levels to reduce their emissions from transportation. As for the cost of fueling up, and how it will compare to gas, only time will tell.

*Sustainable Wenatchee is a non-partisan organization that does not endorse any political candidates or policies.

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