Business & Real Estate

Energy Commission will fund new hydrogen fueling stations in California

California’s long-talked-about “Hydrogen Highway” has received a major commitment to help it take shape.

The Sacramento-based California Energy Commission says it will invest $46.6 million to accelerate the development of public hydrogen fueling stations throughout California to promote a consumer market for zero-emission fuel-cell vehicles, which could be widely available as early as next year.

The money is designated to go to eight manufacturing/engineering applicants through the CEC’s Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program.

The plan calls for 13 new fueling sites in Northern California and 15 in Southern California, all strategically located along major corridors and in regional centers. Northern California jurisdictions cited by the CEC include Palo Alto, Campbell, Hayward, Mill Valley, San Jose, South San Francisco, Oakland, Woodside, San Ramon and Truckee.

CEC officials said the awards will help the state meet Gov. Jerry Brown’s previously announced goal of zero-emission infrastructure capable of supporting up to 1 million vehicles by 2020.

The planned 28 additions would quadruple the current infrastructure of nine hydrogen fueling stations statewide. Another 17 are under development.

Another $1 million award was designated for a mobile refueler to provide refueling capability when hydrogen stations are offline.

“Transitioning to low- and zero-emission vehicles is critical to meeting air-quality goals and to reducing the emissions that lead to climate change,” CEC Commissioner Janea Scott said. “With this funding, California will accelerate the construction of a reliable and affordable refueling infrastructure to support the commercial market launch of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.”

Approved in 2004 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hydrogen Highway concept envisioned construction of an extensive network of hydrogen filling stations intended to improve California’s air quality, enhance its reputation as a leader in national environmental policy and reduce oil imports. The proposal lagged during the recession years and amid automakers’ emphasis on building hybrids, full-electric vehicles and plug-ins.

Recently, however, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles have regained some traction.

Toyota, the world’s No. 1 automaker, is ramping up its fuel-cell vehicle concept with an eye on launching it in 2015. FCVs are also being developed by such automakers as Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz.

Last year in California, Brown signed Assembly Bill 8 into law. It extends, until Jan. 1, 2024, existing fees on motor vehicles, boat registrations and new tires. The fees fund programs to accelerate the turnover of older vehicles and development of technologies that create less pollution. Officials at the West Sacramento-based California Fuel Cell Partnership applauded the measure at the time, saying it provided funding for “at least 100 hydrogen stations” with a commitment of up to $20 million a year from the CEC’s Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program.

In 2012, a report by the local partnership report recommended 68 hydrogen fueling stations to launch the commercial market and at least 100 stations to sustain it.

Hydrogen has long been viewed by advocates and environmentalists as an attractive option because it can easily be pumped into a vehicle tank, with the bonus of no emissions of greenhouse gases or smog-forming pollutants. In a fuel-cell vehicle, hydrogen combines with oxygen, yielding a current that drives an electric motor. The tailpipe spews nothing but water vapor and heat. Supporters add that hydrogen can be produced in abundance by American companies and is not subject to the kind of price volatility seen in oil markets.