Scott Lerner: Hydrogen Vehicle Update

Back in February of 2013 when we spoke to hydrogen vehicle expert Robert Boyd, the mass market appeal of hydrogen cars seemed somewhat limited to say the least — hydrogen was less than an ideal fuel for a number of reasons. But a lot can happen in eight years, and now the hydrogen car seems to be re-emerging as a viable alternative to our old gas guzzlers. This week on Sea Change Radio, we provide listeners an update on the  hydrogen-powered vehicle with Scott Lerner, a writer who’s been driving a hydrogen-fueled Toyota Mirai since 2017. He tells us of the advantages and disadvantages of driving a clean fuel vehicle that’s not an EV, what hurdles the hydrogen vehicle industry faces, and why he thinks there’s a chance our nation’s enormous trucking fleet will someday be powered by clean-burning hydrogen gas.

Narrator  0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Scott Lerner (SL)  0:18  There are a lot of really, really frustrated people who are not driving these cars anymore who have given up, who think it’s a sort of a failure just for those minor inconveniences. And I’m really fascinated by the fact that these seem to portend future transitions that will have to undergo as the climate changes that will pose far greater inconveniences, and that concerns me and makes me wonder how really well prepared we are for such a such an event.

Narrator  0:44  Back in February of 2013, when we spoke to hydrogen vehicle expert Robert Boyd, the mass market appeal of hydrogen cars seemed somewhat limited to say the least. Hydrogen was less than an ideal fuel for a number of reasons. But a lot can happen in eight years. And now the hydrogen car seems to be reemerging as a viable alternative to our old gas guzzlers. This week on Sea Change Radio, we provide listeners an update on the hydrogen powered vehicle with Scott Lerner, a writer who has been driving a hydrogen fueled Toyota Mirai since 2017. He tells us of the advantages and disadvantages of driving a clean fuel vehicle that’s not an EV what hurdles the hydrogen vehicle industry faces, and why he thinks there’s a chance our nation’s enormous trucking fleet will someday be powered by clean burning hydrogen gas.

Alex Wise (AW)  1:59  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Scott Lerner. Scott is a writer, lecturer in composition at UC Irvine, and hydrogen vehicle enthusiasts. Scott, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Scott Lerner (SL) Thanks so much happy to be here.

(AW) – So you wrote a piece for the Sierra Club’s magazine, in last December’s issue entitled The hydrogen fuel cell car, a bumpy ride to a cleaner future, and I thought it was a great snapshot of where things are right now, in the hydrogen fuel space. Let’s start at the beginning of your experience with hydrogen fuel. You mentioned in the piece in 2003. When then President George W. Bush and Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, we’re pushing for hydrogen fuel to be our vehicles of the future.

SL  2:49  Yeah, thanks so much. Well, I do remember that moment when Swartz Nagar was talking about the hydrogen highway. And I do remember President Bush, speaking at the State of the Union, and talking about the possibility of cars to be powered by hydrogen. And it just seems seemed fascinating and far-fetched to me. And Fast Forward several years, I’m on the 57 freeway driving through Orange County. And lo and behold, there’s a hydrogen card right in front of me and actually next to me in the carpool lane, skipping all the traffic. So I went home and did some research couldn’t believe that it actually had come to fruition. So that started my interest as an adult that this technology was out there and that it was possible to drive one.

AW  3:34  At a recent fill up of my gas-powered vehicle. I was a shell station, and I noticed that there was a hydrogen fuel pump there. And I saw somebody that was fueling up with it. And I asked them a few questions and let them go on their way. But I didn’t even realize that it was happening. So why don’t you explain your most recent experience with this hydrogen powered Mirai that you’re leasing?

SL  3:59  Yeah, for sure. So the Mirai was the Toyota hydrogen car that I was able to lease there’s also a Honda and Hyundai. And I was able to lease one in late 2017. And at the time, there were maybe five or 6000 cumulative leases or sales of those cars in all of California. They’re about 10,000. Now, are there hydrogen cars outside of California? Or is California kind of the only place where this is happening? So it’s happening in a few places. Also, there is the station in Hawaii, I think they have very limited cars on the road there. There are no other states in the US that have actual infrastructure for this. But Korea, Japan, and Germany, and England all have some sort of networks that they’re developing. I think Germany and Japan are the most advanced right now. But California has definitely the largest hydrogen experiment right now, which is also what drew me to think more about it and to write about It, it’s kind of setting the tone for what this technology will look like for consumers elsewhere. And drivers here are experiencing the experiencing the challenges and the joys I guess.

