As part of a broader shift toward clean energy, Washington state is establishing infrastructure for electric vehicles in key sections of the state. However, some argue that Washington has the potential to lead the West Coast in establishing similar infrastructure for hydrogen cars. Although relatively few in number, proponents say that the technology’s faster recharge times coupled with Washington’s current hydrogen production could make for a winning combination.
“We can be the first real region in the world that doesn’t take the dichotomist either/or approach of battery/electric or fuel cells,” Jacob Leachman, Ph.D. told legislators at a Feb. 6 work session of the Senate Transportation Committee. Leachman is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Washington State University.
He added that “we can be smart now and let both of those paths basically be demonstrated and say ‘How can we build this out in a smart way that marriages the two technologies for the optimal benefit for our region,’ because our region will really benefit the most that way.”
As of this year, there are only 6,200 hydrogen cars in the U.S., with models manufactured by companies such as Toyota. In comparison, there are roughly 25,000 electric cars in Washington state alone, and a 2015 goal set by Governor Jay Inslee would have 50,000 registered electric vehicles by 2020.
Hydrogen cars have a driving range of around 300 miles, about the same as the Tesla Model X. One advantage these vehicles have over electric-powered cars is their ability to recharge roughly 40 times faster. According to Leachman, fully recharging hydrogen cars takes about 3-5 minutes, while the DC fast charger for some electric vehicles takes 20-30 minutes to reach 80 percent. The difference is important if the desire is to have “the vehicle on the road all the time,” Leachman said.
Another advantage as an electrofuel is that the hydrogen doesn’t require rare or non-renewable materials to transfer the energy.
Though Washington has no hydrogen vehicle plan, Leachman argues that Washington is ideally suited for rolling out the necessary infrastructure.
One factor cited is that in-state hydrogen production places Washington among the top 10 in the nation. Currently, the state generates 330,00 kilograms daily, enough to recharge 66,100 hydrogen vehicles. Although 94 percent is produced by natural gas, Leachman said even if that hydrogen was used in cars, it would use half the greenhouse gases compared to burning them as fossil fuel. A 2008 state Department of Ecology study also noted that Washington’s “wide range of renewable electricity resources” could be used to produce hydrogen through electrolysis.
Leachman also points to existing in-state hydrogen vehicle production. In 2012, Bingen-based Insitu launched its first ScanEagle unmanned aircraft system powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Plug Power headquartered in Spokane Valley has already shipped out 25,000 hydrogen vehicles, while last year Renton-based Kenworth unveiled its hydrogen-powered T680 and is working on a tractor trailer, while its parent company PACCAR showed off three new hydrogen vehicles at a January show in Las Vegas.
However, there are several hurdles the state might have to overcome if it wants to make Washington viable for hydrogen vehicle drivers, Leachman said. One of them is public perception regarding vehicle safety. Another could be the debate over its status as a clean-energy vehicle because it relies on natural gas-generated hydrogen.
Also, the high cost of charging station costs ($2-4 million) might also make state lawmakers wary of investing in the technology, particularly without an existing statewide hydrogen plan. However, in 2014 WSU won a hydrogen student design competition at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo for designing a recharging station that, based on actual quotes, would cost only $500,000.
Leachman recommended that the state work alongside groups such as the CleanTech Alliance on an economic analysis so that charging stations aren’t built too far in advance of demand while also ensuring the clean energy produced isn’t underutilized.
If nothing else, hydrogen vehicles have already gained the confidence of automotive executives. In a recent KPMG survey of 1,000 senior executives, 78 percent said that “fuel cell hydrogen vehicles will be the future.”