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ARB Chairman Characterizes Ideological Debate Between Hydrogen and Batteries as “Madness”

California Air Resources Board (ARB) Chairman Mary Nichols characterized the sometimes contentious, ideological debate between those who advocate for hydrogen fuel cells and those who advocate for batteries as the ultimate enabler of low-carbon transportation as “madness” from the point of view of a regulator.

Chairman Nichols made the comment during a keynote at the third annual UC Berkeley Energy Symposium, presented by the Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative (BERC), that focused on policy and legislative activity in the context of California’s climate change efforts.

We need to be able to find ways to set goals that are ambitious and keep ourselves moving forward towards those prizes...the kinds of things that politicians who get elected for two- or four-year terms can boldly announce and have their blueprints for. At the same time we have to recognize that science and other things can sometimes get in the way of implementing those big goals in exactly the way that we initially planned, and that when we try to get too prescriptive about how to do it, or to come down on the side of favoring one particular technology over another, in the regulatory world, we end up in the midst of pitched battles between engineers that do nothing to advance the cause.

There is one thing that has really frustrated me in the last couple of has been the ideological, I would almost say theological, debate between the people who think that hydrogen fuel cells are the answer and the people who think that only battery electric vehicles are the answer. Each of them do their best to trash the credibility, viability and good faith of the other side.

It may be that we feel a need as humans to be passionate about our particular solutions to whatever the technology is, but from the point of view of a regulator, this is madness.

We know that we need both. We have to have a climate in which we can be moving forward at the same time with more than one technology, and still have progress on all of these fronts.

Responding to a question as to exactly why she saw a need for both, Nichols said that on the battery side, there still wasn’s a battery with sufficient capacity capable of taking a vehicle without pause the same kind of distances that people are used to being able to travel. There also is not, she added, a battery which is usable for some of the long-range heavy duty applications of hauling goods around in trucks and other kinds of vehicles. And third, she pointed out, “not every state is California” when it comes to the carbon footprint of power generation. “Recharging a battery is a much cleaner operation here than in Illinois.” At the same time, she added, there are issues with hydrogen and fuel cells.

I would argue that at the end of the day, in this country, we are going to need a mix of types of vehicles, that we will have battery electric, we will have advanced hybrids and we will have fuel cell vehicles all operating successfully in different places within the next 20 years or so, and that that’s a good thing.



“madness” !!!! WTF
Mary Nichols is a clueless lawyer.
CARB is one of the reasons the Hydrogen hoax has persisted so long.


Chairman Nichols annoys me too.

It's the energy cost of creating H2 that I find most objectionable. Even if hydrogenesis in bacteria becomes much better operationalized, and renewable hydrogen doubles in its energy conversion efficiency from the base energy source, I still expect it to be far less efficient than other energy chains from well to wheels.

Further, if one assumes fuel cells will come down 2 orders of magnitude in upfront cost, and if one believes fuel cells' superior conversion efficiency compared to ICE-Hybrids makes them attractive in the long term, then H2 is still a much more problematic fuel than wet bioethanol or wet biobutanol reacted in a solid oxide fuel cell. Wet alcohols require less distilation, thus improving their EROIE.

SOFC can run on a range of hydrocarbon fuels at high pick your best EROIE and if it is a biofuel, the net CO2 emissions shouldn't be too bad.

john mcavoy

Don't blame lawyers. I am a lawyer but realize that this poor woman is in way over her head. Batteries are now, H2 is Buck Rogers dreaming. With limited $ and urgent priorities, batteries are the NOW answer. For those rare days/users requiring 100+ mile range, optional back up generators running on renewable fuels ala Volt are doable today or use the second car or rent one.

Kit P

That's right Mary, you California loons need to stick together.

The electricity and hydrogen is going to come from where?

Stephen Gloor

I would have been completely on the side of battery electric cars and have participated in debates on hydrogen electric cars promoting BEVs over FCV.
However of all things the episode of Top Gear that featured the Clarity FCV and the Tesla convinced me that the user experience of a FCV is a VERY powerful plus for FCVs. The ability to pull up to a familiar petrol station and fill up with hydrogen exactly as you used to with petrol I think will tip the scales in favour of FCVs even though they are less efficient. As the Top Gear people represent the attitudes of the average car drivera pretty well and their overwhelming support for the UE of the Clarity convinced me that we have a much better chance of getting FCVs over the line to acceptance than battery electric vehicles.