AW  5:10  And what’s it like to drive a hydrogen powered vehicle like this Toyota of yours,

SL  5:16  It actually drives like an electric car. So it feels very much like how an electric car accelerates, you hear that wind, it has the region braking, so you feel that as well. The Mirage itself is rather luxurious. So it’s quite a nice vehicle. It’s a big sedan, so it has that kind of bowtie quality to it, and so on that frontage drives like a very nice car. And there are moments where you can just forget about it, you’re getting on the freeway, whatever. It’s just like you’re in a normal car.

AW  5:47  Now I want to get into the fueling issues, which seemed to be the biggest challenge for hydrogen cars to become more ubiquitous. But I remember in 2003, when I was first reading about this, how one of the real issues that was put out there was that hydrogen is very explosive, we all knew about the hydrogen bomb. So these are obviously little hydrogen bombs driving around. But that obviously is not the case. Why don’t you kind of explain how the flammability issue is being dealt with by the industry?

SL  6:21  Yeah, absolutely. I should have a disclaimer that I’m certainly not a scientist. But I can’t say that Toyota does release and has released videos of the tanks being impenetrable by bullets. So a lot of people think that the hydrogen tanks are even safer than a gasoline tank. And in the event of a crash, hydrogen will disperse really quickly into the air. Whereas gasoline is liquid, obviously, and will spill around the vehicle. And there’s actually a greater chance for a fire from a gas car crash, then the hydrogen crash. So I’m actually not sure if they’re technically safer. But I think that’s something the industry has been really interested in ensuring is is something that consumers are aware of that try to dispel the notion that hydrogen is a super hyper flammable gas, I love the Hindenburg or whatever. People definitely have that association. But I think if you look at my piece, you’ll see the link to the video where the bullet is does not penetrate the gas tank. And that should give you a little more security.

AW  7:18  And then let’s dive into the cost that you’ve had to run up during your leasing of this mirror I how did it compare in terms of sticker price when you bought the car lease the car compared to an electric car or hybrid or gas vehicle, and then what are the fueling costs like?

SL  7:38  So for me, the cost went down from driving a gas car. And that’s because of various incentives that Toyota and the California government help consumers get. So there’s a rebate you get for leasing or buying the car. Toyota gives you a free fuel card. So for the term of the lease, you don’t have to pay for hydrogen, which really cuts down the costs. So in terms of money, it was I was saving money, I wasn’t paying for gasoline, and the rebate helped to get the cost down for the lease itself. So on that front, it was it was quite good.

AW  8:14  But that was strictly this one offer that you took advantage of what do you think the real costs of this are? I mean, obviously, there’s no scale for these car companies. A customer like you is probably a loss leader for them, I imagine right?

SL  8:30  My understanding is the cars themselves cost and border produced than the sticker price. Obviously, the investment in technology must be immense. The gas prices are very high at the pump. But Toyota is subsidizing that through the get through the gas card. So I’m assuming that I haven’t been able to discern this, that the companies that are selling the gas or the hydrogen fuel are in fact operating maybe at a profit now because they’re selling at not like market prices. They’re selling at a sort of inflated price based on what people who don’t actually have to pay for the fuel are willing to endure at the pump. So like for example, they when I was driving their average kilogram of hydrogen, that’s how it’s measured not in gallons was around $16. And the car holds around four and a half kilograms. And you can get a roughly 300 miles on that. So I can’t do it in my head right now, but it was certainly more expensive than gas at the time, which was around $3 350 a gallon. It was much more expensive. But again, the driver like me or any driver, leasing a Mirai or buying one at the time would have gotten that fuel for free.

