Establishing Hydrogen’s Legitimacy

By May 28, 2021 22   min read  (3892 words)

May 28, 2021 |

Fuel cells works, hydrogen, fuel cells

We need to face facts: the Internet is a creation that would make Frankenstein’s monster look cuddly and cute by comparison. The Internet was created, as many things are, by simply trying to breakthrough boundaries and push the possibility of technology. After it had become a proven concept various additional networks were created, stitched together, and in time those networks existed around the world. They were further tethered to each other by way of undersea cables.


Mt. Shasta in the spring, California

There was no grand architect or global steering committee guiding the creation of the Internet, though, so while the Internet was being created no one worried about cybersecurity or even how web browsers were going to have to interpret code as a user went from one site to the next. As a direct and brutal consequence of that lack of leadership humans globally have had their sense of personal safety slowly diminished since 2001 and continuing to the present. (Not to mention the hundreds of billions of dollars lost to cybercrime each year.) Today humans do not know when the next breach will happen that is going to rob them further of whatever sense of safety they have left. However, as we stand on the cusp of creating a hydrogen economy, we risk creating another monster or letting the monster that is fossil fuels from the 20th century continue to roam free while we, like Victor Frankenstein, comb the globe for it trying to destroy it. To this clear and present danger, though, the Western Hemisphere does offer terrain in which to create a world-class solution of how to implement hydrogen correctly, and if that solution is realized it will offer the world guidance and vision that is sorely needed now.


Looking north into California’s Central Valley 1 mile south of Grapevine, California.

However, the first step is to pull up a map of Canada, Mexico, and the United States. By doing so a person will quickly notice one salient feature where automobiles are concerned: there is only one highway that allows travel between those three countries without having to follow a tiresome zig zag path, and that highway is Interstate 5 (I-5). From the United States I-5 flows seamlessly into the Canadian highway 99, which is perhaps Canada’s most scenic expressway on its western side. That same spot also happens to be the busiest border crossing between Canada and the United States west of the Mississippi. In Mexico I-5 turns into Via Oriente, and that crossing is the busiest border crossing between Mexico and the United States.[1] I-5 also encompasses the second-largest population corridor in the United States, and connects to the largest cities on their west coast for both Canada and Mexico.[2]


True Zero filling station, Coalinga, CA.

Outside of the technical aspects of I-5 it is also a throughway that offers a lot of beauty and fun. Just north of San Diego, California it passes along the southern California coast for about thirty miles offering remarkable views of the Pacific Ocean. In Anaheim, California it sits to the immediate east side of Disney Land, and in Valencia, California it is also to the east of Six Flags Magic Mountain. After a brief passage through a mountainous area the highway enters the Central Valley of California where a person can see row upon row of neatly planted crops of rice, corn, almond trees, cotton, and many other crops. In the northern part of California, the interstate passes to the immediate west of Mt. Shasta, California’s second tallest mountain that stands majestically silent and unyielding. A few miles later the highway enters into Oregon where rugged mountain terrain gives way to evergreens and lush fields. After about 100 miles the evergreens fall away to reveal the Willamette Valley in Oregon home to numerous berry farms, flower farms, and wineries. A few miles later the highway passes through Portland, Oregon and offers splendid views of Mt. Hood, the Columbia River, and easy access to the Columbia River Gorge (not to mention all the things to do in Portland). In Washington I-5 passes to the immediate east of Boeing’s air field, a little later it passes slightly to the east of Pike Place Market, and then in the northern part of Washington it goes through miles of verdant fields, redwoods, and hills. Finally, it passes the torch highway 99 in Canada.


Lake Shasta at current historically low level, California

In the whole of the Western Hemisphere there is perhaps no other corridor that can rival that of I 5 whether in terms of market access/population, breadth of countries, access to the needed technology and supplies, or beauty and pleasure. However, despite this unrivaled terrain hydrogen is lacking, especially where hydrogen fuel stations are concerned. For consumers right now buying a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle means buying into a travel radius largely limited to about 200 miles. If hydrogen is to mature and develop into the energy driver of this world’s future economy, then hydrogen must absolutely stop neglecting the I-5 corridor in order to unequivocally demonstrate to any end consumer every benefit of hydrogen as well as resolve the remaining details of a hydrogen economy.


