Could hydrogen-electric cars be crucial to meeting California’s climate goals?

Dustin Gardiner, San Francisco Chronicle

SACRAMENTO — As California pushes to end the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035, a rivalry over which types of green vehicles will replace the internal combustion engine is playing out.

The dominant player is clearly battery-powered electric cars like Teslas and Chevy Bolts. That’s for obvious reasons: California already has about 450,000 plug-in electric cars on the road and more than 67,300 charging ports.

But some legislators and energy experts say the state must not forget to invest in another technology in its infancy, hydrogen fuel-cell cars, which could help serve drivers who cannot easily charge at home.

Hydrogen-powered cars are also electric cars with no emissions. The key difference is the source of power: Hydrogen cars generate their own electricity internally by combining hydrogen, the most plentiful resource in the universe, with oxygen.

Yet hydrogen cars are a tiny fraction of the market today, with fewer than 10,000 cars on the road and 44 fuel stations in California.

Hydrogen advocates said the momentum behind battery-electric cars doesn’t tell the full story. Hydrogen cars can refuel within minutes, like a gas-powered car, and have an average range of more than 300 miles — two key advantages.

Battery-electric cars take much longer to recharge; about 30 minutes to get 80% of battery capacity with a fast charger. Many battery models also have a range of well under 300 miles, though the gap is narrowing.

“We are definitely kind of the underdog in this story,” said Teresa Cooke, director of the California Hydrogen Coalition, an industry advocacy group. “It’s all the same benefits as the battery electrics” but without the battery “range anxiety.”

While many environmentalists say both technologies can be part of California’s plan, the rivalry has been fierce at times as the industries vie for public attention and subsidies.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly attacked the hydrogen industry. During the summer, he tweeted that “fuel cells = fool sells,” and called the technology “staggeringly dumb” and less energy-efficient than battery cars.

California is officially neutral on the technologies, though battery-electric cars have received far more in total state subsidies.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in September, setting the 2035 deadline to end the sale of new gas-powered cars, a move the governor took as wildfires raged across the state, fueled in part by climate change.

Newsom’s order doesn’t specify whether hydrogen or batteries should be used, only that the cars must have zero emissions.

Some state legislators say they worry the state isn’t so neutral in practice. In a letter to Newsom’s administration this month, nine Democrats said the state could become “overly-reliant and overly-invested” in battery cars.

“We have observed that hydrogen fuel cell electric mobility solutions have been largely deprioritized compared to battery-based vehicles,” the legislators wrote.

Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, was one of those who signed the letter. He said that while battery-electric models are important, they aren’t a practical solution for many people who live in apartments and don’t have a garage with a power outlet.

Quirk speaks from personal experience. He lives in a retirement community and bought a hydrogen-powered car because he said the parking garage doesn’t have power outlets.

“Lots of people don’t have garages,” Quirk said. “The bottom line is that we have to be flexible and look at more than one solution. And that’s certainly the way that the executive order is written, but it’s not necessarily the way that it’s been interpreted.”

The vast majority of battery-electric car owners primarily charge them at home. State agencies, utilities and others have invested heavily to build more charging stations in apartments and public spaces.

Hydrogen advocates say the cost of building enough infrastructure for everyone to charge vehicles at home is impractical. For others, owning a hydrogen car is a matter of convenience when it comes to refueling time and longer road trips.

Tadashi Ogitsu, a scientist who lives in Dublin and owns a Honda Clarity fuel-cell car, said he chose the model so he can still make weekend trips to Yosemite without stopping for 30 minutes or longer to charge.

With hydrogen cars, “the process is almost the same as fueling with gasoline, basically,” Ogitsu said. “I don’t want to spend hours at a super charging station.”

But hydrogen vehicles face a major disadvantage: The typical sticker price is about $58,000, before various incentives and rebates. That’s roughly $20,000 more than the best-selling battery models, such as the Tesla Model 3 or Chevy Bolt.

Fuel is also significantly more expensive, at about $16 per kilogram of hydrogen. That equates to about $6 per gallon of gasoline to travel a similar distance.

Cooke said the prices will come down because as the market grows, it becomes cheaper to mass produce hydrogen vehicles and fuel. The state has heavily subsidized both sectors, and offers a standard $4,500 rebate for hydrogen-car buyers.