(Music Break)

AW  10:42  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to writer Scott Lerner. He is a lecturer in composition at University of California, Irvine. And he has a piece in the December Sierra magazine about hydrogen fuel cars. So Scott, you’re talking about the range that you had with this Toyota Mirai that you’ve leased now, anybody who has an electric car is familiar with the pursuit of charging stations and having to be a little bit more deliberate and conscious about the way they drive and where they drive. I imagine that’s magnified many times over with hydrogen, you’re in Southern California is kind of the Mecca of the automobile. So I’m imagining that around you, there’s plenty of hydrogen options. But what happens when you want to, let’s say drive up to San Francisco?

SL  11:33  Yeah, so that that’s definitely the case, I would say it’s in some regards the hydrogen infrastructure. And the ability to fuel the car in three or four minutes and get a full tank with hydrogen definitely changes the way that you engage with being able to take trips, as opposed to an electric car, which obviously takes a little bit longer to get that range. And sometimes that was, that was a great advantage. Other times, it was hard challenging to find fuel stations were out or they were non operable, and many other issues. So that was certainly you had to be just as mindful, I found about when you were getting your fuel, where you were getting it what trip you were about to take, it wasn’t as simple as using a gas car, certainly, for getting up and down the state along the five there’s really one station in Harris Ranch that connects with Northern California. And so cow, and I actually never did that trip I too much anxiety to do it. But people have I’ve talked to people who have done it. And if Harris Ranch is operating, and there’s fuel, then you can get there from LA and fuel up and keep going. If it’s not operating, then I think you’re out of luck. And you probably have to get towed several 100 miles back to another station.

AW  12:50  So critics like Elon Musk, who, who obviously has a financial interest in competing technologies is calling the technology mind bogglingly stupid. But he also is probably threatened being the CEO of Tesla. What do you think is the long term future of hydrogen fuel, Scott?

SL  13:08  Yeah, I think hydrogen cars will certainly play a role and the future transportation landscape, I think it’s undeniable that the flexibility and the ease of refueling in a few minutes is something that all of us are used to. And that can definitely change the way that we interact with these green technologies. So I think the way that the system is currently set up as a lot of stations are at gas stations that we are already used to on routes that we take already. So they’re well traveled, we know where they are, the pumps can just be next to or even replace gas pumps, I think that’s something that’s that’s definitely going to be that’s going to be appealing and is appealing. And that’s why there are a lot of people willing to try this out for now. I think also in sort of heavier duty vehicles, like semi trucks, or boats, or even airplanes, I think that we’ll see hydrogen being a really important fuel. And that’s, you know, it’s important to note that while this has been, as I wrote a pretty bumpy ride, electric cars are not, you know, without their own issues, from the mining of rare earth metals to lengthy charge times to the to that to the cost as well. So I think hydrogen will play an important role in and they can work alongside one another. I think that would be that’d be ideal.

AW  14:32  Do you think we’re going to be able to have more efficient hydrogen cars sooner then we’ll have better battery powered vehicles?

SL  14:39  I’m not sure about that. I know, the current round of hydrogen vehicles, they have about 400 mile range. I mean, honestly, I think the range question is not as important for most people. Most people don’t drive so much that it’s or they’re taking long trips regularly where the that kind of range is super important.

AW  14:56  But that’s just passengers but I’m also thinking about truck and other forms of transportation like, do you think our trucks of tomorrow will be electrically powered or hydrogen powered? If you had to guess…

SL  15:08  Oh, I think they’ll be hydrogen, I think the tanks for hydrogen can be very big and very light on a on a semi truck and a battery that size would be prohibitively large.

AW  15:17  And then if we’re scaling up to power our trucks with hydrogen, one might then assume that there’s going to be concomitant price reductions in passenger vehicles riding on hydrogen, because there needs to be a network, not only for vehicles, but also for the production and distribution of these vehicles. Right?

SL  15:39  Absolutely. Yeah, I think that’s I think that’s definitely happening. I think, like in Fountain Valley, they’re trying to create hydrogen from sewage waste. I think there are a lot of a lot of ways that local municipalities and communities are going to try to create this fuel and use it to power a variety of aspects of our lives. And from what I’ve read, I think it will play an important role in our transition away from oil and coal.

AW 16:02  So Scott, while we’re on the subject of some of the hurdles that hydrogen vehicles have to overcome, we didn’t talk about nozzle freezes. This is something that electric charging stations obviously don’t have. But it was an interesting little twist that I hadn’t considered.

