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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Why Hydrogen and Fuel Cells are Needed to Support California Climate Policy


California has taken a leadership role on climate policy by adopting AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which caps state greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at 1990 levels by 2020, and by setting a follow-on goal of reducing GHG emissions 80% by 2050. Given that the transportation sector accounts for 40% of the state’s GHG emissions, it will be difficult to meet the 2050 goal unless a portfolio of near-zero carbon transportation solutions is pursued in the very near future. Consistent and durable public policy is needed at the state and federal levels to encourage the development of transportation alternatives with real market share. Because it takes decades for a new fuel or propulsion system to capture a large fraction of the light duty vehicle market, it is important to accelerate the introduction of low-carbon fuels and vehicles as soon as possible.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (H2-FCVs), battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), and hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs) with low carbon biofuels are the three most promising candidates for near-zero carbon transportation. All three are likely to play a major role in California and throughout the world, but all face a variety of challenges and risks. California needs to pursue multiple near-zero carbon transportation options if it is to achieve major reductions in carbon in its transport sector.

Hydrogen FCVs are making rapid technical progress, and offer zero tailpipe emissions, good performance, fast refueling, and the potential for competitive costs in mass production [4]. Most automakers are now developing and demonstrating prototypes of FCVs, several in response to the California ZEV Regulations and in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and could be on a path to commercialization if supported by the appropriate policy mechanisms. Aggressive government policy including incentives, federal demonstration programs, and state vehicle regulations are necessary to overcome start-up barriers and ensure a timely, well-coordinated deployment of hydrogen fueling infrastructure and vehicles.

California can take the lead in collaboration with the federal government today to ensure the timely commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. California’s historic clean vehicle and alternative fuel policies have led the world. The state must expand upon its existing policies now to support the H2-FCV alternative in collaboration with the federal government. The automotive and energy industries, the state, and the federal government all support a national strategy that introduces H2-FCVs in select urban centers throughout the United States. The Los Angeles basin has been chosen as the most attractive urban center to first introduce this technology on a large scale, given its market demographics and as automotive manufacturers have a concentration of corporate activity and vehicle deployments in the area. Significant federal support for FCVs and hydrogen infrastructure in California could begin in 2010 if California establishes a strong regulatory signal that significant numbers of H2-FCVs will be sold in the 2015 to 2017 timeframe.

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