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Time is right for hydrogen fuel in California, concludes new policy report

– California is poised to become a global leader in clean energy with a sustainable "hydrogen economy," but only if there is strategic investment in renewable energy research and development, according to a new report published by the University of California, Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL).

"The focus on hydrogen makes more sense if it is put in the broader context of a California clean energy strategy," said Timothy Lipman, lead author of the report and assistant research engineer with the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley and UC Davis. "We support increased efforts to explore the use of hydrogen, but key technical and economic challenges remain, and its benefits will take some time to be realized. We should also expand the use of renewable energy and pursue energy efficiency measures as other key ingredients of a more sustainable future."

The authors present their conclusions in a policy white paper, "An Integrated Hydrogen Vision for California." They examine research and development efforts for fuel cells and other advanced power technologies, the potential economic and environmental impacts of hydrogen production, and promising strategies for utilizing hydrogen as a transportation fuel.

The paper pulls from research in two other new reports published by RAEL that examine the viability of hydrogen and fuel cells as future power sources and that review advanced power technology programs in the United States and abroad.

"We should not need any further shocks to galvanize us to act," said co-author Daniel Kammen, professor in UC Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group and Goldman School of Public Policy and director of RAEL. "The California energy crisis, record gasoline prices, a vulnerable gas and electricity transmission system, and the risks due to global warming all send the same message: Energy diversity should be at the center of our energy policy. Hydrogen can fill an important role in that system by providing a means to store electricity, and to greatly expand the opportunities for zero tailpipe emission vehicles."

The other lead co-authors of the policy paper are Joan Ogden and Daniel Sperling at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. Other researchers from UC Davis, Humboldt State University, UC Berkeley and California Environmental Associates also contributed to the policy paper.

The researchers point out that hydrogen can be produced in many different ways with widely varying environmental and cost impacts, and that significant economic and technical hurdles to the transition to hydrogen energy need to be addressed. They emphasize the need for further research, which may reveal a way to combine these different supply options to achieve the most effective, low-cost system to produce hydrogen.

"Technical, policy and economic advances in the hydrogen energy field are accelerating, making hydrogen a promising component of a future cleaner energy economy," said Kammen. "California is uniquely positioned to lead a national and global push for clean energy development. About 11 percent of the state's electricity comes from renewable sources, such as solar or wind energy, and more than one in four hybrid electric vehicles in this country are in California."

Earlier this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order signaling his plan to create a "California Hydrogen Highway Network." The RAEL hydrogen policy white paper was developed in response to the order's call for the development of a blueprint by the end of 2004 that outlines plans for the "rapid transition to a hydrogen economy in California."

Hydrogen and fuel cell research in the state will be given a boost by a five-year, $190 million U.S. Department of Energy program announced in the spring. Under this "Vehicle and Infrastructure Learning Demonstrations" program, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and several other universities will be partnering with various automobile and energy companies to test hydrogen powered vehicles. UC Berkeley is partnering with DaimlerChrysler to conduct behavioral research starting in the fall with a fuel cell vehicle that will initially be refueled in nearby Richmond.

The authors find that several other states, as well as European and Asian nations, are aggressively competing with California to develop and deploy fuel cell systems and other advanced energy technologies for stationary power and transportation applications. To maintain its leadership in clean energy and to successfully develop an infrastructure to support the use of renewable fuels, California needs a major science and technology initiative, say the authors.

The authors say a California-based science and technology initiative for clean energy, should include hydrogen and fuel cells as one component, stressing the importance of the energy sector to the state's economic vitality and environmental and human health conditions. At the same time, they say, current efforts to increase the efficiency of energy use and to develop clean electricity supply options and biofuels for transportation should be expanded.

"There are so many different ways of producing hydrogen that we have to make sure we stay on the right path," said Lipman, who is also affiliated with UC Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group. "It is key that policy makers base their decisions upon solid data from research and development, demonstration and experimentation projects and infrastructure planning."

The policy paper was funded by the Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation, with additional support provided by the Energy Foundation and the UC Davis Hydrogen Pathways Program.

The paper and two prior reports are all available for download.