After all FCVs, as long as the hydrogen comes from renewable sources, are better than IC cars. Also as a renewable energy proponent I could really use large stocks of hydrogen to fuel peaking generators when natural gas becomes scarce. Renewable energy needs peaking power as much as nuclear. Also FCVs will act as small generators in a Vehicle to Grid network.

So I have changed my position and would now support a rollout of FCVs along with BEVs for people that accept and are prepared to work around their operating parameters. Possibly the ideal vehicle is a plug in fuel cell vehicle. Operate on batteries for commuting however you can still pull in and get a tank of hydrogen for long trips.



"'pitched battles' between engineers" is how we make fact based decisions,

"science and other things can sometimes get in the way of implementing those big goals in exactly the way that we initially planned," I should hope so.

"moving forward towards those prizes...the kinds of things that politicians who get elected for two- or four-year terms can boldly announce and have their blueprints for."
Holy Sheet. Sit down Mary, your giving lawyers a bad name.


I would question two factors that you are basing your decision to support FCV's on:
1) You're assuming that people can "pull up to a petrol station and fill up with hydrogen exactly as you used to with petrol". That seems to be a very big assumption as nobody has shown any remotely feasible way to produce, ship, store and otherwise create a hydrogen infrastructure to make this possible. Certainly not for any reasonable price, any time in the near or even medium term. Maybe in 15-20 years...but where will batteries be by then?

2) There are a number of battery technologies that let you do a rapid charge in approx 10 minutes...and they exist now. What is the difference if you pull up and plug in a "hose" and it pours in gas/diesel/hydrogen/whatever or if you plug in a cord and it fills up with electricity? There are plenty of affordable rapid charging 480V tri-phase chargers that can be bought for $50K today. That is nothing for a gas station.

The battery tech is probably 5 years away from producing a 250 mile range for a reasonably affordable price/size/life-span/etc. Batteries improve about 6-8% every year and they already provide most of these characteristics, just at too high of a cost today. But in 5 years? Who knows.

Where will hydrogen be in 5 years? In 10 years? Probably only in the three Honda Clarity's they give to Ed Bagley Jr., Susan Sarandon, and Cameron Diaz. LOL Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Seriously, why does everyone care? Some because it really does turn into a religious debate, on both sides. But other's are frustrated legitimately because politicians and big corporations suck up much needed money to fund their pet projects. If the market shows taht hydrogen is better, so be it. But stop passing rules inside of CARB and other regulatory bodies that favor one type of technology over another.

Why did CARB have rules that only gave tax breaks to vehicles that "could be filled up in less than 10 minutes"? That was a clear way to disadvantage BEV's pushed for by hydrogen lobbyist. Now that batteries can do rapid charging, that rule seems to be ignored. LOL You want to know why we all resent hydrogen? That is a damn good example.


I think technical people resent hydrogen because it seems so problematic (to them) in terms of implementation.

I think its 'madness' that someone in the role of a regulator cannot make herself familiar with basic technical challenges of the two strategies. She's doing this politically correct approach in that both choices have equal validation. OK, then what about rainbows that come out of a unicorn's horn? Can we power vehicles with them too? Why not give them an equal say? I'm sure the technology will come around at some point....

At some point, someone in her position has to DECIDE based on merits that are understood by her. She doesn't seem to understand that.


She's seems to ignore the role that PHEVs can play as well.

Stephen Gloor

DaveD - "1) You're assuming that people can "pull up to a petrol station and fill up with hydrogen exactly as you used to with petrol"."

In the video James May does just that. I don't know what sort of filling stations they have in California however it looked completely like a petrol station. I guess they will roll them out progressively.

"2) There are a number of battery technologies that let you do a rapid charge in approx 10 minutes...and they exist now. "

Yes however AltairNano has gone extremely quiet after losing the Pheonix battery contract. I am very worried that their promising technology had a few more bugs than they thought.

Look I completely agree about BEVS and I will have one as soon as I can buy one in Australia. However for the huge mass of drivers out there, like Top Gear viewers, a FCV will be less of a leap than an electric car.

