Speed Bumps on the “Hydrogen Highway”

Seems like the Governor is spending a lot of time looking at cars lately. If the rest of us spent as much time cruising Auto Row, the recession might already be fading in the rear-view mirror.

Governor Schwarzenegger tries out the Volkswagen Passat Lingyu. Photo: Governor's Office

Governor Schwarzenegger at the wheel of a Volkswagen Passat Lingyu. Photo: Governor's Office

But California’s chief executive isn’t interested in run-of-the-mill rolling stock (he will, of course, happily take credit for inventing the Hummer). He’s into exotics: the alternative-fuel cars of the future–and in some cases, present.

At least five times in the last three weeks, the Governor’s Office has created photo ops with alt-fuel autos, prototypes or refueling stations; from a fuel-cell Volkswagen (June 3) to the Mutt-&-Jeff of electrics, Hummer and Peapod (May 28 & June 10, respectively), he’s kicked the tires on a whole generation of not-widely-available wheels–not to mention the home ethanol refinery (June 4) or the hydrogen refueling station in Santa Monica (May 27).

All of which got us to wondering: “Dude, where’s our Hydrogen Highway?” You may recall the Governor’s promise five years ago, that California would by now be coming down the home stretch on a whole new infrastructure for the coming swarm of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Monday morning on KQED’s weekly Quest radio feature, David Gorn reports that we’ve apparently hit a few speed bumps:

“The technology clearly has promise, but it’s behind schedule. Schwarzenegger’s original plan called for 100 to 150 hydrogen fuel stations by next year, and so far there are only about two dozen. He also wanted 2,000 hydrogen-powered cars on the road, yet fewer than 200 are being road-tested today. The lack of progress has prompted California’s non-partisan state legislative analyst to recommend scrapping state funding for the hydrogen program. And on the federal level, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has asked Congress to cut about half of the national hydrogen-research budget. Chu said hydrogen technology is too far from fruition.”

None of these details stopped Governor  Schwarzenegger from hyping the 2009 Hydrogen Road Tour, a recently concluded San Diego-to-Vancouver rally, designed to highlight fuel-cell technology:

“We will keep pushing, and thanks to our public-private partnerships and the commitment of these automakers and energy companies, the era of pollution-free transportation is dawning.”

The Governor’s statement went on to say that “Auto manufacturers expect the number of hydrogen vehicles to increase to 4,300 by 2014 and more than 40,000 vehicles by 2017.” Of course, that was before Energy Secretary Steve Chu announced that R&D funding for hydrogen fuel cells on the road didn’t quite make the cut for the next DOE budget. Plug-in hydrid, anyone?