The Odyssey Of The Hydrogen Fleet: A Tragicomedy In Six Acts
There is an inevitability to the stumbling and flailing journey of hydrogen for transportation. Every effort follows the same steps, simply replacing the cast and setting as the play unfolds. There are conmen, hucksters, marks and dupes involved. Much money, time and talent is wasted along the way. Tune in as we explore the Odyssey of the Hydrogen Fleet, and look at some local performances that are underway or have already closed the curtains.
Act 1: As the curtain rises, we see a corpulent, aging lobbyist, oil in his hair and the manly cologne Eau de Hydrocarbon wafting in a cloud before him. He’s wining. He’s dining. He’s spreading gifts and favors around. He’s flattering. He’s lying. A chorus of hydrogen fans sing discordantly but approvingly.
Act 2: He leaves a slippery trail behind him. Enter the credulous governmental apparatchik, stage left. His gormless face exposes his desire to do the right thing, along with the complete lack of ability to understand what that might be. He slides on the slippery trail into the arms of the lobbyist. They do a ribald and clumsy tango, and the apparatchik is pushed, pulled, prodded, cajoled and spun madly until he believes that hydrogen must be the transportation fuel of the future. The chorus of hydrogen fans’ off key voices grow louder.
The lobbyist exits, stage left, his work on behalf of his hidden employers done, off to another stage in another place, but the smell of his cologne lingers, as does the slimy trail on the stage. The apparatchik pulls a cord and a huge sack full of money descends from the ceiling, stage right. The chorus’ voices are suffused with avarice and approval.
Act 3: Enter a fleet owner and operator, stage right, lured by the scent of money wafting from the immense bag sitting on the stage. Underfed and his clothes threadbare, his fingers and eyes show the hard work and dedication he’s put into operating an efficient transit or transportation system. But his eyes only rise up from his feet as far as the money. He looks neither left nor right, nor out at the audience who are shouting “It’s a trap! Don’t be a sucker!” The apparatchik too is entranced by the funding he has unlocked and the good he believes he will do, and can’t tear his eyes off the cash. The chorus attempts to overwhelm the audience with angry and inane cries.
A series of images of massive fleets of electrified trains, battery electric buses and Tesla Semis flash on the back wall of the stage but their eyes are only for the money in front of them. Another series of images of rusting hulks of hydrogen fueled buses and trucks flash on the back wall, yet neither the fleet owner or apparatchik look around.
The two tug the bag to center stage, join hands and dance an awkward gavotte around it, slipping on the remaining slick of oil on the stage. A flat at the right of the stage rotates to show a complex hydrogen tank system with compressors and heat sinks and pumps and in front of it a sleek vehicle designed by someone who had clearly never worked in transportation. They take bundles of money from the sack and hurl them at the flat. The chorus of hydrogen fans exult singing hydrogen hosannas.
The curtain falls. Intermission. No smoking in the lobby please. Especially near the hydrogen dispenser.
Act 4: The curtain rises. The bag is near empty. The pile of money in front of the flat displaying the hydrogen facility and vehicle is gone. In front of it, his clothes even more threadbare, seemingly even less poorly fed stands the fleet owner, hands extended, his eyes, as always, on the sack of money, depleted as it is. The chorus is silent.
The apparatchik is nowhere to be seen. In his place is a more intelligent and wiser member of the government. His face is sober. He looks into the bag and sighs hugely. He looks at the outstretched hands of the fleet operator and shakes his head. He pulls a cord. The sack, much lighter, disappears upwards and out of sight. The chorus remains silent.
Act 5: The fleet owner is forlorn. Finally his eyes rise up from the ground. The same images of large and successful electrified fleets and rusting junkyards full of hydrogen vehicles flash on the back wall, but now he’s looking at them. He is clearly struggling to understand. He shakes his head, he rubs his eyes, he gnashes his teeth.
He strides back and forth. He pulls a few coins and a couple of small bills out of his pockets and hurls them at the flat with the hydrogen facility and vehicle, but they disappear, swallowed by the insatiable gullet of the system without a trace. Still nothing from the chorus of hydrogen fans.
Act 6: He sighs. Walks over to the flat and heaves it around. The flat, rotated, shows the same hydrogen facility and vehicle, but abandoned, rusting and with weeds growing around them. He stands mournfully in front of it, then shrugs off his funk and squares his shoulders. He still has an operation to run.
He turns, walks steadily to stage left and pivots the flat there. A simple image of electric lines running into a depot and sensible electric buses is on the back. He raises his hand, touches the image. A clean techno beat sampled from working transportation systems arises. The chorus of hydrogen fans is notably silent.
Curtain close. Applause.
I wish this were simply a silly little tale to amuse you in the reading of it, and me in the writing. But it’s playing out all over the western world, and has been for years. New performances of it are starting in cities and states near you as you read.
The pattern never changes. The fleet owners never look up to see how this played out elsewhere. The do-gooder apparatchiks never bother to engage their higher brain functions, use spreadsheets with anything approaching rigor or ask what has happened to other hydrogen programs. The fleet owners never look up from their little patches of road and realize that their conditions are exactly the same as everybody else’s. I’d use a Matrix analogy but the red-pillers have ruined that one.
Here are some examples of this playing out. Let’s start in the country side of France, in the commune of Pau. It’s a pleasant place of rolling hills with about 70,000 inhabitants. The government provided scads of cash, €9 of the €15 million for the scheme with its twelve buses. Note that it’s more than a million per bus, about three times the cost of a Yutong electric bus. The commune’s transit firm bought hydrogen buses and pumps. They managed to source hydrogen that was 80% green. They had an incredibly difficult time keeping the complex hydrogen drive trains running. Then the government stopped paying for the hydrogen. The commune ditched the buses and pivoted to electric buses.
