March 1

Some Hydrogen Car Owners Are Still Waiting for the Future to Arrive


DEBRA SNELL THOUGHT she did her research. Before she and her husband signed the paperwork on their new red Toyota Mirai last March, they went to a hydrogen fueling station near their home in Grass Valley, California, northeast of Sacramento. There, on two consecutive weekends, they interviewed members of a small but proud group: drivers who, attracted to environmental benefits, low price tags, and automaker and state incentives, took a chance on the first hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

“We got mostly very good reviews,” Snell says. After years of promises, drivers and salespeople told her, hydrogen fueling was really coming together. The Snells, who are retired, care about the environment. When they bought the hydrogen fuel-cell car, “we felt like it was a really pioneering thing to do,” she says. “We still do.”

But the experiment went badly almost from the start. A fuel station 5 miles away from the Snells’ home, which was closed when they bought the car, reopened and then closed down again. The couple expected that filling up their tank would cost $75; by last fall, it had gotten closer to $180. Toyota acknowledged their fuel trouble but declined to buy back the car, Snell says. The company has offered some troubled FCEV drivers support as California experiences hydrogen issues, and so has kept the couple in a rotating stable of hybrid rentals for the past eight months, all while they continue to make their $500 monthly car payment.

“We have a giant, beautiful, red paperweight in our driveway.”


This month, Shell Hydrogen, one of the state’s five hydrogen fuel station operators, said it would exit the light-duty hydrogen fueling market entirely, closing seven of its eight stations and working to offload the eighth to another operator. According to a dashboard maintained by the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership, a group made up of state agencies and private industry, 16 of the 53 remaining hydrogen stations in the state were offline this week.

Shell Hydrogen’s decision left the city of San Francisco without a station within city limits, and Sacramento with just one. Today, one year after the Snells made the leap to greener fuel, the closest hydrogen station is 65 miles away—a hefty round trip for a car that gets around 400 miles per tank.

A closed Shell Hydrogen fuel station in San Francisco, California on February 23, 2024.PHOTOGRAPH: WIRED STAFF
“We have a giant, beautiful, red paperweight in our driveway,” Snell says.

Snell is just one of many California hydrogen fuel-cell car owners facing difficulties as a confluence of unfortunate events—tech limitations, rising station operating costs, policy changes, even the Russian invasion of Ukraine—have hiked hydrogen fuel prices and taken hydrogen fueling stations offline.

Just under 12,000 fuel-cell electric vehicles, powered by hydrogen instead of gas or pure electricity, were on the road in California in 2022, where the vast majority of the country’s FCEV drivers live. (Only one other state, Hawaii, even has a publicly available hydrogen fuel station.) American drivers bought almost 3,000 of the cars last year, according to an industry group.

FCEV drivers who spoke to WIRED report that they love their cars, which offer smooth, comfortable rides and tech features, and were purchased, new or used, at lower prices than competitive vehicles. All three automakers (Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda) selling the vehicles in California offer $15,000 fuel cards with each purchase as an added bonus. Some drivers told WIRED that their FCEVs fit neatly into their lives, because they live near consistent fueling stations, can depend on another car when prices get too expensive, or don’t drive much at all. But others say they can’t keep the cars moving.

“We are suffering from premature deployment,” says Robin Gaster, a public policy researcher and senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation who recently published a report on clean hydrogen policy. Policymakers and car companies, he argues, were too early to launch unproven hydrogen fueling technology.

Sacramento resident Scott Werntz and his wife Lori bought a Toyota Mirai in the fall of 2022. A discount and included fueling card made the car feel like a great deal. But last year the couple began to have to wait in line, sometimes for more than hour, to refuel their car. Once, they had to have their vehicle towed after a local fuel-cell station went down while they were waiting to top up. Now, they say, they rely on another car and a gratis rental from Toyota to get around.

Toyota spokesperson Josh Burns said the company is aware of refueling issues in the state. “We remain committed to working with stakeholders to support California’s hydrogen refueling infrastructure now and into the future,” he wrote in an email. He said the company is working with Mirai owners to help them on a case-by-case basis.

A Hyundai spokesperson referred WIRED to Bill Elrick, the executive director of the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership, who wrote that the Shell Hydrogen shutdown will “cause temporary challenges,” but that new vehicles, funding, and infrastructure made the group optimistic. Carl Pulley, a Honda spokesperson, said that the company has made investments in hydrogen fueling infrastructure in California and highlighted the CRV e:FCEV, a new fuel-cell vehicle set to debut this year.

Shell Hydrogen spokesperson Anna Arata wrote in a statement that the company aims to “be more disciplined in our delivery,” and intends to invest $1 billion in hydrogen and carbon-capture storage technology both this year and next.

In many ways, fuel-cell electric vehicles are an appealing option for car buyers looking to lessen their carbon footprint. A greener alternative to internal combustion engine cars, they’re powered by compressed hydrogen, which is converted by onboard fuel cells into electricity.

Hydrogen excels where battery electric vehicle tech falters. The fuel is abundant, light, emissions-free and, theoretically, cheap—attractive to many who despair at the tricky state of the electric vehicle battery supply chain. Filling a car up with hydrogen is quick, more akin to topping up with gas than waiting between 15 minutes and several hours at an EV charging station. And FCEVs have long ranges, traveling up to 400 miles on a tank.

Today’s “gray” hydrogen, which is the majority of what’s fed into cars, still creates carbon dioxide waste. But a veritable rainbow of alternatives—including blue, green, pink, and white hydrogen—could offer cleaner ways to use the fuel.

But in California, supporting hydrogen fuel has proved difficult. It is expensive to store and transport, and prone to leaks. Hydrogen fuel prices have more than doubled since the fall of 2021, with industry analysts blaming the rise on global sourcing issues spanning from Russia to Canada. And the state’s efforts to build out new stations and maintain old ones have stalled. Operators have struggled to adhere to permitting timelines, find replacement parts, and keep older equipment running. The California Air Resources Board reported in December that a goal to open 100 or more hydrogen fueling stations by the end of 2023 wouldn’t be met until 2025 at the earliest.

Still, more money is on the way. Last fall, the US Department of Energy selected California as a national hydrogen hub, pledging up to $1.2 billion to support the alternative fuel. Just days after Shell Hydrogen said it would close up shop, California itself said it would spend $1.9 billion to meet its electric vehicle and hydrogen fueling goals.

How passenger cars will fit into that moneyed future is yet to be determined. David Blekhman, a professor and technical director of the Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility at California State University Los Angeles, says there is a “growing universe” of hydrogen usage—in everything from aviation and shipping to steelmaking, fertilizer production, and renewable energy storage. The California trucking industry, under pressure of stringent state emissions goals, is especially excited about hydrogen fuels because they allow longer trips, quicker refueling, and heavier loads than electric trucks powered by weighty batteries. Despite its retrenchment, Shell Hydrogen still operates three heavy-duty hydrogen fueling stations in Southern California.

As for the Californians already driving FCEVs cars? “I want to praise those pioneers,” says Blekhman. He urges anyone considering a hydrogen-powered car to make sure they have good fueling options nearby.

That is, unfortunately, not the case for Scott Werntz, the Sacramento Mirai owner. “The vehicle is great, but the infrastructure isn’t there,” he says. “We were too-early adopters.”


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