Ten years ago, AutoblogGreen interviewed professor Joan Odgen (alongside Honda's Steve Ellis) on the topic of hydrogen fuel cells. When you've been watching the green car industry as long as we have, you run into the same people time and again, especially someone who's been doing it even longer. So, when we noticed Dr. Ogden was part of the recent Honda Accord Hybrid launch at UC Davis where we toured the Honda Smart Home, we just couldn't help ourselves. Dr. Odgen agreed to sit down with us for a look back - and ahead - at the state of the H2 industry.
ABG: So, we'll have to check in one more time in a decade.
JO: Yeah, check in ten years from now, which will be very interesting to see indeed where we are then.
ABG: So, we're kind of doing a little bit of catch-up compared to the interview that we did ten years ago. Obviously the automotive industry goes in cycles, and there was a push for hydrogen in the Bush era. Schwarzenegger said we're going to have the hydrogen highway. That kind of took a dip. Then we saw ethanol, things like that, and now it's electric cars, and now hydrogen's kind of coming back. When you compare the two peaks or the two up-scales that we had back 10 to 12 years ago and now, how would you compare those two times?
JO: That's very interesting. I've kind of taken the long view on the R&D and commercialization of advanced automotive technologies, and let's take hydrogen as an example. A lot of work early on was on things like fuel cells, which are the guts of a hydrogen car. Making those work, making them last a long enough time, making them compact enough to fit under the hood, all of those things took a lot of time.
I think when we got to the first demonstration of fuel cell cars where things kind of came together, the fuel cells had come down. They'd been miniaturized enough or shrunk down enough you could put them in a car comfortably, where you worked out how to store hydrogen on board reasonably. You had some really nice cars that people were building in the early 2000s, and that-
ABG: The FCX was one.
JO: The FCX was one. The Clarity from Honda. Some of Daimler's F-Cell cars. There were a number of vehicles that the progress was really amazing. I'll just say I've been watching this field for close to 30 years now, and in that time frame you can see tremendous changes. The zero-emission vehicle laws in California helped galvanize interest in zero-emission vehicles, and the two types are pure battery cars or hydrogen fuel cell cars that could qualify as pure zero-emission, zero emission from the tailpipe. There was interest that was stirred up by that, plus some advances in fuel cell technology.
The first fuel cell vehicles, though, were vans, and the fuel cell was the size of a refrigerator. It was huge. Through some incredible engineering over a period of about 10 years, that then became cars where you could fit everything in, they would run well, and we began to see those cars. Then people got very excited about that, and the automakers, a number of them put a lot of their own development interest and money into developing this. Certainly, Honda, Toyota, Daimler, also GM and Nissan, other auto manufacturers were developing both things in the ZEV or zero-emission vehicle realm, battery cars and fuel cell cars.
"The first fuel cell vehicles, though, were vans, and the fuel cell was the size of a refrigerator."
Some of them emphasized one more than the other, but I think many of them, if they were looking at the possibility of a world where electric drive and zero emission became a really big thing in the future and we had more and more models telling us if we're going to meet greenhouse gas rules, we got to go super efficient. We got to be able to tap into renewables.
The automakers looked at this. They wanted to develop both. They saw different kinds of applications, so a battery car as being more urban, maybe smaller cars, maybe shorter range. They saw the fuel cell car, which was a more challenging technology, perhaps, and also needed a new infrastructure, since you couldn't just plug them into what we have, that they saw as a more general-purpose car. Behaviorally, you could be more like a gasoline car. You could refuel these things quickly. It would take a couple of minutes, maybe three to five minutes, as opposed to maybe several hours at home, or even with a fast charger, maybe a half-hour or something.
They saw that. They saw long-range fuel cells. You could have in excess of 300-mile range. They saw, well, if we have a future market with a lot of zero-emissions, maybe the battery cars will be the smaller, city cars, and the fuel cells will be the bigger cars to take on the long trip. They thought, well, there's going to be a market for both, and we're not sure how the costs and the technological development's going to go, so both of them were developed.
