Lessons from a hydrogen leader: California

In this latest edition for our series exploring hydrogen strategies from around the globe (so far we've been to Japan, Australia and Sweden), we are looking at a jurisdiction that has been a global leader in hydrogen development: California.

Home to more than just palm trees and box office movies, the Golden State is well known for leading the way on progressive climate policies. In 2018, the state passed a landmark policy—SB 100 – The 100% Clean Energy Act of 2018—requiring their electrical grid to be completely powered by clean energy sources by 2045.


This policy has directly accelerated the development of, among other things, hydrogen technologies. And with its long-term focus on improving air quality, especially around Los Angeles, California has been busy promoting hydrogen as a carbon free transportation source for over 30 years. The state has more government support and incentives for clean energy than any other state in the US.

The result has been a hydrogen revolution that has transformed their infrastructure, reoriented their automotive industry, and fueled technological breakthroughs in this space.

Building the hydrogen automotive sector

In his role as Governor from 2003-2011, Schwarzenegger was an early champion of hydrogen and his support for hydrogen development brought significant attention and investment to the state. However, at the time, the adoption of hydrogen vehicles failed to gain wide traction mainly due to the absence of hydrogen fueling stations.


Today, that has changed, where there are now more than 50 hydrogen fueling stations across the state powering over 9,000 hydrogen cars, buses and transport trucks. This transition has led to numerous successful pilot projects led by car manufacturers as they make plans to further penetrate the consumer car market.

Combined with state incentives that provide tax credits and rebates, as well as dealership incentives that include massive discounts and paid gas cards, it is not surprising that there are more Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV) in California than anywhere else in North America.


The hydrogen highway

A key driver to the successful adoption of hydrogen in consumer car markets is the availability of hydrogen fueling stations (HFS), which can be found along California’s coastal highways.

Toyota Mirai Hydrogen FCEV (Credit: Toyota)

To strengthen this initiative, the California Energy Commission (CEC) recently announced that it would invest another $115 million towards its hydrogen fueling infrastructure to build nearly 200 more hydrogen filling stations for fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) in the next decade.


Currently, existing HFS clusters are strategically placed to make filling convenient and can be found around major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Sacramento.


The continued development of hydrogen infrastructure along the California coast has been crucial to consumer confidence in this market. Today, you can drive along the entire coast of the state and always have access to a hydrogen fueling station.


Developing a stable supply

In 2019, an incident involving one of the hydrogen producers in Northern California left thousands of drivers with no fueling options for several months. More recently, the big freeze in Texas, where most of California’s hydrogen comes from, left many refueling stations depleted.

These events have highlighted how fragile the current hydrogen supply chain is in the state. Even with investment pouring in to develop the infrastructure, FCEV owners are all experiencing the same pressing problem: limited fuel availability.


Hydrogen scarcity has adversely impacted consumer confidence in hydrogen vehicles, as drivers are forced to depend on community-sourced apps to tell them whether a station is likely to have hydrogen when they get there.


As demand for hydrogen increases, supply will continue to be a problem until California can find more reliable sources.


World’s largest green hydrogen project

Government support and incentives for hydrogen have impacted more than just the transportation market. The state has become a hub for hydrogen start-ups and innovation more broadly.

Some of this innovative development can be seen in the City of Lancaster where they have partnered up with global energy company SGH2 to build the largest green hydrogen production facility in the world.


Using recycled mixed paper and plastics as feedstock, their proprietary waste-gasification technology claims to produce green hydrogen that is cost competitive with dirtier forms of hydrogen made from coal and gas.


When it is fully operational, the Lancaster plant will produce up to 11,000 kg of green hydrogen per day (3.8 million kg per year)—nearly three times more than any existing green hydrogen facility in the world. In addition to this, the facility will process 42,000 tons of recycled waste annually.


This will save approximately $50-75 per ton in landfill costs in addition to providing an abundant source of hydrogen to meet the growing demands of the market. This plant is expected to be fully operational in Q1 of 2023.


Lessons from California

California has had great success developing their hydrogen automotive industry by making major investments in infrastructure—most notably, the large clusters of hydrogen fueling stations that can be found throughout the state.


While fuel supply has been a challenge, the increasing availability of fueling stations coupled with generous incentives from car manufacturers and the government means that consumers are more motivated now than ever before to invest in a fuel cell electric vehicle.


--Susie Ho is the Senior Advisor at NII's Bruce Power Centre for Next Generation Nuclear.