This miracle fuel has a few problems


In the space of an hour on a recent evening, a couple dozen cars refilled their gas tanks at a Valero service station just off the Redwood Highway in Mill Valley, a northbound stop on the way into California’s Marin County. During that time, the only pumping station that sat mostly unused was the cobalt blue one supplying hydrogen fuel. The hydrogen pump received only three visitors: two of the 3,800 hydrogen-powered sedans on California’s roads, each looking for a quick fill-up, and one old station wagon that parked there for a few minutes. An attendant who’s worked at the Valero for three years says that’s a pretty busy day for the hydrogen pump, which usually fuels one car per hour.

That’s not much of a return on the roughly $100 million California has spent over the past several years to build fueling stations for hydrogen vehicles. Each of the 31 hydrogen pumps around the state cost at least $2.5 million and was heavily subsidized with funds from the public and from Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., and other automakers. Demand, however, remains so low that even with subsidies, they aren’t busy enough to turn a profit. (A typical fill-up costs customers about $45, but that’s heavily subsidized, and most lessors cover fuel costs.)

At Governor Jerry Brown’s direction, the state is spending more than $2.5 billion in clean energy funds to accelerate sales of hydrogen and battery vehicles. That includes $900 million earmarked to complete 200 hydrogen stations and 250,000 charging stations by 2025. A larger hydrogen network will help make the market more sustainable, the thinking goes—part of a kitchen sink approach to reducing carbon emissions alongside electric cars. Brown’s office referred requests for comment to the California Energy Commission, which said in a statement that the governor aims to have 5 million zero-emission vehicles on state roads by 2030, and that hydrogen is a part of that calculus.