Driving the Future: The No Anxiety Hydrogen Electric Car

Editor’s Note: A guest post from Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta

I am constantly pondering ways to save ratepayers money. This is not always the case in some government departments. Shortsightedness can put national leaders on a path that is not always a viable, or remotely economic, solution.

I say that as the concept of converting every American into a battery powered electric vehicle (EV) is largely impossible and would prove prohibitively expensive. Well beyond the cost of the actual vehicle, are the more daunting costs associated with such a task with the necessary expansion of the electric infrastructure of the United States.

In order to incorporate such a shift to EV use, just alone to every Louisianan in the future, it’s estimated that Louisiana may possibly have to build out more than $20 billion in new infrastructure, including new generation, transmission and distribution systems. All of these costs would absolutely add to the cost of electricity that is paid for by every electricity customer in our state. Even more so, is the fact that this will become a chicken or the egg moment. That the build out of infrastructure will have to take place before the expansion of sales of EV’s to accommodate new demands on the electric system. Otherwise, we would face blackouts. And if we build it, is it possible that the cars may not come? This is not a field of dreams moment. The cars may never come to use the system that we would build out. It is not unrealistic to consider the cost of electricity doubling in our state if such actions were to be moved forward.

Consider that EV’s are not particularly environmentally friendly. They run on electricity predominantly produced (80-90+%) from coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants and that formula is unlikely to change at any time soon no matter what orders come from DC. Between the fuel use, and the question of battery sourcing and disposal, questions arise as to environmental liability on a long-term scale for these types of vehicles.

Even so, electric cars are not a bad idea. In fact, anybody should be able to drive whatever kind of car they want. The problem is how do we arrange the cost of supplying the fuel source to the individual utilizing the vehicle. Should society cause a massive build out of infrastructure that may eventually be unnecessary? The subsidization of resources for a portion of the car market seems unrealistic and a massive financial burden on middle and lower income families in our state. Or, should our path be for the individual who owns the car to be the primary responsible party for paying the costs associated with operating that vehicle?

One thing is for sure, EV’s are not cheap. Nor are they technologically proficient and suitable for the average consumer. In many ways, their use and value are limited to only certain profiles in the community. What I have been researching is what are the future potential of other types of electric vehicles that can accommodate the marketplace and not place any financial burden on the electric customers of our state. and I think that type of vehicle is now rising. It is the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. (HFC).

These cars are not any less expensive than a EV. In fact, they are either similarly priced or sometimes more expensive. But they are decidedly not a burden on electric customers. And what they are is environmentally friendlier when you consider their fuel source. HFC vehicles are interesting and at the same time seem so similar to operating a petroleum-based vehicle, that there is no learning curve or issues associated with moving from a traditional vehicle into this new platform. That is one reason I think that the consumer will eventually shift its interest to HFC vehicles. Because when they drive it, it’s just like driving a car. That comment will make it self evident later in this discussion.

The hydrogen fuel cell runs on liquid hydrogen that is pumped through an oxidizer in a fuel cell, where it is converted into an electric current, which drives an electric motor on the vehicle. The word hydrogen comes from the Greek language, and means “water forming”. As the hydrogen is oxidized, water is the resultant byproduct and is eliminated from the vehicle through its tail pipe. There are no emission gases. And I do realize that there is a discussion amongst various groups that consider the sources of hydrogen that are being used for these vehicles. Hydrogen is produced from the utilization of renewable energy to electrolyze water to create hydrogen (green hydrogen) or gray or blue hydrogen, which is derived from a process utilizing natural gas. A fourth process is pink hydrogen, which is derived by utilizing nuclear power to electrolyze water to produce hydrogen. Hydrogen produced by nuclear power plants should also be regarded as green hydrogen as there is no carbon dioxide produced by this particular energy process. Schools of thought disagree on whether or not certain types of hydrogen should be considered environmentally friendly. But realistically, they are a significant improvement over a plug in charge into an electric grid drawing from traditional sources of power.

Consider two dominant consumer advantages. An HFC has a fuel tank that fills with liquid hydrogen in five minutes. And an average HFC vehicle receiving this fuel runs for 350 miles. So there is no major differential between an HFC and a petroleum-based car. There are no lost hours from charging, and no range anxiety, etc.

In an effort to expose more people to the potential of HFC vehicles, I engaged in a dialogue with the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership in California, with a Mr. David Park. This nonprofit partnership worked with me to arrange for a demonstration vehicle to be presented at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) annual meeting in November of this year. This was a bit of a hurried arrangement, but Mr. Park was exceptionally helpful and arranged for a Hyundai Nexo to be brought to the convention. This SUV style hydrogen fuel cell vehicle was made available to any interested party that would like to test drive the vehicle and learn more about its technical aspects.

Many attendees had the opportunity to learn about the vehicle and test drive it. Mr. Park graciously kept the vehicle in operation for over 8 hours. He made presentations on the drive mechanism, as well as giving people opportunities to drive and ride in the vehicle. I discussed the experiences of the various people who rode in the vehicle, and all of them were suitably impressed. But my favorite comment came from one particular person who said it was “Just like driving a car”. My take away from that is that there is no learning curve. There is no impediment for people who have an interest in electric vehicles to make the jump from the petroleum-based vehicle to an HFC if that is their desire.

We have to look at the future when we talk about these things. We should be thinking about what is the most abundant fuel source in the universe. That’s hydrogen. That’s nothing new. In the early 1970s, as a student at Brother Martin high school in New Orleans, physical science students were offered the opportunity to present experiments to be conducted on the NASA Skylab. Taking Contant from one of the class lectures, I submitted an experiment to be conducted in space for the electrolysis of water and  collection of the resulting hydrogen to be used as a fuel source in space. I was shocked that my experiment was excepted, and I got a certificate! Although I have no idea where it went, it was very exciting to know that I had an experiment in space. But what was most important is at a very early age I learned the potential of hydrogen. But what I never dreamed of was how it could be harnessed through a terrestrial fuel cell in a vehicle. It’s quite amazing.

As we want to make a future plan for electric vehicles,  we should consider that Louisiana is the third largest producer of hydrogen in United States. We follow Texas and California. It is not unrealistic for Texas and Louisiana to create a hydrogen zone for vehicles. And, as nuclear power plants will eventually replace coal power plants throughout the United States, hydrogen will become more readily available in other states. And it’s just not the resource, atleast seven different auto makers are now producing HFC vehicles. This does not include HFC buses currently being produced.

Our plans for the future should consider what our primary economic competitor nation is doing. China, after it engaged in technical discussions with Japan, began manufacturing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in Guangzhou province for their own marketplace. It is only logical that China,  being the largest producer of hydrogen in the world, is logically shifting to HFC tech away from EV’s for their own consumption.

Given the opportunity, I would personally purchase an HFC as a second vehicle. Of course, the appropriate infrastructure of filling stations have to be arranged, etc., but after watching this particular vehicle used in a number of test drives for over eight hours, I got in the car and took a look at the fuel gauge, and it still had only used half a tank. I thought about that for a few minutes and realized that the general range anxiety associated with an EV is not associated with this type of technology.  I realized that I could easily go from Metairie to Shreveport on a tank.  thought about how anybody would be happy to use a vehicle like this. And then I thought about what that one particular driver said. That it was just like a car. When you consider what vehicle options we all would like for the future I don’t think you could ask for more than that.



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