Automakers are invested in the switch to electric vehicles (EVs). But electricity isn’t the only alternative fuel some advocates push as the future of transportation.

Hydrogen fuel cells turn the most common element in the universe into electric current to move a car. Hydrogen-powered cars emit only harmless water.

Related: What Is A Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Several automakers sell hydrogen-powered cars, often at immense discounts, as a real-world research project letting them track how hydrogen-powered cars would work as mainstream transportation.

The Toyota Mirai, for instance, has a Lexus-like interior, an 8-year/100,000-mile warranty on key powertrain components, and a range of 402 miles between fill-ups. It’s pricey at nearly $50,000, but Toyota has offered discounts, cutting the price in half and including 15,000 miles worth of free hydrogen at times.

More recently, Hyundai offered a $33,000 discount on its hydrogen-powered Nexo.

But both cars are sold only in California. Why? Because all of America’s 59 hydrogen refueling stations are in the Golden State. Or rather, all of America’s 52 stations are.

Shell Pulls Out

Forbes reports, “Rather suddenly if not entirely unexpectedly, global energy giant Shell has called time on fueling hydrogen passenger cars in California.” The company closed seven hydrogen refueling stations last week with little notice.

Shell is hardly the first fuel supplier to take such action. S&P Global notes, “In October 2023, California’s largest hydrogen provider True Zero announced the closure of 10 stations.”

Related: Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars — Pros and Cons in 2024

In a letter, Shell Hydrogen Vice President Andrew Beard cites “hydrogen supply complications and other external market factors” for the decision.

The decision “could also reflect a lack of demand,” says industry publication Hydrogen Insight. “While California was one of the few markets for hydrogen-powered vehicles to grow this year, only 3,143 were registered in 2023 — less than 1% of battery-electric cars in the same period, according to the most recent figures from the California Energy Commission.”

Small Is Vulnerable

Hydrogen-powered cars already appealed to a small subset of buyers likely to leave Southern California rarely. But, until recently, they’ve been an intriguing way to get into a surprisingly luxurious car for an affordable price if your driving kept you close to America’s limited hydrogen infrastructure.

The closures make it harder to see hydrogen as a viable alternative transportation source.

All transportation fuels are subject to market fluctuations. That’s not a problem for gasoline because so many Americans depend on it that it’s not optional in our daily lives. The same is true of electricity, which has the advantage of coming from many fuel sources. But hydrogen fuel remains rare enough that price fluctuations can force a significant portion of its tiny infrastructure to close without notice, potentially stranding some drivers.

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