SL  16:17  Yeah, so especially in the early days of me driving this car, there was this kind of old model nozzle and it had hooks to the car and the hydrogen pumping into the car is extremely cold. And a lot of times the nozzle would just get stuck, it would freeze for 30 seconds, a minute, five minutes, 10 minutes after you’re done fueling. And it becomes very frustrating. There’s no way to really know when when it’s going to come off, so people are yanking at them. And if there’s a line of vehicles behind you trying to fuel then that can be for me anxiety producing, and then if I’m waiting to get fuel on someone’s nozzle stuck, it becomes really annoying, because you’re like wanting to get fuel and get out. So there’s some new nozzles that have reduced the frequency of those freezes, or they alleged to but I still think that it happens. And it’s odd, I would just say that it’s something you you don’t know when to expect and you feel very helpless, trying to pull this nozzle off your car.

AW  17:19  So you mentioned that there can be lines when there’s things like nozzle freezes. But what about just the fact that there’s more and more people trying out this technology and a relatively low number of hydrogen fueling stations? Did you ever find yourself really waiting a long time to fill up?

SL  17:39  Absolutely, I think for me, and I’m driving in Orange County, mostly sometimes in LA County. For the most part, I would have to wait at least behind one or two cars to feel there, there were a few times where I’d pull up and be the only person there. And this was usually at off hours, like very early in the morning, I’m talking five to 6am or at night. So I think what has happened is the amount of cars on the road has just simply outpaced the construction of new stations. And older stations are not really equipped to handle the increase in cars. So that that in that adds to the line, some of the stations have lag and compressing the hydrogen to make it into the pumps. So that that adds some extra time between fuels. In addition to freezing. There’s also some user error that would add to time so yeah, there variety of causes, which could all be resolved by just expediting the construction of more stations. But it hasn’t really been the case. They’re 48 right now, that are up. But at any given time. It seems like right now I’m looking at the list of real time availability. Oh, how does that work? So there’s a couple websites. One is through the California fuel cell partnership, they have a station list and then you can see if a station is online or offline and how much fuel they have. But better than that is another driver Doug Dmitri built a website called h two dash And you can see in real time basically, he tracks station availability, he tracks how much fuel they have, and all these various charts and such. You can look specifically at any given area like Orange County right now is four out of nine stations are operating.

AW  19:26  So there are nine in Orange county. That’s not an insignificant amount, though. In San Francisco. I think there was only a few correct?

SL  19:34  So the Bay Area on this list, the Bay Area shows 19 total and some new stations have been popping up in that area,

AW  19:40  Like the one near my house that I just noticed.

SL  19:43  Yeah, it’s a Shell station. This one has multiple pumps, what they call fueling positions, and it’s able to pump far more hydrogen than some of the other older station. So this is kind of the future that we’re going to see is several pumps at one place, kind of like a gas station the capacity to store pump more fuel over any given time, this would have a tremendous impact on the on the driving experience, of course. So if there’s only one fuel pump, and it’s only can dispense enough for 20 cars a day, versus a station that can pump enough for 500 cars a day, and has four pumps that obviously would really change the dynamic and experience.

(Music Break)

AW  21:21  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Scott Lerner. You know, this is a environmentally focused radio program. And we haven’t really discussed enough about the ecological benefits of hydrogen. Let’s first talk about emissions and then and then if you can turn to the production of hydrogen.

SL  21:42  Yeah, so that the tailpipe emissions are zero, just water comes out of the tailpipe. It’s kind of like a little marketing gimmick. But sometimes you’ll just be driving and the little water tank will empty. So that’s the only tailpipe emission. So for local pollution, it’s great. I also have to say that during my routine checkups, my brake pads were like barely used because of all the region braking, and another brake pad dust can be quite significant to what is region breaking. It’s breaking where the car is read does using regenerative energy to store and it’s using that to slow down the car rather than the actual brakes. Overall emissions, I have to say that a lot of people that are against hydrogen note that a lot of hydrogen today is produced as a byproduct of methane. And so there is co2 emissions during that production. And hydrogen is captured at the end of that process, I believe. But all hydrogen isn’t made that way. And at any station in California, you’ll see a little pie chart that will show you how much of the hydrogen you’re using is from a green source or not. And I think it’s a goal of the state to have most stations be 100%. Renewable, so that that’s definitely a possibility with hydrogen, but it’s not there today.