I once had a discussion, on Clean Break, about this topic with a leading FCV proponent and I was arguing for BEVS over FCVs. It got down to the major advantage of the FCV was its user experience and that is all it had. I did not realise however, at that time, how overwhelming that user experience is until I watched Top Gear and then I got what the FCV people were talking about.

It is really Beta v VHS. The technically superior format Beta, lost over a better marketed system VHS. In this case like Beta video, which was used in all professional systems until digital, BEVS will be less common than FCVs because of the reality of the UE. I will have a BEV and probably so will you however the vast majority of car drivers will choose FCVs if given the chance.


Stephen, you made a very good point about user experience. However, I have to counter that user experience might not be enough of an incentive for an adoption of new technology. Look at the PC vs Apple computer war. I would characterize that Apple has so much more positive user experience, yet PC are much more pervasive. What kept the PC ahead of Apple may well keep BEV ahead of FCV: cost, and what I called non-proprietary manufacturability.

BEV are simple, and its operations are well known. It's easy to manufacture, easy to improve upon, and cheaper (battery is cheaper than fuelcell stack). Motor technology is not owned by anyone; electronic controllers are simple (relative to the system of hydrogen control and delivery). There are many many battery chemistries currently competing for market share, and a BEV doesnt have to be confined to any of them.

FC on the other hand is the domain of a few large companies, who will want royalties, and control of the technology (sounds like Apple?). Likewise for hydrogen production. Yes, electrolysis is easy, but no one will use it because it is not competitive. Other ways to produce hydrogen "cheaply" will certainly be proprietary, or complex and therefore expensive. Electricity for BEV, whereas, can be made in many many ways. It is already a commodity now, and therefore it is already cheaply available.

I dont know why you would want to visit a FCV fueling station when you never have to anymore. For long distant, even BEV will eventually get to the point where, if one had to, can swap battery or supper fast charge at any service station. But even before then, ICE and gasoline will still be around for that for that few and far in between long trips.

There will probably be a niche for FCV, but I havent heard of one argument that currently cannot be countered or bettered by BEVs'.



I doubt the user experience in 10-15 years when FCV hit some sort of price parity will involve liquids from hoses. It's much more likely to involve charging paddles like their cell phone on a larger scale and faster.

I don't think Beta and VHS are comparable to FCV and BEV...and to the extent they are, FCV sounds less cost-effective for the indefinite future, so it should lose.

David Ahlport

The laws of physics are biased against hydrogen

About the only real advantage it has is if the hydrogen came from gasified coal.
(Which would kinda defeat the purpose)

Stephen Gloor

occ - "Stephen, you made a very good point about user experience. However, I have to counter that user experience might not be enough of an incentive for an adoption of new technology."

I guess not however every day when I drive home I see Commodore driving bogons and wonder if they would ever buy an electric car. When I saw Top Gear and the prime representitives of these Commodore driving bogons gushing about the FCV it sort of started me thinking.

I honestly believe the user experience will trump the technical superiority and higher efficiency of the BEV. Again I could be completely wrong however it would not be the first time humans picked the wrong solution based on laziness and lack of imagination.

Translations for non-Australians:
Holden Commodore - very popular V6 or V8 car much favoured by bogons. (leads to the saying "you can take the bogon out of the Commodore but you cannot take the Commodore out of the bogon")

Bogon - redneck.


The real problem with automobiles has more to do with their overwhelming numbers than how they are powered.

Both battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technologies are an attempt to preserve the current paradigm of driving for all purposes. Both await a breakthrough that will allow a zero-emission driving range of 200 miles or so and the ability to recharge the batteries fast or refuel the hydrogen tanks. Thus, neither address the real problem - we drive too much, too far, for too many purposes, at too high cost and environmental impact.

The vehicle technology furthest toward the greater goal of reducing car-dependency and promoting the other modes of urban/suburban travel, (mass transit, walking and bicycling), is plug-in hybrid, obviously.

David Ahlport

Batteries can charge faster than hydrogen.

Of course it needs a high voltage charging station.

However that's not terribly different that requiring an extremely high pressure hydrogen refueling station. (over 10,000PSI)


And "range" thing for batteries is merely an issue of cost. That said when comparing a $100,000 car, and a $2 million dollar car, cost isn't really much of an argument to make.


