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The Gospel of Hydrogen Power

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Bringing hydrogen vehicles into wide use on the East Coast strained even Mr. Strizki’s talent for invention. On the West Coast, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former California governor, who owned a hydrogen Hummer, cleared regulatory barriers with a pen stroke in 2004. The East has a series of bureaucracies to navigate. For instance, hydrogen is not authorized to travel via bridges and tunnels. “We wouldn’t want to put out a vehicle that you couldn’t drive into Manhattan,” said Gil Castillo, who tracks regulations at Hyundai Motor North America.

Further, Air Liquide, a gas manufacturer, quietly built five ready-to-go stations between Hempstead, N.Y., and Littleton, Mass., has to deal with state and city officials right down to the fire marshal, said David Edwards, director of the hydrogen team for Air Liquide in the United States. “Each locality has its own fire marshal.”

Progress is hampered by the impression that hydrogen is likely to explode, an idea cemented by the 1937 burning of the Hindenburg. More recently, hydrogen took a hit when Nikola, a hydrogen electric truck manufacturer and stock market darling, faced claims it had exaggerated its accomplishments. The accusation came from a short-selling firm by the name of Hindenburg Research. The Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission have issued subpoenas to Nikola.

“Hydrogen is in some ways safer than gasoline,” said JoAnn Milliken, director of the New Jersey Fuel Cell Coalition, a volunteer group, who knew Mr. Strizki from her time at the Energy Department. She cited a 2019 study from Sandia National Laboratories that found a hydrogen car to have no more fire hazard than a conventional vehicle.

Ever since Elon Musk called fuel cells “staggeringly dumb,” there has been a fierce rivalry between lithium-ion and hydrogen backers. Cooler heads see a place for each. Electric is suitable for people with a garage who travel limited distances and can charge overnight. But for long-haul trucks, hydrogen doesn’t add weight or reduce cargo space the way batteries do. Furthermore, hydrogen tanks can be refueled in minutes.

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