The Policy Pillar – US: California’s only scientist in state Legislature wants the government to pay more attention to hydrogen

Joanna Sampson, H2View

“Let me be very clear: the reason we need hydrogen is because there is a climate crisis, a climate emergency. It’s something that just can’t wait, and the [US] government absolutely needs to take a role in this,” Dr. Bill Quirk stressed to H2 View over a Zoom call recently.

With a background in science, working as a climate change scientist at NASA before beginning his career at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, where he was the country’s expert on foreign nuclear weapons, Quirk is currently a member of the California State Assembly, representing the 20th District – in fact he’s the only scientist in the California Legislature.

“I do want to mention there are some engineers, but I am the only scientist. Prior to this, the last scientist that I know of in the Legislature is a geophysicist. So I may be the only physicist who has ever been an assembly member,” he said.

Right now, when it comes to policy, Quirk said a focus on transportation is driving the zero-emission conversation, and whether that means battery-electric, hydrogen or both.

In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order banning the sale of diesel or gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. It is the most aggressive move taken by any state in the US in the climate change fight and means only zero-emission cars and passenger trucks will be sold in California by that date.

But Newsom wasn’t clear in his order what zero-emission stood for – was it battery-electric vehicles, hydrogen vehicles or both – and Quirk was one of nine signatories who sent a letter to the Governor in November urging him to include hydrogen fuel cell technology in all administrative and agency efforts to achieve the goals outlined in the executive order.

The letter from nine members of the State Senate and Assembly, shared with H2 View at the time, called on Newsom to take a “technology-neutral” approach to decarbonisation and to not focus California’s transportation sector investments solely on battery-electric vehicles, particularly in medium and heavy-duty transportation applications where they said fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) may be the only solution.

“A lot of what I do is not so much legislation and telling people what to do, but being an evangelist, talking to people about options and getting them to think about things they hadn’t thought of,” Quirk explained to H2 View.

“The problem tends to be that when you talk to an ordinary legislator, when you say, ‘Zero emission vehicle,’ they immediately think of electric. There isn’t in the imagination of people the same regard for hydrogen as there is for electric, but it’s essential that policies, plans and production must not rely on a single technology.”

To support the state’s zero-emission goals, Newsom pledged a $1.5bn investment in the construction and maintenance of charging and fuelling infrastructure for zero-emission vehicles.

“The Governor is talking about a billion-dollar investment in zero-emission vehicles, and I want to make sure that we look at hydrogen as well as electric. Investment in both technologies is critical toward a carbon-free future, but this infrastructure needs to be equally divided between hydrogen fueling stations and electric vehicle charging,” Quirk said.

“It’s extremely important that more of that money go for two things: one is making sure that there’s enough hydrogen for the stations we have already, and the second is to bring in new hydrogen stations.

“If we’re going to subsidize electric, which makes sense to me, we’ve got to subsidize hydrogen as well. I think it’s definitely something that we need for the future, hydrogen for vehicles. Everyone agrees hydrogen is the best option for heavy-duty, it’s a no-brainer, but I think it’s extremely important for light-duty too.”

Quirk wants California to pay more attention to hydrogen and the benefits it would bring to decarbonizing transportation.

“Electric cars are great for people who have a garage where they can charge it at night. I don’t think we’re going to have ubiquitous charging stations available, but if you don’t have your own garage, if you live in an apartment building, as I do myself, and you don’t have that infrastructure, then hydrogen is the preferred vehicle. I drive a hydrogen car. Once we get enough stations so that your nearest one is five or 10 minutes away – we’re not quite there right now, but that’s something I hope to change,” Quirk said.

“People think, ‘Oh, we have electricity everywhere,’ but as I said in the building where I live, they’d have to rewire it and get a new transformer to charge 200 cars at night. That’s also true if you’re talking about a cul-de-sac with eight homes. If all eight homes have electric, you’re going to need a new transformer and you’re going to need to manage when they charge.

“Whereas with hydrogen, if you just put one station nearby, it would not only serve that whole apartment building or cul-de-sac, but many more.

“Both of them [technologies] require a lot of infrastructure. Which one requires more? Which one should we emphasise? There isn’t the time to just sort of let things happen as they might.

“If we’re willing to put the money into the infrastructure to get it started, hydrogen will just be a lot more convenient for a lot of folks. Also, you don’t have the charging time that you do with electric and you’re much more likely to go on a long journey with a hydrogen FCEV than an electric car because you don’t have to stop every 200-300 miles, whatever it is, to get it charged for 30 minutes.”

Going back to the bigger picture and the whole reason for decarbonising transport – global warming – Quirk said hydrogen is essential.

“I prefer the term global warming, climate emergency or the climate crisis, climate change is just watered down, doesn’t sound as threatening. This is an emergency; it is a crisis in the world’s global warming. And that’s why we need hydrogen, I believe, as much as we need electric, for use in vehicles and for other things too like industrial use,” he told H2 View.

“I was talking with an expert on strategies to bring the cost of a fuel cell down to a price similar to a battery, so that they can be similar in price. It’s possible, but to do that, there’s a large investment needed and that’s what the state has to do. And I’m the evangelist, I’m the one talking to people about these opportunities and making sure we don’t lose them. There is clearly a bright future for hydrogen.”