One thing not mentioned often is the problem of H2 leakage. Current storage systems in cars will lose most of the H2 in a couple of weeks!! And who knows what increased concentrations of atmospheric H2 will do - all we now know is that it will increase water vapour concentration in the upper atmosphere and that's a bad news greenhouse gas. Maybe H2 will end up being banned.


I don't think that anyone is seriously proposing a FCV without any battery. The question is always about how the battery (or capacitor)is charged and how big the storage is.

The question is not FCV or PEV. The question is diesel/gas gen or FC to charge the electricity storage once it's running empty.

As on option to IC gensets the FC can be great. But you will never run a car on a FC alone.



DaveD - "1) You're assuming that people can "pull up to a petrol station and fill up with hydrogen exactly as you used to with petrol"."

In the video James May does just that. I don't know what sort of filling stations they have in California however it looked completely like a petrol station. I guess they will roll them out progressively.

The crux of the matter is these words 'I guess' that you start your last sentence with. That was DaveD's point. Filling it up with hydrogen seems a good user experience, until you see the coverage of hydrogen refilling stations. Having to drive, say, 10 miles to fill up your hydrogen car will quickly become a nuisance and a bad user experience. As long as the hydrogen fueling stations are not ubiqutous, people will not buy hydrogen cars.

You guess they will rollout hydrogen refilling stations quickly, I guess they will not. It isn't profitable if nobody can afford the hydrogen cars because they are too expensive. Nobody is keen on making investments that do not offer a return.

Talking about user experience: I would choose a BEV that I can charge overnight at home over ANY solution that requires me to regularly visit a gas station to fill it up with whatever. Even if that 'whatever' is available at all gas stations. Btw, Mary Nichols, this is a personal preference, not an ideological view.



I wouldn't worry about that. Just put the station where there's a lot of traffic. Highway intersection or mall.People tend to visit those plasec frequently enough...



You focus on how easy people can fill up 90% of the time, but it is the hassle for the remaining 10% that will put off the customers.

Bob Uppendown


Biggest question mark is how you would allow a programme such as Top Gear to change your mind!

It is very much an entertainment show, heavily laced with comic content. And several times recently it has confessed to faking several of its featured stunts - including the pretence that the Tesla ran out of battery power (they now admit it didn't), and using two supposed Ferraris that were actually falsely-skinned Toyota MR2s.

The show pays little regard to science or technology. It prefers stunts and showmanship every time.


I am not convinced that the technologies have reached the point where we can say with any certainty that either a battery-only or hydrogen-dominant system will be the true long-term overwhelming winner (with the almost complete absence of the other). Neither technology has reached a technical or financial obstacle in which their is compelling evidence that it cannot be overcome.

That's why all the points here are ideological - they are manifestations of guesswork (some educated, i'll concede), passions, and previous barely-applicable experiences-all blog-unworthy characteristics. I haven't found a single point in the discussion here compelling in that they show advanced education/experience in either field (i.e. PhD and 20yrs applicable technical experience) or even a high level of exposure to the very latest published studies/tests/fieldwork in either field (which of course only a bare few are published here). I really wish the discussion was a bit more sophisticated and the quality of commenters was higher (education-applicablePhD,20yrs experince, balanced argument style) with this particular topic. At the very least it should feature people who have actually tried the technology or have some kind of first-hand experience with it in industry. But that's probably too much to ask. It would likely mean almost no comments for any of these BEV and FC stories - until the technologies are further along - which is actually kind of appealing. Otherwise its just a fluff-fest of people who want see their opinions in print. But i guess that is just status-quo for many blogs. Too bad that GreenCarCongress can't escape the mainstream- ho-hum. If only these technical blogs attracted relevant industry contributors who added to the world's body of knowledge not just the angry, bored, and lonely.


If we go with hydrogen, rather than battery EVs, we will need to build 5 times as many power stations (or dams or windmills or solar farms). That's more than a bit of a waste.


Great comment. Good comparison between PC vs. Mac and BEV vs. FCV. The Mac tried to create a monopoly (complete control of hardware & software). The PC remained open....and to this day you can still get tons of great 'freeware' for the PC, and hardware at 1/2 the price.

FCV is a pipedream being pushed by monopolies trying to create a new monopoly of complex tech. BEV's are so simple by comparison. They will win, and soon.
(that's not to say the FCV is a beautiful concept, just like the Mac).

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