That being said, the attention in the media and policy-makers who came out in favor of one type of vehicle or another type of vehicle, that varied. I like to think the development time cycle for a new type of car like that is several decades. You need to figure out the components that make a good fuel cell, make a good battery, put it into a vehicle, get it out there. It gets adopted in the market. It takes a fairly long time, but the waves of enthusiasm and policy, it's on a much shorter time scale, so you can get this effect. It seems like the focus is going, oh, now it's on electrics in the late 1990s. Oh, now it's on methanol. Oh, fuel cells.
"The development time cycle for a new type of car like that is several decades."
Well, in each one, it turns out to be harder than what you can do in a four-year political time cycle, perhaps, and so it gets set aside. You get these waves of enthusiasm that pop up in policy, and the media, and so on, but at the same time, the automakers were still developing both of these options for ZEVs. The amount of policy money going into things varied a good deal, you also had the underlying technological development that was going on to meet things like the need for zero-emission vehicles that kept both of these options alive. I think that was maybe not as perceived by the public.
There was a lot of advocacy of fuel cell advocates and battery advocates, and they were saying, "Oh, ours is the only way to go. Ours is the best thing since sliced bread." Well, the automakers weren't really acting that way. They were looking on a much technological view where, well, these could both have places in the future. There were ramp-ups and fall-downs in funding for different technologies.
My colleague Dan Sperling likes to call it the fuel du jour syndrome, but it's really kind of a fuel du political term type of thing. It's several years instead of a long time, but actually developing one of these vehicles and bringing innovation to large-scale use so that a significant number of people on the road have it, as you know, is a multi-decade thing.
ABG: Sure. Is there in this phase, where again, with the new version of the Clarity coming out, the Mirai, like we just one parked over by the Smart Home, other potential fuel cell vehicles in the works, is there something different this time?
JO: Yes, there is something different this time. As somebody who's been watching this for a long time, and people were very enthusiastic about fuel cells, even in batteries, even 30 years ago, well, it's gotten more and more and more real as the technology's gotten better, as we've had these wonderful prototype cars, as electric battery cars have come into the market. Now there are, I don't know, north of a million of them worldwide.
That has made a huge difference, and specifically on the hydrogen and fuel cell side, what's made a difference is the level of coordination that we now see. One of the hardest things for hydrogen, and this is I would say harder than for battery cars, is that you have to have the cars and the infrastructure at the same place at the same time. There are different entities, different types of industries that are involved with making that all happen in a coordinated fashion, so you have, well, you'll bring the cars here, but unless there are stations here, how are they going to refuel?
"Yes, there is something different this time."
I might say there are several places in the world where fuel cells are being developed, but you need a regional sort of lighthouse city approach where you say, okay, we're going to pick a region. Let's say it's Southern California, or let's say it's Germany, or cities in Japan over there. You pick this and you have a plan that you're going to bring cars, that people get trust in each other.
Let's say if there's a subsidy for vehicles, you don't want the rug yanked out while you're building this market, or if there's a subsidy for building stations or something. All of those things have to coordinate, and the coordination has gotten much better, and there have been realistic plans developed that have buy-in from most of these stakeholders who are involved in this business.
ABG: The coordination is what you're seeing as the key difference now versus in a previous wave.
JO: That is different. That's different. Plus, the policies are there. With something like hydrogen, you have two parts of let's say the fuel-vehicle pathway. You have the vehicles. You have to build those, but you also have to build stations, and so there is policy support for both parts of that. Prior, maybe there was only a zero-emission vehicle mandate, so that was something the car-makers had to deal with, but there wasn't necessarily a zero-fuel thing. But now there's support for chargers. There's support for hydrogen stations, support for a variety of other fuels like CNG and so on that are part of what's happening in California.
There are public-private partnerships that have come into being. The California Fuel Cell Partnership, which I think has been around for maybe about 12 years. There's one of them in that fuel, but we also have the Plug-In Vehicle Collaborative in California. We have other regional entities like that in the zero-emission vehicle realm around the world, and that has been really important because it's been a place for people to come together and over time be able to work out plans that are more realistic and much more detailed than anything we had before.