AW  22:59  So do you know how hydrogen fuel is produced and then delivered for pumping into cars?

SL  23:05  Yeah, I’m not sure I could do it justice, honestly. But I guess in the production of other gases, this is my understanding and production of other gases, hydrogen is captured. And then that hydrogen can be used as fuel. So in some ways, it’s catching something that would have just been released otherwise. And in other ways, it’s tied to fossil fuel industry. But I think there are other ways to produce hydrogen, like I said earlier from sewage and cow manure and other other things that would be less connected to fossil fuels.

AW  23:36  Definitely a lot less extractive than fossil fuel production, that’s for sure. Yes. So you said you lease your car in 2017. And you got like, a free gas card with that these subsidies are still in place, I imagine are they going to continue for the indefinite future or at some point are the hydrogen fuel companies going to want, you know, $5 $10 a gallon for people to fill up.

SL  24:06  So the fuel subsidies are still in place. My understanding is once the fuel is similarly priced to gasoline, and an average driver can be convinced that it’s a worthwhile transition to move over from gas to hydrogen, then those subsidies might add but I think that isn’t here yet. I don’t quite understand if that’s because of the you know, no one’s actually paying for the fuel or just Toyota is or Honda or if there’s if there’s a price if there’s a there’s actually something that’s making the fuel that expensive and its production and delivery.

AW  24:41  And the gas companies what is their role in this – we talked about how you this Shell station near my house that has a hydrogen tank. Is Shell producing that hydrogen fuel or are they kind of just allowing a Toyota or a Honda to set up shop at their station>

SL  25:00  Yeah, so I think the large fuel companies Big Oil is getting increasingly involved. And the companies that are making the fuel now are like, multibillion dollar industrial gas producers. So the major one that supplies the fuel in California is Air Products. They’re like a publicly traded company that produces all types of industrial gases. But I think shell and some others are getting involved in building stations and, and perhaps producing the fuel. I haven’t read that specifically, but they have been investing in the technology they’re part of the partnerships with, with other car companies and other investors. So yeah, I think something that happened earlier on was there were some smaller independent companies that were trying to get involved. And they really struggled to contend with the high cost of repairs and, and to manage the situation. So I think increasingly, what we’re seeing is bigger, more established companies sort of taking over, if that makes sense.

AW  26:02  Yeah. Because right now they’re partnering with like a Shell – would Shell paying them or is an Air Products, for instance, are they paying for space at a Shell station?

SL 26:14  As far as I understand Air Products just delivers the hydrogen so I don’t think they have a stake in the in many of the stations themselves. I think what we’ve seen at some stations, so true, zero is the other major station operator will see is true zero will rent out space at a at a normal gas station or traditional gas station. I think something similar is happening at a shell station, except shell already owns or operates the station, perhaps. But I couldn’t tell you for sure what that what those arrangements look like. I haven’t been able to ascertain that.

AW  26:44  So Vaclav Smil famously postulated that it takes at least 50 years for major transportation transformations to fully take hold, but from your hands on experience with hydrogen vehicle technology, Scott, what do you think that transition could ultimately look like?

SL  27:05  This is a transition that basically asks us to do something we’re already familiar with, it asks us to stay in a single person car, maybe drive to work, refuel at a station, you know, everything is almost the same. And yet, with some of these challenges, like waiting in line, which doesn’t really seem that huge, but can be very frustrating nozzle freezes. There are a lot of really, really frustrated people who are not driving these cars anymore who have given up who think it’s a sort of a failure just for those minor inconveniences. I’m really fascinated by the fact that these seem to portend future transitions that will have to undergo as the climate changes that will pose far greater inconveniences, and that concerns me and makes me wonder how really well prepared we are for such a fits into that. So I’m pretty interested in that. And I think that this experiment really sheds light on that that possibility.

AW  27:57  Scott Lerner thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

SL Thank you.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Cadillac Jones, Bruce Springsteen and The Clash. Check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives they heard hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, many others and tune in to see change radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.