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UC Davis researchers suggest we may be at the beginning of a real hydrogen transition in transportation

Researchers at the Institute of Transportation Studies University of California, Davis suggest that a number of positive trends indicate that we may be seeing the beginning of a real hydrogen transition in transportation, despite earlier starts that fizzled.

This is far from certain, they acknowledge in a new NextSTEPS whitepaper, as hydrogen faces a range of challenges, from economic to societal, before it can be implemented as a large-scale transportation fuel. Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are technically ready; what is still to be determined is the required confidence in hydrogen’s future for investors, fuel suppliers, automakers and consumers, they suggest. However, they note, “the trends are encouraging and the hydrogen enterprise has never been more serious and focused. The next three to four years will be critical for determining whether hydrogen vehicles are just a few years behind electric vehicles, rather than decades.

NextSTEPS is a four-year (2011-2014) multidisciplinary research consortium, part of the Institute of Transportation Studies University of California, Davis. STEPS research includes four interdisciplinary energy pathways—hydrogen, biofuels, electricity, and fossil fuels—and eight cross-comparative areas—consumer demand and behavior; infrastructure system analysis; energy, environment, and cost analysis; innovation and business strategy; vehicle technology evaluation; integrative scenarios; policy analysis, and; mobility and travel behavior.

… in the past few years important factors have emerged that are re-accelerating the commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

The next two to three years will see concerted efforts to introduce hundreds of hydrogen stations capable of supporting the introduction of tens of thousands of FCVs in selected regions worldwide, backed by several hundred million dollars in public investment and billions of dollars in private investment. If these regional rollouts succeed, hydrogen FCVs might be just a few years behind plug-in vehicles in the commercialization process and might ultimately capture a larger share of the light-duty vehicle market.

—“The Hydrogen Transition”

Driving factors. Key to realizing the potential role for hydrogen in transportation is automakers’ continuing commitment to hydrogen FCVs as a necessary complement to plug-in electric vehicles and a critical component of their long-term strategy to provide vehicles that contribute to energy and climate policy goals.

In many respects, hydrogen FCVs could offer features that are similar to today’s gasoline cars and are more challenging to achieve in battery-powered vehicles, including good performance, large vehicle size, refueling time of 3-5 minutes and a range of 300-400 miles. In other words, hydrogen FCVs could enable zero tailpipe emissions and significantly lower life-cycle emissions without compromising consumer expectations.

—“The Hydrogen Transition”

Hydrogen fueling infrastructure has been a major challenge. Recently, regional public-private partnerships have developed comprehensive strategies for coordinating early hydrogen infrastructure development with FCV rollouts in North America, Europe and Asia. These partnerships are bringing key stakeholders together. A few regions (notably California, Japan and Germany) have committed significant funds to support the next crucial steps forward on infrastructure build-out.

Worldwide,the UC Davis team notes, public funding for RD&D and policies supporting hydrogen is trending upwards (with the notable exception of the United States where federal support has fallen by about 60% from its peak in 2008, although states have moved to support hydrogen). Global public support now totals about $1 billion per year, leveraging many times that amount in private funds.

Low-cost shale gas has improved the prospects for natural gas-derived hydrogen, especially in the United States, where it is a major force in the resurgence of federal interest in hydrogen energy. And while natural gas-derived hydrogen does produce greenhouse gas emissions, these emissions are less than half those of a conventional gasoline vehicle, due to the greater efficiency of the fuel cell.

Several methods of producing hydrogen, including from renewable sources, provide the potential for even greater benefits.

Additionally, they note, hydrogen is being widely discussed as a flexible energy carrier for integrating intermittent renewables like solar and wind into the energy system. For example, power grids in Europe and North America are incorporating ever more intermittent renewables (especially wind power), which are not coincident with demand, creating significant amounts of excess generation and driving a growing interest in energy storage. Hydrogen’s potential advantage compared to other electricity storage technologies like batteries, compressed air and pumped hydro is its flexibility, enabling concepts like power to gas, seasonal storage as a means of better controlling the grid, and using off-peak power to make hydrogen transport fuel.

Transition issues. Primary issues to be addressed are: how to spur vehicle sales, how to coordinate the rollout of hydrogen infrastructure as vehicles arrive, how to build investor confidence in the market and how to reduce the early financial risks for fuel suppliers and automakers.