Blueberry bushes, Willamette Valley, Oregon

This putative hydrogen project will already have a head start since southern California has a number of hydrogen stations along I-5 that are already open and others that are in the permitting stage. There is also one hydrogen station at Coalinga, and then there are a few operational stations in Sacramento.[3] Additionally, the Vancouver, Canada area also has a few operational stations with several more stations already planned.[4] Furthermore, there are several vehicle dealerships in various cities along or near I-5 that are already leasing or selling hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as well as a few in the Vancouver area.


The initial part of the project would then be to fill in the major gap in stations (top image) between Sacramento and Vancouver as well as install two stations in Tijuana, Mexico. The first year of the project would see two stations added to each of the following cities: Williams, California, Medford, Oregon, and Olympia, Washington. Coalinga would receive a second station to both increase capacity and allow for commercial trucks to easily fill up. This would ensure travel using hydrogen the whole length of I-5. After the major gap has been filled in to allow long distance travel, then work would begin in the second year on adding four stations to Portland, Oregon, two to Redding California, four to Seattle, Washington, and two to Yreka, California. At that point almost every major area between Sacramento and Vancouver could then have vehicle dealerships upgraded to support hydrogen. In total, 21 new stations will need to be built and all of the new stations would enable use by both personal and commercial vehicles. Assuming an average cost of $5M for each station that part of the project will cost about $105M.[5]


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An additional $5M will be allocated to upgrade five stations along I-5 in southern California to ensure personal and commercial vehicle usage at those locations as well. For example, commercial trucks are unable to presently use the Linde Hydrogen Station in San Juan Capistrano, CA. A further $25M will be set aside for maintenance costs of all of the stations involved in the project that will cover three years from time of completion of the project.


Dinner time on the Columbia River, Washington

A second component to the first phase will be to ensure that the on-site hydrogen storage tanks at each depot can easily be disconnected from their local hydrogen supply and refilled by mobile storage tankers. At present there are multiple hydrogen production methods that are in development or nearing commercial viability, and it is highly likely in time one of these companies may prove to have created the cheapest method with which to create green hydrogen. By initially building in flexible technology setups this will allow stations to evolve as the best proven methods for creating green hydrogen are validated, and thus will reduce their maintenance costs over time as well.

The next part of the project will be to enable eight vehicle dealerships to sell hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Two between Sacramento and Yreka, two in both Medford and Portland, OR, and two both in Olympia and Seattle Washington. Presently no two hydrogen vehicles are the same and each manufacturer has slightly different costs associated with enabling the selling and fixing of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, but it is estimated that the second part of the project will cost an additional $20M. This would include the cost of having actual vehicles to buy at each dealership.


A sign for Boeing’s Aviation Pavilion, Tacoma Washington

At most it would take two years to finish the first two parts of the project since building stations and upgrading dealerships can happen in parallel. Contracting with organizations to help maintain all equipment at each station and signing those contracts can also happen as the first two phases are in progress.

Advertising the stations and ability to buy the vehicles at all of the upgraded dealerships will be the fourth part of the project. However, this part of the project would not add any additional cost as makers such as Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota already advertise vehicles on a regular basis. Any adjustment to near term marketing campaigns would have a negligible impact on marketing costs.


Willamette Valley flower farm, Oregon

The fifth part of the project will be open-ended since the goal of the project is to ensure that most of what the project completes, like dealerships and fueling stations, continues in perpetuity. As indicated earlier, though, the fifth stage will also be constantly reviewing technologies and implementing them in order to bring down the cost of the stations as much as possible. How hydrogen is best distributed whether onsite, by highway driven trucks, or trains can also be evaluated as freight trains regularly flow along the length of I-5 as well. However, an additional component of the project will be to find ways of expanding the project and increasing the number coalition members in order to expand hydrogen’s impact. For example, it would be very easy for the coalition to alter the SMART rail system that runs between Marin and Sonoma counties in California in order to convert it to a hydrogen train. More critically, a heavily used train system also exists in the I-5 corridor, and there are also a few

shipping ports in close proximity. Expanding into those areas and using them to setup efficient hydrogen networks only further strengths the use and value of the I-5 project. The 2028 Olympic in Los Angeles would also allow for additional projects as well as highlighting hydrogen in ways that the 2021 Olympics in Japan are unable to.


