While many of the solar-power homes on display at the Solar Decathlon in Orange County, Calif. this week have electric vehicle charging stations, another cutting-edge automobile technology is being showcased at the U.S. Department of Energy event.
Several car manufacturers are debuting their first hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for sale in 2014. In addition, the California Fuel Cell Partnership brought several fuel cell vehicles to the Solar Decathlon to demonstrate how the technology works, as well as how advanced it is.
The Solar Decathlon, which challenges college teams from around the world to build energy efficient solar-powered houses, is being held in California for the first time since it began back in 2002. The event traditionally has taken place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
As it turns out, California is a good location for the event – and not just because most of the National Mall is closed due to the partial government shutdown. California is presently the only state in the country with the infrastructure to support wide adoption of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
There are a few other locations where hydrogen vehicles could be an option, including cities like Boulder, Colo., but California is ground zero for the new technology, said Chris White, Communications Director for the California Fuel Cell Partnership.
One vehicle on display is the Honda FCX Clarity, which is currently available for lease in Southern California. The lease is $600 a month and includes the cost of refueling. Other manufacturers have fleet lease programs for their first hydrogen cars.
When the cars become available for sale in 2014, White added that they are expected to be comparable in price to hybrid vehicles. They can’t be a lot more than hybrids or they won’t make it.
Establishing the infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles will be the biggest challenge in introducing them to the masses. California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed legislation approving funding for the first 100 hydrogen fueling stations in the state.
Right now, the fueling cost is included in the lease. But once the fuel becomes available at pumps, it will probably cost about $6 per kilogram, which is equivalent to about $3 per gallon of gas. A tank of hydrogen fuel will likely carry a car 350 to 400 miles.
That makes hydrogen vehicles similar to - but competitive with - standard gas burning cars. The biggest difference is that the only byproduct of a hydrogen vehicle is water vapor.
Of course, most hydrogen fuel is currently derived from natural gas, which doesn’t eliminate dependence on fossil fuels.
“But there are a lot of people working on that,” White was quick to point out.
Researchers are using solar energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, which could provide an alternative to current hudrogen fuel - and at a lower cost.
There is also a group making hydrogen from the biomethane in wastewater, White said.
“Ultimately, that’s a renewable resource. We’ll never run out of poop.”