UC Davis researchers have examined both near-term and long-term transition issues, including managing the early introduction of hydrogen vehicles and associated infrastructure, and accomplishing a longer term transition to low carbon sources for hydrogen such as renewables and hydrocarbons with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

Their results indicate that it would be technically feasible to build out a hydrogen infrastructure coordinated with vehicle rollouts in a series of lighthouse cities. They find that perhaps 50,000 FCVs in a given region (e.g. Southern California) with 100 stations would be enough to bring hydrogen costs to competitiveness with gasoline on a cost per-mile basis. The station investment cost would be $100-$200 million.

Public funding. Early and durable public policy will be needed to launch hydrogen infrastructure, the team posits. Their calculations suggest that regional hydrogen infrastructure investments totaling $100-$200 million spent over perhaps 5-7 years in support of 100 stations could launch a cost-competitive regional hydrogen supply. It appears that this is poised to happen in at least three places in the world: California, Germany and Japan.

We seem to be tantalizingly close to the beginning of a hydrogen transition. But energy decision-makers have heard this before. Is it different this time? We believe it may be.

… The stalling point has been that the funding required to launch hydrogen infrastructure is more than the usual amount for R&D projects, though vastly less than for current expenditures on the energy system. The risks involved in getting through the “valley of death” have daunted investors. The long-term rate of return (and societal benefits) are potentially attractive, but the path is not certain. How to get across the valley of death? The first-mover disincentive has made it tougher to get private investment. Not surprisingly, some potential infrastructure investors want to wait until the FCV market is more secure and they could build large, fully utilized stations with confidence.

… If these regional rollouts are successful, hydrogen FCVs may be just a few years behind plug-in electric vehicle, not decades. It appears that these efforts may jumpstart the hydrogen economy at last.




I don't see it.
All the pressure is top down.
If you want zero tailpipe emissions, you can go electric, and you can recharge in lots of places.

I suppose the question is - which will come first, h2 infrastructure or a "better battery".

IN the meantime, you can just use more efficient ICEs or hybrids of whatever flavor you fancy.



Many thanks for a great precis and write up, very unlike the dogs breakfast on offer elsewhere on the web.

There are several other areas where steps are being taken to build a hydrogen hub as well as the three emphasised in the report:
South Korea, the UK, Scandinavia,are also building out and now France is in the process of defining legislation.


Ok everybody, now you can recycle all your arguments from a couple of days ago;


Fuel cells are so early 19th century technology (1838 to be exact - ). Talk about a technology that has taken a long time to mature.

Seriously, the real problems are with generating and storing hydrogen. Probably, the only practical clean source of hydrogen is high temperature disassociation or high temperature electrolysis using nuclear power and even then you are probably better off just using the electric power for other needs.


DME makes more sense, you can make it from biomass and run it in diesel hybrids that get 70 mpg.

Bob Tasa

Everyone is so worried about generating Hydrogen? Why not use night time electricity to make your own.
Is that so hard to imagine? Or solar to do electrolysis?
This concern about where the hydrogen comes from seems odd when no one worries about how lithium mines get there ore for the batteries which have a lot more hurdles to recharging than creating a home hydrogen maker.
By the way I am not totally convinced any of this is real but just saying if it is then I am all for it. How much does it cost for the fuel cell? No one has mentioned if they have finally fixed the cost curve on that. Or are they making ICE engines that can run on hydrogen?

Roger Pham

Per the following link, H2 can be produced for $3-4 / kg from wind via electrolysis.

The petroleum refiners have been able to store vast quantity of H2 in underground empty salt caverns and transport it via pipelines, so there is no problem there. Depleted oil and gas wells would offer another location to store H2. It takes a lot of H2 to refine petroleum. Why not just use the H2 instead?

@Bob Tasa,
Fuel cells for automotive now costs around $78/kW, and will be at $50/kW with mass production. IC engines are not efficient enough for H2 due to the limited quantity on board. FC has 3x the typical efficiency of ICE at cruise. Plus, the IC Engine has NOx emission problem so is not ZEV-capable.

Roger Pham

H2 is not just for transportation use but also for stationary applications like combined heat and power generation for winter use, and for backing up the Renewable Energy grid when battery grid storage is depleted. Expanding FC and H2 use in vehicles will make it cheaper for domestic H2 use and will enable 100% RE penetration.

