Feds funnel money to CA hydrogen cars

Feds funnel money to CA hydrogen cars

2013_Toyota_FCV_CONCEPT_01, wikimediaThe hype surrounding electric cars is running out of gas — and the Department of Energy is directing funds toward hydrogen.

Nearly $7 million in federal financial support is headed to five California developers working on hydrogen fuel cells, which emit only water vapor as a byproduct. Foremost among the recipients are Ardica, in San Francisco; HRL Laboratories, in Malibu; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in the East Bay; Materia, in Pasadena; and the Livermore branch of Sandia National Laboratories.

In a press release, the DOE calls the fuel cell effort “critical to the widespread commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.” 

Hydrogen technology remains limited in its applications to automobiles, as a result of its weight, size, cost and range constraints. Nevertheless, hydrogen fuel cells are back in vogue after being eclipsed by the trend in favor of electric vehicles. 

In general, the market challenges facing electric cars are even more substantial than those surrounding fuel-cell vehicles. That’s the case even though electric cars have been on the market for more than a century. Multiple auto manufacturers have labored to broaden their appeal. Government funds have been used to incentive their use.

But whereas experts recently estimated 5 to 10 percent of the market would be penetrated by electric vehicles worldwide, today optimistic estimates don’t exceed 1 percent, according to an investors’ report by Morgan Stanley Research cited by the Los Angeles Times.

No easy solutions

As supporters and critics of electric cars both know, the vehicles suffer from a short range augmented only by repeated fuel-ups at relatively rare recharge stations. Perhaps even more important, electric vehicles have failed to meet the performance and aesthetic expectations of most American consumers. Although sales are rising, they’re still so low that manufacturers and dealerships are cooling to the cars. Time magazine reports that a combination of high production costs and relatively low gasoline costs are souring analysts, dealers and customers on electric vehicles.

For automakers, that raises the stakes when it comes to hydrogen cells. Toyota, for instance, is staking a fuel-cell push on California’s so-called hydrogen highway — an undertaking began under then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that’s on track to cost the Golden State some $150 million.

Toyota’s turn to hydrogen is part of a swift pivot away from electric. Its partnership with Tesla is being brought to an end, thanks to paltry consumer interest in an electric RAV4 model. There’s just one problem: the infrastructure for fuel cell cars is only part of the equation for hydrogen success. The other part is the hydrogen itself.

Pure hydrogen, it turns out, is hard to come by. “Despite being the most common element in the universe,” observes one report, “pure hydrogen is not particularly easy to come by on Earth. The most common method of producing hydrogen involves stripping it off hydrocarbons like methane and gasoline through a process called steam reforming. That doesn’t do much to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but other methods like bioreactors and water electrolysis are far from efficient enough for industrial scale production.”

A regulatory push

For alternative-energy skeptics, there’s a certain irony in environmental regulations pushing automakers toward a solution that keeps American drivers fossil-fuel reliant. As PBS reports, solar or wind power could theoretically be used to produce hydrogen for fuel cells — but that’s not part of current technology.

It’s all enough to leave some asking why automakers would even bother. After all, environmentalists who favor electric vehicles are criticizing Toyota, Hyundai and others for working on hydrogen fuel cells at all. “Many of them even call the new technology a waste of time, requiring a whole new network of expensive fueling stations,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Fuel-cell cars, as a result, will jump into the market without a safety net.”

Car manufacturers are jumping in large part because they’re being pushed by state and federal initiatives. Along with seven partner states, California has pledged to ensure that 3.3 million electric or fuel cell vehicles are in use by 2025. That’s a stretch, not least because 15 percent of those cars are intended to be zero-emissions vehicles, and not just hybrids.

7 comments

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  1. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 5 June, 2014, 11:24

    Solyndra on wheels.

    Reply this comment
  2. Bud Led Ted S.
    Bud Led Ted S. 5 June, 2014, 22:09

    Poor Poodle— only gets his info from Fox News!