A sad Tesla in Mountain View, California 2018

Perhaps the most obvious elephant in the room is how the project will be financed since it will cost about $150M to complete steps one thru three. It starts with forming a coalition. Each member of the coalition should not need to invest more than $10M. The first benefactors of the project are obvious: any hydrogen fuel cell vehicle manufacturer. Therefore, Honda, Hyundai, Hyzon, Nikola, and Toyota would contribute to the project. Additionally, hydrogen creators and hydrogen storage organizations Air Liquide, NEL, and NPROXX would compose part of the coalition. Furthermore, vehicle insurance companies can reasonably be expected to be part of the association since its goals necessarily benefit them. The simplest way to express this is that with a battery powered vehicle there is a real chance of a total loss in each moderate to major accident. On more than one occasion an accident involving a battery powered vehicle has resulted in the complete destruction of approximately half of the vehicle, resulting in the insurer having to pay for a completely new vehicle. Hydrogen vehicles do not suffer from that same possibility, especially since in a severe accident the hydrogen would almost certainly dissipate harmlessly into the air. Therefore, in a future of battery only vehicles or hydrogen fuel cells a future of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will result in less cost to vehicle insurers. Insurers also do not have to worry about potentially being exposed to the high environmental cost of battery recycling and replacement costs of batteries should something go wrong. One of the major advantages of a hydrogen fuel cell is that it should never need to be replaced, and consequently it reduces environmental and replacement costs insurers may have to face in the future. Allstate, AAA, Geico, Safeco, and State Farm would be part of the association, which brings the total up to thirteen members. Shell and True Zero would be the final two members of the initial coalition since hydrogen station operators also will benefit from the project.

One employee from each company the group is comprised of will sit on the committee. Each committee representative will contribute to the collective leadership of the project, ensuring the funds are spent for the explicit purposes, work with other members to overcome any obstacles to keep the assignment on-track, and to communicate with their sponsor organization in order to gain insights any contributing company may gain from its independent work. The two most important goals of the council will be to ensure the complete success of the project, and then to go on to serve as a global steering committee for the hydrogen sector. Clearly, the council from the completed I-5 project will have no legally binding authority on the world, but it will have considerable expertise and knowledge that no other organization will have. Most of the members of the coalition will also be multi-national companies that will have essential hydrogen products. Therefore, with the resources the committee will have it can provide effective and legitimate guidance, and in many cases influence in order to drive the implementation of a global hydrogen economy forward. Additionally, as the I-5 committee completes the initial part of the project and expands to converting the adjacent rail network and some of the nearby shipping ports, the association will grow to include other members. At that point, the coalition behind the I-5 project will have grown enough so that it will speak with a collective voice that cannot easily be dismissed by the rest of the hydrogen sector. After all, in the private sector the only thing worse than  failure is the appearance of incompetence, and to appear incompetent when the I-5 committee is available to help will not be a mistake that most other organizations will want to risk.

It must be noted, though, that the proposed project is not be a charity. From the outset of the enterprise, it is to be understood that the $150M is an investment that is expected to pay high dividends to each member of the coalition. The dividends will be in the form of the hydrogen stations becoming profitable in time as technology costs drop, significantly increased sales of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles with the addition of Oregon, Mexico, and Washington as well as a drop in the cost of producing those vehicles, and the additional benefits that come with market expansion. Without any doubt those are just a few of the benefits of the program. As was mentioned earlier in this paper significantly increased driving distance will be another major advantage. Once the project is completed, though, people will have a range of 1,414+ miles north and south, and to the east and west it will open up the entire states of California, Oregon, and Washington to travel. It will also allow greater travel within the Tijuana, Mexico area. Perhaps the worst disadvantage of being a vehicle owner right now is the significantly limited range, since that directly translates into a lack of freedom. However, once freedom of travel is a benefit of hydrogen vehicle ownership, then the whole field where vehicles are concerned benefits significantly from the connection between freedom and hydrogen. Additionally, getting the project to profitability as soon as possible will then enable expansion to some of the above areas that have been discussed. As more projects are completed and made profitable then it will be easier to further drive even more areas of work.

Furthermore, there are ways of reducing the cost of the project while ensuring a two-year time frame. California presently does offer discounts to organizations that build hydrogen fuel stations that can be taken advantage of. Additionally, city governments which get a discount when using the stations that are a result of the coalitions work are more likely to speed up permits. The association could offer each municipality a two-dollar discount on the hydrogen purchased from the stations up to 200kg per year for one to three years. This has the added benefit of encouraging municipalities to get into hydrogen or expand their hydrogen efforts. It is also a common practice to allow advertisements at fuel stations, which further decreases the time it would take for the project to be profitable. Further benefits can be achieved through educational partnerships with K-12 schools and colleges as well as similar relationships with companies like Avis.