Currently battery is heavy, takes a long time to charge, and costs a lot. This may change but so will H2-FC to get much cheaper and can be filled up rapidly. Fast charging BEV requires a lot of power, generates a lot of heat and increases fire and explosion risk, and will shorten the life of the battery. For energy and economic security, we need to move away from fossil fuels, hence phasing out ICEV's.


Here is a UC Irvine study that says A BEV is 250% more efficient than a FCV. End of argument... Elon is right FCVs are B.B.


Here is a UC Irvine study that says A BEV is 250% more efficient than a FCV. End of argument... Elon is right FCVs are B.S.


$100-200 million over 50,000 vehicles is $2000-$4000 per vehicle infrastructure cost.  That is just to get down to similar per-mile fuel cost.  How the H2 would be generated is not stated in this writeup (I don't have time to dig through the original).

Home chargers for EVs are now in the $400-$600 range.  Figure 1 Tesla Supercharger @ $150k per 500 vehicles adds another $300, for a total of $700-$900 total infrastructure cost per vehicle.  This is likely to fall.

I know Roger is into the seasonal storage aspect, but so far even Germany isn't doing that.  Germany is putting H2 into its natural gas grid, with a project or two to methanate it to make motor fuel.  This is the fuel equivalent of vaporware.  Meanwhile, EVs do work in the real world.


No it doesn't say that a BEV is 250% more efficient that a FCEV.
That is your gloss, do try at least to be a little fair.

You got that figure by looking at just one part of a chart and ignoring the rest.

What it shows is that if you happen to be a nightworker in the tropics then BEVs are more efficient so that you are only driving when the sun shines and can use pv direct to the battery.

Big deal.


With 60% electrolysis and 50% fuel cell, you have a 30% battery. Compare that with 70% NiMH and 90% lithium Ion. That makes H2 a REAL inefficient battery.


"than" not "that."

OK! it's not exactly 250%; it's 2-1/2 times more efficient. It's all in how you read the chart and as anytime you read studies, the assumptions of the study. Anyway .5 times more efficient is good enough for me not to support oil company created hydrogen, their ongoing control of the fuels market and the propaganda from closet stakeholders, like the good professor here.

Your scenario doesn't make sense. The use of a storage device is implied when using a direct charging solar array.

If you like hydrogen, have at it; but, be careful, old sport; don't blow yourself up.


Hydrogen makes sense for middle-class (family income $100k+) commuters, home-owners (most important demographic to start industry) because it provides for:
- large and heavy vehicles in $40k+ range with 400+ miles and wide range of utility, sedan or p-up configs
- home refueling, provided by gas, wind, or sun
Less important:
- saving the earth
- available on cars less than $20k
- fueling infrastructure in-city in commute area
- fueling price less than current gas
Who knows?
- easy for individuals or station franchises to set-up along I-states?
- easy for homeowners to set -up co-generation system for home refueling

Roger Pham

Have you considered that the energy cost per mile for BEV and FCEV may be comparable? First of all, the relative efficiencies of BEV vs FCEV is 2:1, not 2.5:1. The Honda FCX Clarity travels 270 miles on 4 kg of H2, or 67 mi/ kg. At 50 kWh/ kg,, 50/67 = .74 kWh/ mi. Adding energy required for compression will bring this up to 0.8 kWh/ mi, vs 0.4 kWh/ mi for BEV.

Now, if you use 12 c / kWh grid electricity for BEV vs. 4 c / kWh PPA from solar and wind farms dedicated to the H2 stations for FCEV, then, you can see that the energy cost per mile are comparable.
Now, you say that you will charge your BEV from the same solar and wind farms dedicated to the H2 stations? Sorry, you can't do that! That price is reserved only for power purchaser in bulk.
What about having your own solar panels and store the day time solar in batteries for charging your BEV? The home based battery used to store your solar energy will cost additionally 4-8 c per kWh in addition to the amortized cost of electricity from your own PV panels of around 7-10 c per kWh.. ..realize that home PV installation costs a lot more than utility-scale installation!!!.11-18 cents per kWh for your BEV...Who is paying more for energy now?

Those saying that FCEV is B.S. have not been keeping up and have not done the math!

