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National Renewable Energy Lab has the only working hydrogen fuel pump in Colorado, so far not open to the public, meant for their research. More stations are coming, aimed at consumers. (Dennis Schroeder, NREL)

It will take more than one alternative fuel powering cars and trucks to meet Colorado’s ambitious goals of 50% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions within just nine years, and signs are growing that much-hyped hydrogen is about to have its turn. 

Hydrogen has been the clean fuel of the future for decades among energy and environment researchers, but has so far disappointed with its “where’s my jetpack” status, even as all-electric vehicles improved in quality, price and access to a growing charging network. Hydrogen vehicle builders and potential fueling stations hesitate until they have real buyers, and buyers hesitate until they have reliable vehicles to buy with reliable places to fuel up, a standoff advocates call the chicken-or-the-egg problem in new technology.

Now, private developers say they are ready to install modular hydrogen fueling stations at key Front Range locations by the end of this year, and are talking with fleet managers like AAA’s auto rescue group, for a possible site agreement. Colorado State University this spring will finish installing what it calls a public hydrogen fueling station on its Fort Collins Powerhouse Energy Campus, to support local hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and campus research. 

Budweiser ordered 800 hydrogen-fueled heavy delivery trucks and is using some in California, the national leader in building out a subsidized network of refueling stations and creating incentives for vehicle purchases. Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and others have hydrogen fuel consumer vehicles for sale nationally, though Colorado consumers have balked without a place to refill their tanks. 

“As a club, we look at hydrogen as very much the future of mobility,” said Skyler McKinley, public affairs and government director spokesman for AAA Colorado, part of the national AAA network that has more than 60 million members. 

“There’s no way to meet state goals without deploying this technology,” said Patricia Kelley, an environmental advocate who is now a partner in New Day Hydrogen, a private investment group whose goal is to have two fueling stations online in Colorado by the end of the year. 

Colorado plans to issue a hydrogen-focused subset of the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap by July, and is currently studying the potential for hydrogen fuel vehicles to join other technologies to help achieve emissions cuts. Those targeted cuts reach 90% off a 2005 benchmark for Colorado by 2050. 

Transportation is one of the three major emissions sources regulators must attack in new legislation and extensive rulemaking hearings set for 2021 and 2022. One of the most specific goals set in Gov. Jared Polis’ roadmap is getting nearly 1 million electric vehicles on the road in Colorado by 2030. Only a few thousand electric vehicles were sold to Colorado consumers in 2020, and environmental advocates say deep emissions cuts will require an all-out deployment of multiple technologies in coming years.

The engine in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is electric, just like in an EV. The electricity is produced, however, by combining hydrogen and oxygen and running it through a catalyst of materials that often include platinum. The electrochemical reaction produces electricity, the byproducts are heat and harmless water vapor. 

Advocates cite a number of advantages for a hydrogen fuel system: 

  • Heavy electric vehicle batteries steal thousands of pounds from truckers’ potential payloads, while hydrogen-fueled vehicles free up that space with the same zero emissions.
  • Hydrogen fuel tanks refill in three to five minutes, much like gasoline or diesel. Even fast-charging electric stations take much longer, and regular electric hookups take overnight, severely limiting their commercial use. 
  • Hydrogen fuel can be produced by either semi-clean or clean technology. Much of the hydrogen fuel in California is created in a process involving natural gas, but the modular refueling stations split hydrogen from water using electricity. That electric supply can come from clean, renewable solar or wind power from utilities. 
  • Hydrogen-fueled engines currently perform better than battery-powered vehicles in extreme cold or uphill driving conditions, such as those confronting heavy-transport users, like ski town shuttles and deliveries, or over-the-mountains long hauling. 
  • Vehicles powered by hydrogen tanks have similar range to petroleum vehicles, while EVs have only recently reached the 250-mile-and-above-range between charges that convinces consumers they are reliable.

The disadvantages are abundant, of course, otherwise hydrogen would have fulfilled its promise long before now. Industry is still designing the optimal fueling station, and will have to find convenient locations to build those stations, on expensive urban and suburban real estate. Heavy-transportation companies have thin margins in a highly competitive trade and are reluctant to retool their whole industry while markets roar ahead. 

Closer view of the hydrogen pumping station at NREL in Golden, which dispenses a tankful in 3 to 5 minutes, much like commercial petroleum-based technology. (Dennis Schroeder, NREL)

Consumers, perhaps above all, need convincing when considering exotic technologies to replace traditional, reliable vehicles that are at once vital for work and important elements of their lifestyle. Convincing most frequently comes in the form of major monetary incentives, advocates and industry experts note. 

One of the biggest drawbacks to electric vehicles so far has been a sticker price higher than that of a comparable gasoline car, in addition to uncertainties about reliable recharging, said Tim Jackson, president and CEO of the Colorado Auto Dealers Association. Colorado’s tax credit for buying EVs this year dropped to $2,500 from $4,000, which will hurt sales that were already slipping from their tiny percentage of overall sales. In states where incentives drop or disappear, Jackson said, EV sales “fall off a cliff.”

The same dynamic will be in play when hydrogen vehicles appear in the Colorado market, he said, if the high-tech is high-priced. 

The trucking market, which holds a lot of the potential emissions savings in transportation, may be one of the first places where hydrogen truly catches on in Colorado, Jackson said. All haulers want to avoid the loss of payload that a 15,000-pound electric truck battery creates, and the longer range of hydrogen vehicles might satisfy nationwide haulers. 

“This is a logical and natural place for hydrogen to fit in; but you need a national network of refilling stations,” he said. “That hydrogen superhighway has not been built out.”

Hydrogen is moving forward now in part because other industries are realizing its near-term potential as a clean, storable fuel, said Keith Wipke, laboratory manager for the fuel cell and hydrogen technologies program at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden. NREL has a non-public hydrogen refueling station to load experimental vehicles and study efficiency and components. 

Industry can use clean energy from utilities to glean hydrogen from water, then store the hydrogen.  For utilities, for example, this solves the grid-reliability problem of current mass batteries that can only store 4 to 8 hours of backup electricity. Hydrogen is made cleanly, stored, and brought back out to create more clean energy at high demand times. Utah is currently replacing a coal-fired power plant that sells energy to California with turbines running on natural gas and hydrogen, and the hydrogen will be stored in massive salt caverns nearby, Wipke said. 

With California already operating a large-scale hydrogen transportation system, Wipke said, Colorado should look west to plan incentives and regulations — both what to do, and what not to do. One thing the state learned is that consumers and companies want multi-pump fueling stations with eight to 10 nozzles in a store-like plaza, just like the gas stations they are used to. Lawmakers in other states will need to include hydrogen in vehicle-buying incentives, and leave the discounts in place long enough to support a burgeoning market. 

“We can learn a lot from California,” Wipke said. 

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver