In April 2004, the city of San Francisco acquired two Honda FCX cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Mayor Gavin Newsom held a press conference
, and to show off just how clean the vehicles' emissions would be, he collected condensate from a tailpipe in a paper cup and took a sip. "You are looking, literally, at the future," he said.
Last fall, Newsom, now California's governor, signed an executive order
requiring all new cars and light-duty trucks sold in the state to be zero-emission vehicles starting in 2035, his ambitions buoyed by a growing list of EVs and rising demand. If you want to go electric, the Golden State is a fine place to be. There are, according to the California Energy Commission (CEC), more than 70,000 public and shared private vehicle-charging plugs
throughout the state. The Tesla Model 3
was the bestselling car in the state in the first quarter of 2020, a sign that Californians have an appetite for more environmentally friendly vehicles. That makes it a great test market for hydrogen cars, which are supposed to solve the range and charging headaches of today's EVs by carrying more energy and refueling more quickly.
Still, even in California, hydrogen's future is murky. In 2015, when Toyota debuted the Mirai
hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered sedan in the United States, the automaker took to calling customers trailblazers. The trouble with blazing a trail, however, is that you don't always know what you're getting into. Deals and incentives abound, but if you're driving any of the 9000-plus fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) that call California home, you better be good with logistics. In a state that covers more than 163,000 square miles, there are currently only 45 hydrogen stations
, and they don't always have enough fuel for everyone who needs it.
Nearly 17 years after Newsom took a sip of tomorrow, FCEV customers are finding it difficult to fill up and almost impossible to offload their cars when reality sets in. "The excitement of being a trailblazer rubbed off long ago," says Patrick Perez, a Mirai driver in the Los Angeles area. On Facebook, a Mirai group that Perez is part of whiplashes between ecstatic and despondent. Some members extol the almost holy virtues of driving an emissions-free vehicle and saving the earth; others count the minutes until their Mirai leases end. "The car does what it's supposed to," Perez says. "It's just the hydrogen infrastructure that is causing the issues."
By far the most pressing problem is fuel availability, as FCEV owners can't count on stations to actually have hydrogen. To mitigate the issue, Mirai owner Doug Dumitru started H2-CA.com
, a website where people can easily "tell whether a station is likely to have hydrogen when they get there," he says. The site, which pulls info from the California Fuel Cell Partnership
every 60 seconds, gets around 2000 visits per day when hydrogen is scarce.
This problem began in June 2019, when a hydrogen production facility in Santa Clara caught fire
, disrupting supply in the Bay Area and Southern California. More recently, the big freeze in Texas, where much hydrogen comes from, left many California stations bereft. FirstElement has 23 of them on the West Coast. With road closures keeping trucks in Texas, on the morning of February 23, only six of its stations showed more than 25 percent capacity, which likely dwindled as hydrogen-starved vehicles descended on them.
The fuel is pricey too: A report from the California Air Resources Board
and the CEC showed that in 2019, the average price per kilogram of hydrogen was $16.51. According to the few stations we called, the rate hasn't changed much. To put that in perspective, consider the base-model Hyundai Nexo
. It can hold 6.3 kilograms of hydrogen and, by the EPA's methodology, sees 60 miles per kilogram. That means a Nexo owner can go about 380 miles before needing to refill the tank, which costs about $100.
Given that a Hyundai Tucson
(which starts at $24,885) will go even farther for less than half as much, you may wonder why anyone would opt for an FCEV. But the majority of fuel-cell owners don't pay for gas, with Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai all handing out a $15,000 fuel card good for 36 months with each purchase or lease.