    Since mid-2010, the DOE has made conditional commitments for 18 loan guarantees in solar to 14 different companies, funding for projects and funding for manufacturing. The total sum of these conditional commitments is $15.585 billion. Solyndra’s loan guarantee was $535 million — or 3.4 percent of the DOE’s solar portfolio.

    That number warrants repeating: 3.4 percent.

    And Solyndra’s $535 million is less than 2 percent of the total loan guarantee program.

    The next time the argument is made that Solyndra’s ill-judged loan guarantee guts the DOE and our government — feel free to fire back with this figure. Or compare that number to the amount that China is pouring into its solar and renewable energy industry.

    It’s a portfolio approach from the DOE — and that’s a sound way of doing business which accounts for some failures.

    The DOE loan guarantees go to risky endeavors such as Solyndra or SoloPower. But they also go to less risky utility-scale solar projects using solar technologies ranging from low-cost and proven photovoltaic panels to solar thermal.

    Kann observed, “The Loan Guarantee program has been crucial both in enabling the largest solar projects currently in development and in supporting domestic solar manufacturing. Beyond this, the program is a particularly effective policy tool because it enables the government to leverage a relatively small public investment to mobilize a much larger private sector commitment. An expansion of the program would enable an entire group of large solar projects to move forward that have recently been called into question without the possibility of a loan guarantee.”

    Despite the assault of free-market, smaller-government advocates, the question remains: absent subsidies and lower-cost capital sources, how do you kick start an emerging industry like solar or biofuels that is confronted by the decidedly non-free-market incumbents of coal, oil and gas? We can either remove oil and gas subsidies or give these emerging technologies a helping hand.

    Reply this comment
  3. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 5 June, 2014, 23:24

    Nice “copy and paste” job.

    Do you ever use your own brain to post your own thoughts? Nope, just “copy and paste”.

    Reply this comment
  4. Bill Gore
    Bill Gore 7 June, 2014, 07:25

    If an emerging technology has legs, it will learn to walk and then run on its own. Central planning serves only to misallocate capital, over and over. Unfortunately, we have cultural bias towards ‘expertise’ and complexity, and governments, whether the USSR or the USSA, have long sought to cloak themselves in the guise of ‘benevolent expertise’-e.g. the vast human killing machine known as the United States federal government tries to show a more humane side as in ‘making the world a better place’…

    Small picture problem #1: Hydrogen is the lightest element, it is extremely reactive and corrosive, very hard to safely compress and contain, VERY explosive. The sun, for example, is a hydrogen fusion furnace. You do NOT want to be in a freeway accident in a hydrogen vehicle.Really.

    Big picture problem #2: These grants for the development of hydrogen vehicles speak more to an atavistic, deep seated longing to keep the ‘happy motoring culture’ (Thanks to J.H.Kunstler) alive. We are living in ‘dream time’: enormously fat people waddle out to their white escalade and glide on over to the mall, or knotts berry farm, where they buy good tasting garbage food with plastic money earned by ‘working’ sitting on their ass…..Humanity has never had it so good. This dream time is rapidly ending and it is really freaking us out subconciously. Peak oil was in 2005, shale notwithstanding, and it really is going to be back to the farm for most of us. Think dirt, pigs, corn, cows. Lots and lots of all day physical work. Horses. Waddlers will probably die if they cannot adapt.

    Reply this comment
  5. Bud Led Ted S.
    Bud Led Ted S. 7 June, 2014, 08:00

    Big oil slave doomers HATE alternative fuels!

    Reply this comment
  6. fiftyville
    fiftyville 7 June, 2014, 21:16

    Why aren’t there any CNG hybrids out there? We are literally awash in natural gas. Much cleaner burning, MUCH less engine wear and longer lasting oil. If there was a CNG hybrid small pickup available, I’d buy one tomorrow.

    Reply this comment

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