What if your favorite place to buy a coffee was expected by the state, without being compensated, to sell a new product that may provide a more effective caffeine-fueled energy boost than their specially grown and brewed, traditional coffee beverages? Or, worse yet, what if your favorite coffee place had to carve out shelf space for a product not on the market yet, but will be – maybe, someday? Outrageous, unfair, right? Government can't make a store sell something – or can it?
The California Air Resources Board thinks the answer to that question is yes. It is on a mission to finalize a rule that would require certain gasoline producers/importers to build and operate as many as 500 hydrogen fuel stations, at a cost to them of over $1 billion. It is called the Clean Fuel Outlets Program and could move forward despite the fact that there are no publicly available, reliable figures as to how many of those vehicles will be on the road in the foreseeable future. The only certainty about this scheme is the costs endured by the gasoline producers/importers inevitably will be passed on to California consumers in the form of higher prices at the pump.
Don't get me wrong. The excitement and buzz going around about the prospects of new energy sources is exhilarating. I drive a hybrid Honda Civic, and my wife drives a diesel car that can run on used vegetable oil. I was a believer when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proudly signed his 2004 Hydrogen Highway Executive Order proclaiming the start of a new era for clean California transportation. He fantasized that hundreds of hydrogen fueling stations would be built, and those stations would be used by thousands of hydrogen-powered cars, trucks and buses by the year 2010.
The number of vehicle manufacturers showing interest in hydrogen technologies indicate that its development is promising. But why should the rest of us subsidize the hydrogen-highway pipe dream of the former governor, his well-heeled friends in Hollywood and other 1-percenters driving $100,000 experimental cars? Realizing Gov. Schwarzenegger's 2004 futuristic folly should not be justification for infringing on the marketplace's race to find the best answer to clean and efficient fuels.
As alternative-fuel vehicles come into their own in terms of practicality, reliability and affordability, investment in infrastructure will naturally follow, led by companies that will profit handsomely from that market segment. Left to evolve within the context of the marketplace, new plug-in electric cars and other vehicles that may include those run by hydrogen, stand the best chance of long-term success.
But who knows? Maybe while plug-in and hydrogen cars are improving to the point of attracting widespread consumer acceptance, so will lower-emission gasoline cars. Consider that in 2011, the Obama administration released new fuel-economy standards for automakers that require an automaker's fleet of cars and light trucks average 54.5 mpg by 2025. In the end, the more fuel-efficient, cleaner-burning gasoline vehicles of the future could leave car buyers little reason to embrace more expensive and exotic technologies. The point is that, at this moment, hydrogen is one of many promising, long-term options for fueling cars and trucks.
CARB's plan to force conventional fuel companies into paying for hydrogen delivery infrastructure is as fair as your favorite coffee outlet being forced to sell energy drinks to its regular customers. The misguided Clean Fuel Outlets program should be drastically modified before it does real damage to California's emerging energy-efficient vehicle markets, consumer choice and motorists' pocketbooks.