21 mar 23

Could hydrogen overtake EVs in California zero emission race?

Demand for zero emission vehicles (ZEV) in California is rising but should fleet managers be considering electric vehicles (EV) which includes the growing trend of plug-in hybrids (PHEV) or possibly hydrogen vehicles also known as fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEV).

Although EV usage is on the rise, some California legislators are seeking to invest more in the development of FCEV owing to some of the challenges the state and the country will face amid the transition from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to EVs.

Eye on EVs

Now that many automakers have large portfolios of EV models on the horizon, it looks like the competitive market will help EVs reach an overall price parity with ICE vehicles soon. With that said, many of the challenges of tomorrow will revolve around recharging issues which brings forth many questions. 

The questions

  • Are rechargers available along distant road trips?
  • If there is one available, how long will it take to recharge?
  • Does the state have enough electricity grid capacity to handle the EV transition?
  • Will blackouts be more common amid heatwaves or other precarious conditions?

2023 Tesla Model Y, USA best-selling EV in 2022 (courtesy of Tesla)

According to Terry Tamminen who was state environmental secretary under former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Utilities will not be able to generate enough power to charge all the battery vehicles,” local paper Los Angeles Times quoted Mr. Tamminen as saying.

Even if only a third of the cars were battery electric vehicles (BEV), we would be crashing the grid every night, according to Mr. Tamminen.

Eye on Hydrogen (FCEV)

In 2022, approximately 19% of the automobiles sold in California were ZEV. And of the 346,000 ZEVs sold, only 2,600 were FCEV. Overall, some 12,000 vehicles make up the hydrogen car fleet in California, the paper said, being a mere fraction of the 14 million vehicles in the state. As do EVs, this technology does have its setbacks.

Although producing hydrogen could emit pollutants depending on the process used (traditionally known as grey, blue, and green hydrogen with the last being the cleanest), the vehicles themselves only emit water vapor and have no greenhouse gas emissions. 

Pros & Cons

  • They qualify as zero emission vehicles (ZEV)
  • Range is 300-400 miles, more than most EVs
  • FCEV quicker to refill than EVs (approx. 10 minutes)
  • However, lack of Hydrogen refill stations (62 in California, most in Los Angeles)
  • Faulty refuel stations somewhat common (nozzle and compression problems)
  • Hydrogen refill is expensive (more than double the cost of gasoline, certainly more than EV)

“Sacramento [hydrogen] fueling stations have been down almost as much as they’ve been up…there aren’t enough stations anyway,” says Toyota hydrogen car owner John White.

“The cost of hydrogen has skyrocketed in the last two months. Although it handles great, makes no noise, and is comfortable and fast, it’s challenging to own because it’s a challenge to keep it fueled,” says hydrogen vehicle owner and local Senator Josh Newman, the paper said.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry is looking toward a lesser expensive alternative known as White Hydrogen or to say naturally-formed hydrogen occurring under the earth’s crust. Although still quite new, stakeholders believe they can bring the pump price down significantly if economies of scale are reached. 

2023 Toyota Mirai, USA best-selling hydrogen vehicle in 2022 (courtesy of Toyota)


To overcome the hurdles in hydrogen, California state officials are working on initiatives to improve the situation. 

With a budget of $20 million per year to push the hydrogen vehicle industry, including public fueling station infrastructure, the California Energy Commission has invested some $166mn so far. It plans to reach $279mn in investments by the end of 2024 and $500mn by 2025.

This should be enough to bring the hydrogen station total to 200, the commission says, but the goal of hydrogen advocates for now is to reach 1,000 stations.

In the end, we can see that both EVs and FCEVs have barriers to overcome. The California (and recently the US) government has been embracing EVs more in recent years, but let’s keep an eye out for FCEVs as this could be the powertrain of choice for your corporate fleet soon.

For more on what is taking place throughout North America, download your free copy of the Global Fleet eBook on the region.

Top Photo: Los Angeles California skyline (copyright: Shutterstock)

Authored by: Daniel Bland