Remember Hydrogen? Cali Does, For $7.7M

With President Bush suddenly concerned about America’s carbon emissions, it seems appropriate that Bush’s favorite fuel of yesteryear, hydrogen, should be getting some recent attention, too. The California Air Resource Board (CARB) is making $7.7 million available for the improvement and expansion of the state’s hydrogen-fueling stations.

Currently, there are only 24 hydrogen fueling stations in California, mostly around Los Angeles and San Francisco. And according to CARB there are only 209 hydrogen-powered cars. The $7.7 million would represent about a $37,000 investment in each one of those hydrogen cars, enough to buy each owner a brand new fuel-efficient car of their choice.

While Bush and Gov. Schwarzenegger gave hydrogen power a disproportionate amount of lip service about five years ago, we had hoped that the emergence of plug-in vehicles and biofuels had made hydrogen old news. Besides the fact that hydrogen requires an entirely new infrastructure (hence the $7.7 million), it shouldn’t be thought of as an energy source.

As two physicists recently explained in the Boston Globe: “It would really be better to think of hydrogen as a means for storing and transporting energy than as a source per se.” Biofuels and electricity also leverage existing infrastructures to reduce inefficiencies and deliver energy to vehicles.

There are some interesting companies coupling renewable energy sources with hydrogen generation, like Hydrogen Solar, but the CARB funds are not going toward those types of projects. Instead, they’re going into a project that seems very unlikely to succeed. It also gets us thinking about CARB’s crumbling Zero Emission Vehicle Program, which set electric-car development back by a decade. That program now requires auto makers to put just 7,500 ZEVs on the road by 2012, down from its prior goal of 25,000.

CARB’s insistence on approaching the ZEV program in such a technology-biased way suggests the board is catering disproportionately to huge oil and car giants that can afford to dabble in floundering hydrogen technology. The California Fuel Cell Partnership includes the Big Three, as well as BP, Chevron and Shell as members.