EVs vs. hydrogen: Calif. battle escalates

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 12, 2020

A letter from California legislators this week is highlighting a schism between battery electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles that could grow in the wake of the state’s gas car ban.

The ban, created via executive order by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in September, will phase out sales of gas cars by 2035, followed by fossil fuel-powered trucks, buses and other heavier-duty vehicles by 2045. Newsom’s order asked regulators to begin drawing up rules to that effect, leaving open questions about which technologies will fill the void left by fossil fuels.

Many energy researchers see hydrogen powertrains as the most promising replacement when it comes to long-haul trucks and other heavy commercial vehicles, given the physical constraints involved with lugging around a battery motor. But battery electrics have become clear favorites for passenger cars and other lighter vehicles: State officials have signed off on massive build-outs of chargers, and investors around the world have poured money into EV startups.

Now, some proponents of hydrogen vehicles are expressing worries that their comparative lack of infrastructure could cause them to lose out on market share even for the heavier weight classes. And since many of the nation’s wealthiest states mimic California’s vehicle rules, the state’s policy choices could sway the shape of the national zero-emissions market.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Newsom and two California energy agencies, nine state lawmakers referred to hydrogen’s advantages in heavier vehicles, urging regulators and executives not to become “overly-reliant, and overly-invested, in a single technology” as they craft the state’s fossil fuel phaseout.

Democrats control both the Assembly and Senate in California.

“We have observed that hydrogen fuel cell electric mobility solutions have been largely deprioritized compared to battery-based vehicles,” they wrote. “Battery-electric vehicles are a wonder of modern technology, and they will no doubt help us achieve our goals. But, that single technology will not get us there alone.”

“There will be no fell-swoop solution, there is no silver bullet, and we must support and advance every zero emission mobility option possible,” they added.

Among the signatories are several senators who have taken a special interest in promoting hydrogen as a fuel source, proposing laws to encourage its production from low-carbon sources and the deployment of fueling stations.

Their arguments were backed by the Western States Hydrogen Alliance, a newly formed coalition of hydrogen transportation companies that helped recruit signatories to the letter.

“[S]ome of our state’s top regulatory officials, who control hundreds of millions in zero emission investment dollars, continue the wholly irresponsible practice of allowing their personal bias for one technology to drive agency decision-making while the accepted science so clearly shows that both technologies are critical in achieving their own stated goals,” Roxana Bekemohammadi, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

An ‘equal opportunity’?

The governor’s office and the California Energy Commission, to which the legislators’ letter was addressed, did not respond to E&E News’ inquiries. But spokespeople from the California Air Resources Board defended the agency’s work, pointing out that its zero-emissions sales mandates for both trucks and passenger cars apply equally to battery electrics and hydrogen fuel cells — and that rebates to customers are actually higher for the hydrogen models.

Sam Abuelsamid, a mobility analyst at Guidehouse Insights, echoed that response. “They’ve never ruled out hydrogen in any of the ZEV mandate stuff,” he said. “It’s always had an equal opportunity.

“I’m not sure what they’re complaining about,” he added.

Perhaps the most glaring disparity in policy support for the two technologies comes through infrastructure spending — a process largely driven by investor-owned utilities.

In recent years, state and utility officials have approved billions of dollars in utility programs to make chargers widely available for prospective electric vehicle buyers. One $436 million proposal from Southern California Edison approved this past summer, for instance, has the aim of installing 37,800 plugs.

Hydrogen stations, by comparison, haven’t commanded the same level of utility interest. And state funds are scarcer: The main source, created by a 2013 law, sets aside $20 million a year until there are 100 fueling stations across the state. As of May, there were 48 dispensing fuel and generating low-carbon credits, though their capacity was nearly triple that of a year ago, according to a September evaluation released by the Air Resources Board.

The lead signatory of the letter to Newsom, state Sen. Bob Archuleta (D), has pushed legislation that would require regulators to solicit gas utility programs for hydrogen transportation — including the construction of pipelines and fueling stations.

That law would serve as a pro-hydrogen parallel to a 2015 law that kicked off the wave of utility investments in EV chargers, S.B. 350, by requiring regulators to start fielding transportation electrification proposals from electric utilities.

John Ackler, legislative director for Archuleta’s office, wrote in an email that the lack of investment in hydrogen stations was due in part to “structural limitations.”

Electric utilities’ investments in EV chargers were “a proven success,” he added. “[W]e should build on those successes by allowing gas [investor-owned utilities] to do the same in the hydrogen sector.”

Perhaps the highest hopes for a national leader in hydrogen build-out are with Nikola Corp., the startup that long cultivated an image as a Tesla Inc.-like superstar but saw its stock price drop 40% and its CEO resign this year, after an investment firm published a report undermining many of the company’s claims.

Nikola has said it plans to build 700 hydrogen fueling stations across the U.S. that produce the fuel via renewable sources. On an earnings call this week, its new chief executive, Mark Russell, said it’s still on track to begin constructing them next year.

“The interest and the need for our vehicles has never been higher,” said Russell. “The number of jurisdictions with outright bans, or phaseouts, or targets for fossil fuels increases pretty much every time period. I don’t see that going away. And with the elections of the United States this week, I think that can only accelerate.”