While achieving the above outcomes is essential to the success of both the project and hydrogen in general, there are three matters that absolutely must not be overlooked. The first is carelessness. The Toyota Prius has been around for more than sixteen years, and still to this day there are many other vehicles on the road that get far worse gas milage than the Prius and produce a lot of emissions in the process. Why? Because air is a common and many people are satisfied to not believe in climate change or care about not polluting. Air is free to breathe and it is also free to expel air pollutants. (When was the last time you saw someone get pulled over for a smog issue?) Consequently, with no seeming penalty for driving a Ford Mustang vs a Prius there is no need to drive a Prius, since the desire to reduce one’s emissions is largely a conscience-based choice. (Therein also lies the issue of the tragedy of the commons, but we will save that for another day.)

The second crucial item is competition. Thus far, there has been no promise from each of the super majors to completely convert from oil production to hydrogen only production by 2025 or any near-term date. In fact, oil companies are trying to both sell less profitable ventures like BP did with its Alaska operations for carbon offsets, and they are still invested in oil exploration as can be seen by ReconAfrica’s current efforts in Namibia and Botswana. Publications related to the petroleum industry are also not stuffed with the value of converting to a hydrogen economy and how important it is to do so imminently. In other words, the petroleum industry may at times give lip service to the value of hydrogen, but it is in no hurry to reform itself.


Mt Hood in its spring splendor, Oregon

Lastly, guidance is also something that is a major hinderance to bringing a hydrogen economy to life. There is no present global steering committee or even just one person guiding things along to create a highly successful hydrogen economy. There are, however, a patchwork of efforts and organizations globally that have the idea of a hydrogen economy being achieved at some date in the future, but when, how, and other essential questions have only the vaguest of answers. Consequently, in a place like California it is not unexpected on the part of, for example, Mirai or Nexo owners to show up to a hydrogen fueling station only to find it temporarily closed or to find out that hydrogen is in short supply. Equally worse is that if a person views the different hydrogen announcements on LinkedIn it quickly becomes clear that the putative global hydrogen economy is in trouble. People talk about hydrogen in terms of it being part of the future. Some people go so far as to say it is “important,” but what people are not talking about is the absolute need for thoughtful and unified global action with singularity of purpose and vision. If a successful hydrogen economy is going to be created, then the first major coordinated step needs to be taken with the I-5 project. After it has been completed the association behind it can then import its success to interstate 101 that goes through the coastal areas of California, Oregon, and Washington. Next the project can expand eastward to include Las Vegas, NV, Reno, NV, Phoenix, AZ, and Salt Lake City, UT. At that point five states, thousands of miles of road, and tens of millions of people can take part in the hydrogen economy. If major coordinated steps are not taken now then everyone has to make up things as they go along which is essentially chaos.

When it comes to CPUs for computer servers organizations buy into roadmaps, not products. Such microprocessors are expensive and the different software programs that firms run on servers are meant to be optimized to the computer hardware as much as possible. Therefore, buying from Intel one year and AMD the next is simply too inefficient to be feasible. The same holds true for almost any user of hydrogen, especially the end retail consumer. When an end user purchases a Mirai, Nexo, or other hydrogen products the person is wanting to buy into the future, and the future is hydrogen replacing fossil fuel-based vehicles to the point where by 2045 there will be no new vehicles of any kind, retail or commercial, sold that are not battery, hydrogen fuel cell driven, or a hybrid of the two. The same holds true for companies like Singapore Airlines or UPS. However, without unified global action on the part of the hydrogen sector it will simply be too risky for end consumers to invest in hydrogen, especially in the glaring absence of a project like the I-5 corridor. It is time for organizations like Air Liquide, Hyundai, Toyota, and others to come together, build out the I-5 corridor, and create an effective steering committee that can provide leadership and guidance to the hydrogen sector globally. There was nothing beautiful about Frankenstein’s monster, and there will be nothing beautiful if hydrogen organizations fail to convince the majority of end users globally that hydrogen’s era is beginning and that of fossil fuels is ending.


About the Author Jesse Lyon

Jesse Lyon

Jesse Lyon is a hydrogen fuel cell thought leader and world-class essayist who is committed to helping bring a hydrogen economy to life imminently. His previous work involved ten published papers on the topics of cyber liability and technology E&O, plus one paper that introduced the insurance sector to robotic liability.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Fuel Cells Works, its directors, partners, staff, contributors, or suppliers. Any content provided by our contributors or authors are of their own opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.

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