Roger, your post cherry-picks the cost of production of hydrogen, and leaves out the costs of distributing, compressing (not insignificant) and retail sales and profit at each stage. They are also in 2005 dollars. So here's the numbers the study you cite actually estimate:

Costs in the low wind cost case range from $2.83/kg to $7.83/kg. In the current wind cost case, they range from $3.72/kg to $12.16/kg. All costs are presented in 2005 dollars (2005$)

In the recent Davis study, "The Hydrogen Transition" referenced in the original post above, these researchers start out with a target of $10 per kg, gradually working down as volume increases.

H2 Fuel cost per mile
$0.13/mile at $8/kg H2
$0.08/mile at $5/kg H2 (more than 12 years out!)

The report points out that Battery Electrics are currently
$0.04/mile at $0.12/kWh

Some regions currently have off peak EV rates as low as $0.06 kWh
Lower solar panel and install costs could push rates under $0.12/kWh

So BEVS are currently 1/4 to 1/2 the cost of operating a FCV some 12+ years from now.

The study says very plainly:

Hydrogen has, at least initially, higher private (i.e. consumer) costs associated with fuel cell vehicles and fuel and therefore some level of government incentives is likely to be needed to overcome the high initial prices and bring vehicles and fuels down the learning curve and experience economies of scale in vehicle and fuel production.

Let's not kid ourselves. No one is going to be saving money operating a FCV.

Roger Pham

The H2 will be made right at the station, so no distribution cost, using high-pressure electrolyzers that is extremely efficient at compressing the H2. Better yet, the stations will be subsidized by the govt so very little amortization cost...only the raw energy cost at ~$2 /kg plus profit really...Get the lobbyist working hard in Capitol Hill and put a bunch of H2 stations in each Congressional district!!!

So, adding profit to bring the cost of a kg of subsidized H2 to $2.50/kg that can travel 67 miles..cost per mile is $0.037. Beat ya again!!!

Nick Lyons

@Roger: "...stations will be subsidized..."

Nothing is free--you need to account for all the dollars coming out of all the pockets if you want to make a fair comparison.

the stations will be subsidized by the govt so very little amortization cost

In other words, the cost of the hydrogen network is transferred to the taxpayer.

This is another way of saying "we can't afford it".


Dirty Oil, NG, Coal and Nuclear industries have been and are still being heavily (directly and indirectly) subsidized at the rate of many $$B/year.

Why couldn't clean energy industries such as H2, Solar, Wind, batteries, EVs etc be subsidized too?

Why can't we apply equivalent fair play?


Oil companies pay about 11% in income tax. The Calidornia Energy commission recently granted $9 million to grow sorghum for biofuels, which will create a $1 billion per year industry for the next 40 years. Just the income taxes from that grant will pay off in a short time. If the grant had not been made, the private sector would have not done it. The proof it that for decades they never DID do it.

Roger Pham

Good point, SJC and Harvey.
The initial subsidy is simply to permit some volume of production of retail H2 in order to allow production efficiency, in order to compete with established business of utility electricity and gasoline that already have over 100 years of head start. The funding required will be relatively small. BEV industry has also received some billions of funding and subsidy on each PEV sold.


And just where is drought-stricken California going to get the water to grow all this sorghum?


Sorghum takes half the water, half the fertilizer with TWICE the yield per acre. They can get 10 tones of dry cellulose in addition to 7000+ pounds of grain per acre with DDG as a final product.

The drought will not last forever, they are already installing drip irrigation in their orchards, which farmers should have done long ago. In fact they should never have planted orchards in much of the state to begin with. The California Water Authority told them not to plant orchards in the first place, but they would not listen.

Agriculture uses 85% of the water in California, they can easily get by with less and produce more if they use water more wisely. Abundance at low prices encourages waste, farmers in California are a prime example. The southwest central valley has saline soil from excessive irrigation evaporation over the years. Sorghum can grow in saline soils and recondition the land. It is annual, so they can rotate crops as well.

California used to grow 470,000 acres of sorghum in 1967, now grows less than 10,000 acres, but the number is increasing every year, thanks to contracts with ethanol producers. California produces less than 25% of the ethanol it uses, but the number can double in the next 10 years using sorghum. They grow the crop to feed livestock anyway, might was well get fuel out of it as well. LESS land less water, less fertilizer and less pesticides than corn for the same yield per acre.

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