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To Get Hydrogen Competitive With Gasoline: $1 Billion, Cheap Natural Gas Needed

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While battery-electric and plug-in hybrid cars have had much of the spotlight to themselves for the past four years, we're going to be hearing a lot more about hydrogen fuel-cell cars over the next few.

And a new study just released by the University of California--Davis suggests that we are "tantalizingly close to the beginning of a hydrogen transition."

First 2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell delivered to lessee at Tustin Hyundai, June 2014

First 2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell delivered to lessee at Tustin Hyundai, June 2014

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Those are the words of the study's lead author, Joan Ogden, who's a professor of environmental science and policy and works in the university's Institute of Transportation Studies.

DON'T MISS: Toyota, Honda, Hyundai Fuel-Cell Cars: How Many Will Really Be Sold?

But as a nicely reasoned and thoughtful piece in AutoblogGreen points out, there are a number of caveats contained right in the study, entitled The Hydrogen Transition: This Time, For Real?.

About that $1 billion

The first is that the study itself estimates that "$1 billion investment would be needed in a series of lighthouse cities to bring the cost of hydrogen to $7/kg."

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

Enlarge Photo

That's the cost that would make hydrogen fuel no more expensive than gasoline, measured by cents per mile traveled.

To get there, the study recommends targeted investment of $100 million to $200 million to establish clusters of 100 hydrogen fueling stations that can support up to a total of 50,000 fuel-cell vehicles.

Those should be, the study suggests, in Southern California (where the state has already committed funds through 2025 for up to 100 stations), Germany, and Japan.

The challenge is that over the next five years, total volumes of hydrogen fuel cell cars in California are likely to be just a small fraction of that number--since their manufacturers will be using them largely as compliance cars to meet the state's stringent zero-emission vehicle sales mandate.

The study suggests it will take five years to get to a hydrogen-fuel cost of $7.50 per kg, and 12 years to make further progress to $6 per kg--during which time the fuel efficiency of gasoline and diesel cars will have risen, lowering their own cost per mile substantially.

If you like fracking...

The second concern is that affordable hydrogen fuel is predicated on a continued to supply of inexpensive domestic natural gas as a feedstock.

ALSO SEE: Can Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicles Compete With Electric Cars?

Much of that supply is being made newly available through hydrofracturing recovery techniques--better known as "fracking".

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

Enlarge Photo

"The next three to four years will be critical for determining whether hydrogen vehicles are just a few years behind electric vehicles," the study cautions, "rather than decades."

The study's title is posed as a question, which would seem to suggest serious concern over whether that will, in fact, happen.

But you will likely soon hear quite a lot about the benefits of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, why they have all the benefits of battery-electrics without any of the range anxiety, and why they're right around the corner.

This should be quite interesting to watch as it unfolds. Make some popcorn, buckle your seat belts, and settle in for the ride.

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