Biden and California EV bias throws shade on fuel cell

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Updated Nov 19, 2020
Hino Trucks and Toyota Motor North America will jointly develop a Class 8 fuel cell electric truck for the North American market.

There’s an old saying that most of us know only too well: As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. But will the same hold true for zero emissions?

With California requiring a percentage of new commercial trucks and vans sold in four years to be zero emissions, it’s certainly reasonable to wonder if the rest of the nation is on track for doing the same and if the legislators behind it will favor all-electric or fuel cell. That later part is important because legislators in California today have charged that their state favors all-electric vehicles over fuel cell.

Those concerns become even more relevant as the Electoral College delegates, barring any consequential legal challenges from President Donald Trump, presumably move forward in December to formally declare former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Lead roles at critical government agencies that impact the auto industry such as the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will have to be filled. And there’s obviously reason to believe that these picks will be more supportive of increased regulations, including some that require zero-emission technologies.

The big hint? On his website, Biden, a Democrat, said he “believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate changes we face.” The Green New Deal, a seriously ambitious plan with an estimated price tag ranging in the tens of trillions of dollars over the course of the coming decades, calls for zero-emission transportation.

BYD all-electric waste resources truckChinese-owned BYD produces all-electric busses and medium and heavy-duty trucks in California which continue to roll out across the country.

While no such federal laws are on the books, that may change soon. California has mandated that OEMs begin selling zero-emission commercial trucks and vans starting in 2024 and by 2045 offer nothing but zero-emission vehicles in the Golden State.

With the Green New Deal as his “framework,” there’s no reason to believe that Biden won’t push for nationwide zero-emission regulations. And there’s no reason to believe that the push won’t be largely, if not exclusively, all-electric. In “The Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future,” posted online at, nowhere does it mention fuel cells. I’ve searched the entire document twice. That’s strange, and frankly, irresponsible.

Electric vehicles get plenty of nods, especially in terms of overtaking the Chinese, which Biden’s plan says dominate EV production the world over. “…Biden will use all the levers of the federal government, from purchasing power, R&D, tax, trade and investment policies to reverse this trend and position America to be the global leader in the manufacture of electric vehicles and their input materials and parts.”

During his campaign run this past summer, Biden expressed plenty of support for electric vehicles including a charger network expansion, a Cash for Clunkers redux that would encourage more EV sales and a massive deal resulting in swapping out the U.S. government fleet for electric vehicles — all key points laid out in his plan. So, does this mean Biden will be the first in line to trade in his beloved, emissions-spewing 1967 Chevy Corvette for an EV which he showed off during campaign stops? Guess we’ll have to see.

What’s interesting here is that Biden’s plan mentions using hydrogen to fuel power plants not cars or trucks. There’s no mention of adding hydrogen fueling stations which are sorely lacking when compared to electric. The U.S. Department of Energy currently lists 45 hydrogen stations in the U.S. versus 27,329 Level 2 DC fast chargers. And Biden plans on adding even more chargers, something his plan mentions and he himself has said on the campaign trail.

Yes, there are plans to pursue additional research into renewable hydrogen (obtained mostly from methane coming from dairies, landfills and sewage plants), which is in keeping with current plans announced earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Energy, but still it’s clear that he’s much more of a cheer leader for all-electric vehicles.

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That’s interesting because Democrat leadership in California says their state has also been pretty busy promoting electric vehicles more than fuel cell solutions. Nine legislators, a mix of senators and assembly members, signed the three page letter to Governor Gavin Newsom urging that the state take a technology-neutral approach to emissions control which they say thus far has largely favored all-electric vehicles.

“We have observed that hydrogen fuel cell electric mobility solutions have been largely deprioritized compared to battery-based vehicles,” the letter states. “But, that single technology (battery electric) will not get us there alone and fuel cell electric vehicles will need to be a significant part of our zero emission portfolio, particularly in the heavy-duty and commercial sectors.”

As of today, a search of the news board at the California Air Resources Board shows 260 results for electric versus 90 for fuel cell. But news articles are one thing. How about the money?

Zero-emissions Kenworth Class 8 fuel cell tractorKenworth and Toyota partnered to test Class 8 fuel cell tractors in California.

Western States Hydrogen Alliance told Commercial Carrier Journal that since 2008 state “investments have been over 10x more into battery electric vehicles than fuel cell electric vehicles.”

In a letter released today, the Western States Hydrogen Alliance holds out hope that the state will more readily support fuel cell adoption.

“The tide is beginning to turn both in the marketplace and the Statehouse,” said WSHA Executive Director Roxana Bekemohammadi in response to the legislators’ letter. “End-users are calling for increased investment in fuel cell electric vehicles. Our electrical grid remains increasingly unreliable. Wildfires and public safety power shutoffs continue to exacerbate that problem.

“And yet, some of our state’s top regulatory officials, who control hundreds of millions in zero emission investment dollars, continue the wholly irresponsible practice of allowing their personal bias for one technology to drive agency decision-making while the accepted science so clearly shows that both technologies are critical in achieving their own stated goals,” Bekemohammadi continued.

It’s also worth noting that the only two vehicle manufacturers in California are heavily subsidized BYD and Tesla, both of which manufacture all-electric vehicles.

Of course, everyone wants to bet on a winning horse, but it doesn’t always end well. California attempted to revive steam engine technology in the 1960s. Plenty of time and money was wasted. Companies can’t afford such blunders.

In August, CCJ reported that Cummins is bullish on fuel cells with CEO Tom Linebarger saying that eventually the technology “will be the single largest part of what Cummins provides to customers.”

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Though not as numerous, fuel cells have been at work in various commercial settings from busses to Class 8 trucks to forklifts and producing impressive results. Shell has been busy, with some help from California, expanding their hydrogen network there. But clearly the momentum has been on the side of electric.

Tesla Semi tractor Tesla CEO Elon Musk continues to denounce fuel cell technology. Meanwhile, the long-awaited Tesla Semi continues to rack up orders.

Curious, I asked a fleet testing 10 electric eCascadias in Southern California why all-electric has been getting so much attention.

“Call it the Elon effect. The Tesla effect,” said Jim O’Leary, vice-president of fleet services for NFI.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly slammed fuel cells in interviews and on Twitter with stinging insults like “fool cells,” “mind bogglingly stupid,” and “staggeringly dumb.” Is it possible that politicians in California and elsewhere may be siding with Musk and relegating fuel cells to second-class status? You bet.

Sorry, but it’s irresponsible to so easily dismiss ongoing fuel cell R&D from major auto industry manufacturers like Cummins, General Motors, Hino, Honda, Hyundai, Kenworth and Toyota as just a waste of time and money. Unless, of course, you’re competing against them.