Let’s head over to Germany, to Lower Saxony. The local light rail operator, LVNG, got €93 million from the government to buy 14 hydrogen trains which went into operation in 2022. They can’t afford to keep them running without lots of governmental money, so a year later, they’ve made it clear that they aren’t buying any more and will be buying only electric trains from now on. Of course, they could have looked at the nearby state of Baden-Württemberg which at the beginning of 2022 made it clear that hydrogen trains were three times more expensive that grid-tied and battery trains. But no, looking up and asking experts isn’t what many of these parochial fleet operators do.
Next, a trip next door to Austria. Ikea has just entered Act 3, receiving €4.8 million to purchase a mere five mid-sized delivery vans because their supplier makes crappy battery electric vans with inadequate range in a country of with 22,000 public electric vehicle chargers and only seven hydrogen refueling stations. Compare that almost a million euros with the comparable range and load BrightDrop ZEVO 600’s MSRP of $85,000, well under a tenth. I predict that the drivers will love driving mostly between the widely spread refueling stations and delivering almost no parcels to cranky customers while continuing to get paid. For a year or perhaps two. Then Ikea will realize that Quantron makes terrible electric vans and force them to improve or find a supplier like BrightDrop that is technically competent with real delivery vans.
This isn’t just a European thing, of course. Next let’s go look at India. It’s a fascinating case study which made the hydrogen chorus chant madrigals of joy very badly. The country bought some hydrogen locomotives. For a tiny subset of their tracks that were used occasionally for tourism on very old routes through a scenic area. Meanwhile, the country has electrified over 85% of their heavy rail and is heading for 100% by 2025. I predict the tiny tourist trains will be switched into an unused sidetrack within a couple of years of first hitting the rails, theoretically in 2024, replaced with battery electric trains.
But for the full blown Las Vegas-scale megaproduction version of this show, we have to look at California. A couple of decades ago, battery electric vehicles really weren’t a thing but the hydrogen economy was a massive hype bubble. As a reminder, Plug Power, Ballard and FuelCell Energy all had their massive stock overvaluations in 2000. Rifkin’s tome of nonsense, The Hydrogen Economy, came out in 2002. A lot of otherwise intelligent people thought hydrogen for transportation and a lot of other things it’s ill-suited for was the only option.
The hype around hydrogen for energy was higher then, but the wasted money, regulatory time and heavy lobbying by the fossil fuel industry was a lot lighter than it is now.
Fast forwarding, hydrogen instead of batteries is like nuclear energy instead of wind and solar power. They are both ideas that made some sense in the early 2000s in the absence of clearly better, cheaper and completely fit for purpose alternatives. They are both technologies that the march of progress has not been kind to. They are both technologies where there has been a global market bakeoff, and they have have lost badly.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a legacy left behind. In the case of nuclear energy, it’s people like Michael Shellenberger, a man whose commitment to nuclear energy is so absolute that he’s become a climate change denier and anti-renewables campaigner because renewables are so obviously a better wedge against global warming.
He made his career in California around the same time as hydrogen for transportation sunk its hooks into the state deeply. Sometimes it’s better to be a follower than a leader, and while California’s heart was in the right place, it’s head was stuck in a place devoid of oxygen.
So now California is the only state in the USA with hydrogen refueling stations, just as British Columbia, another bubble of hydrogen for energy leftovers, has five of the six hydrogen stations in that nation. Similar legacy problem.
And California keeps throwing money at hydrogen fleets, pouring good money after foolish money in an unending stream that makes a lot of people in the state think that there must be something to this nonsense. Being Americans, of course, they never look beyond the borders of their state, and frequently not their counties, at what’s transpiring in the rest of the world.
Most recently, the county of Santa Cruz in California arrived at Act 3 of the tragicomedy, and purchased 57 hydrogen fuel cell buses, with US$59 million in funding from a couple of levels of government, and an application for $27 million of the Volkswagen DieselGate money as well. Yet again, over a million per bus, with the hopes of turning that into $1.5 million per bus.
Why? Well, obviously battery electric buses can’t deal with the hills in Santa Cruz. That’s just too hard. After all, there couldn’t possibly be over 600,000 battery electric buses on the roads of China in every combination of geography and climate proving that Santa Cruz’ hills are just not all that. Scenic and pleasant sure, but China’s border runs through Mount Everest.
The hydrogen chorus burst out in off key show tunes, mangling the lyrics to old Andrew Lloyd Webber songs, which are at least impossible to make worse.
Will Santa Cruz, uniquely in the world, persist with hydrogen buses? Well, California’s expensive and deeply foolish network of hydrogen refueling stations might provide a clue. About the same time Santa Cruz was inking the deal, only half of the stations were open because they couldn’t get hydrogen. The stations that were open were selling hydrogen for $36 per kilogram, which is like $18 gasoline, getting as much of the $15,000 in free hydrogen that Toyota has to give away with every new and used Mirai to get anyone to buy them before the cars inevitably disappeared from the roads.
The next couple of years in Santa Cruz will see Acts 4, 5 and 6, and as always, the hydrogen chorus’ discordant squawking will be completely absent.
If you are in a province, state or city where you see the signs of the Odyssey of The Hydrogen Fleet entering Act 1 or 2, try hard to nip them in the bud. Much pain, effort, wasted money and disinformation will be avoided if you succeed.