Plus, we're getting now accumulated knowledge about how vehicles work, how the stations work, what it's really going to cost, how long they're going to last, and so on, which is really important for building the kind of confidence to make the kind of investments we're talking about, that we would need to take the next step with these kinds of vehicles. It's different.
ABG: Just as one example of something I remember hearing is a couple years ago at a Mirai event, they basically said, well ... and Honda does this too with the Clarity, and Hyundai does it with the Tucson ... they're giving the hydrogen away for free for this three years or whatever the term of the lease is.
JO: As part of the lease, yeah.
ABG: That sounds good, but then the reality was, well, all of the pumps aren't calibrated enough. There's no standard of how to deliver a kilogram of hydrogen, so we can't charge anybody for it because we don't know ...
JO: They've fixed that.
ABG: Right, but that's my question is, is that the kind of thing that wasn't really considered 10 years ago, and now we're in a phase where, oh, this is real. We have to figure out how to do this?
JO: Exactly. That's very well put, and some of the problems we're having now are problems people would have been so happy to have, because they're real problems of commercialization and what happens when you really get a system out there and have to make it work. There are a number of things like that are being addressed, and there are forums for that, both within the state government here at California, led by the Air Resources Board and the CEC, California Energy Commission.
At the national level, the Department of Energy, through a program called H2USA, is trying to do that, and there's something called H2FIRST, which is a national lab-based which is trying to come up with standards, exactly the kind of thing you mentioned. There are a lot of real-world problems like that we probably solved these for gasoline a hundred years ago, and now we're doing the same, having to address some of these kinds of things for alternative fuels.
I just read, I was reading a paper just a day or two ago about exactly this problem of metering hydrogen. Can you do it accurately? Can you sell it? Is it legal to sell? Those things are being addressed technically and through regulations that allow you to sell, but it's new, and this is a new fuel. It hasn't been used this way before, so there are things like that have to be worked out. None of them are show-stoppers, though. These are just things that you need to work out to make this go forward.
I think, though, it really is different than I've ever seen it before. It is much more real than I've ever seen it before. There's a lot more money behind it, both private and public, than there's ever been before, and I think there's a lot more planning, and buy-in, and stakeholder coordination, and road maps that these stakeholders have all talked about before. Prior to that, it might have only been one actor within this who said, "Oh, let's do this." That's really changed, and so having looked at this, as I say, for about 30 years, this is as real as it ... It's more real than it's ever been, and there's more push behind it.
This year, next year, the next few years are really going to be very telling for fuel cells. There are projects that are starting now and are being built. California is one epicenter of this, but also Japan and Germany. There are going to be some other places, perhaps South Korea, other European countries, Scandinavia, UK, and so on, and they're going to prove this out at a network level, really different than just proving an individual vehicle. It's necessary, but not sufficient for the commercialization of the whole system. It's different than proving a single hydrogen station, that you can build it. This is really a network, and that's what's needed to commercialize these kinds of new technologies.
We'll see. One of the big questions is, how will consumers greet this? There's been a lot of interest in electric vehicles, electric drive. As I think we were talking about maybe at lunch, one of the great things about electric vehicles, they're super fun to drive, especially at low speeds. The torque is unreal, and it's really fun. You get those similar kind of drive experience from a fuel cell car as well, because it's electric motor drive, too. It just comes from a fuel cell to then the battery. Will people pay for that? Will people say, "Well, I'll go with the hydrogen because it's zero-emission and it'll give me the long range"? It's kind of a general-purpose car.
I think there's going to be a period of proving these things out. I think having these regional lighthouse cities is really crucial. The tie-in with renewable energy is a very interesting thing. That's already appeared in the battery car world. People want to charge their electric car with solar or wind. They want to have something renewable all the way. They don't want to make their electricity at a coal plant. Well, people with hydrogen have a similar interest. They would like to make their hydrogen from renewables, which there are many ways to do. Hydrogen is a lot like electricity that way. You can make it from almost anything, a lot of renewable resources that could be brought to bear.
ABG: Welll, it's absolutely fascinating to watch. I knew you'd be a good person to talk to. I need to get back in the cars. Thank you so very much.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.