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posted on April 13th, 2018

The states and countries embracing H2

Right now, there are thousands of cars on the road running on compressed hydrogen and emitting nothing but water vapor. Hydrogen fuel-cell cars can travel 300 miles on one tank, emit zero tailpipe pollutants, and are made by the likes of Honda and Toyota. But thanks to the limited availability of hydrogen filling stations, there are few places on earth you can actually drive one.

Currently, the Hyundai ix35, Honda Clarity, and Toyota Mirai are the only three mass-produced fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) available to consumers anywhere, with Hyundai scheduled to release a longer-range SUV next year. Japan was the first market to feature fuel-cell cars, and has seen a few thousand cumulative sales to date. There is a comparatively decent presence in Germany and a handful of other European countries, but no matter where you look, hydrogen is just barely getting started.

As electric vehicles have emerged as the dominant option for zero-emissions driving, little attention has been left for hydrogen. At the end of 2017, global sales of the three FCEV models reached a cumulative total of 6,500 units since the technology first became commercially available four years earlier. Almost 200,000 EVs were sold in the US during 2017 alone. Under the shadow of the EV, hydrogen’s popularity suffers from limited models available in limited markets at the mercy of a very limited filling station network.

United States

California is the only place in the US where FCEVs are sold or leased. This is largely because, of the 41 active hydrogen filling stations in the US, all but four are in the Golden State.

In California’s major population centers, driving a hydrogen car can be convenient enough — most filling stations are grouped in the Los Angeles area and the San Francisco Bay Area. Only a few ‘connector’ stations in places like Santa Barbara and Truckee allow for travel through and across the state today, but the hydrogen filling station network will experience robust development in the next few years.

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Hydrogen’s presence in California is the result of deliberate anti-pollution policies. In addition to providing FCEV buyers a $5,000 tax credit and HOV lane privileges, the landmark environmental bill AB 32 has set aside $136 million to date for constructing new filling stations in the state. Dozens of stations are currently in planning and construction phases and a target for over 80 Californian stations is set for 2020. Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai all thought this plenty enough effort to ship their FCEVs to California dealerships.

Development in the rest of the US is far slower, but a handful of stations are approved for New England and the New York metro area, with stations in Connecticut and Rhode Island connecting Boston to New York. Until the Northeast invests in the infrastructure, and until that infrastructure can support the market, California is the only place in the US a regular Joe can drive on hydrogen.

Japan

In the wake of 2011’s Fukushima earthquake, Japan has been aggressive and deliberate in its transition from nuclear and fossil fuels to hydrogen-sourced energy. The country has been investing heavily in hydrogen infrastructure because, besides the fact that two of the three commercially available FCEVs are made by Japanese manufacturers, hydrogen is a more efficient and cost-effective way to store large amounts of energy than batteries.

Japan became the first place for commercially-available FCEVs when the Toyota Mirai went on sale in 2014. Since then, Japan and California have split the bulk of global FCEV sales. There are over 90 active filling stations in Japan, and that figure should double in the next few years thanks to an investment push from a partnership involving Toyota, Honda, and Nissan.

Lawrence’s 2017 Toyota Mirai (Solana Beach, CA)

On the public side, Japan has earmarked ¥40 billion (US $330 million) for hydrogen investment. The government offers per-vehicle subsidies that figure to cut the costs of the Mirai, for example, by around a third. Japanese officials hope to boost FCEV sales to about 800,000 vehicles by 2030 — an incredibly lofty goal.

Japan is also using the 2020 Summer Olympics as an opportunity to bolster hydrogen’s adoption in the country. “The first Tokyo Olympics, 50 years ago, left a bullet-train system as a legacy,” Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe told the Wall Street Journal. “I want to leave a hydrogen society as a legacy for the next Tokyo Olympics.” Tokyo aims to create a primarily hydrogen-powered Olympic Village, complete with a hydrogen bus system and a strong network of filling stations.

Europe

Select European countries are also investing in hydrogen technology. Denmark boasts the world’s first nationwide filling station network (though only 10 stations are needed to connect the country, fewer than are currently operating in the Los Angeles area). Their investment is part of a Scandinavian partnership’s pledge to connect Norway, Denmark, and Sweden with a hydrogen-servicing highway system.

In total, Europe has about 130 open hydrogen fuel stations, 86 of which are public. France and the UK currently operate about a couple dozen each, but Germany leads the way with 45 active stations. Germany hopes to have 100 active stations by the end of 2018, and officials have committed to building an additional 400 by 2023 if consumers embrace the technology. And while sales figures for the current FCEV models in Europe are still minuscule, eight new automakers are expected to roll out their own hydrogen fuel-cell cars by 2021, presumably in anticipation of improved hydrogen availability around the globe.

Common thread

Hydrogen fuel-cell technology in personal vehicles faces an uphill battle. With dozens of attractive, affordable, and even high-performance models on the market, EVs are the emissions-free cars of the present — and they have the infrastructure to back it up. The US has over 16,000 public charging stations for electric vehicles, not to mention the millions of garages and parking spots where drivers can plug in overnight.

But questions about lithium-ion battery production still dog the EV’s lifetime cleanliness credibility, and hydrogen seems to be the next alternative. Through tax incentives, heavy investment, and close communication with private sector players, government officials in California, Japan, and parts of Northern and Western Europe are betting that is the case.

The cleanliness of FCEVs and the relative usability of the current three hydrogen fuel-cell models provide enough encouragement for forward-thinking countries to embrace the technology. Without these governments pursuing progressive policies in favor of renewable energy, hydrogen wouldn’t have gained even the small foothold it clings to today.

Though the future of the FCEV looks carefully optimistic, the options for hydrogen fuel-cell today are few. As more hydrogen-powered models are released and the filling station network expands, it’s up to drivers to decide if hydrogen lives or dies.

Steven is an avid car guy and content specialist at Turo. Between Golden State Warriors games he can be found getting lost somewhere in California.