California Is Getting New Fueling Stations for Hydrogen Cars, But Who Will Use Them?

Harri Weber

Harri is dot.LA's senior finance reporter. She previously worked for Gizmodo, Fast Company, VentureBeat and Flipboard. Find her on Twitter and send tips on L.A. startups and venture capital to harrison@dot.la.

Hydrogen Cars

In California, virtually the only state with hydrogen cars on the road, about 47 active fueling stations serve a trickle of early hydrogen adopters who mostly cruise around Los Angeles and the Bay Area today. These hydrogen-powered passenger vehicles aren’t anywhere near as popular as electric cars, but that isn’t stopping California from spending millions of dollars to support them.

In the next five years, the state plans to triple the number of hydrogen refueling stations available to everyday drivers. With support from California taxpayers and a handful of investors, FirstElement Fuel is poised to operate more than half of those locations.


The Irvine-based company, which already lays claim to running the “largest hydrogen fueling network in the world,” aims to more than double in size to 80 stations by 2024. To fund the expansion, it recently raised $105 million from Air Water, MUFG, Nikkiso, and JII. All four firms hail from Japan, which has also banked on hydrogen in pursuit of its climate goals.

Named after hydrogen’s position on the periodic table, FirstElement says its stations have prevented “more than 110 million pounds of CO2” from polluting the atmosphere to date. The company adds that it is “regularly breaking single day, and 7-day [fueling] records,” a signal that demand is rising.

But climate experts contacted by dot.LA did not share FirstElement’s enthusiasm for hydrogen passenger vehicles, nor do many automakers, due to the relative scarcity of clean hydrogen, its low energy efficiency, the risk of leakage, and the overwhelming momentum behind battery-powered vehicles in the market today. This comes despite the perks of hydrogen fuel cell-propelled cars, including faster refueling times and longer ranges than you can find in many EVs.

The Trouble With Hydrogen

“Regarding light-duty cars, hydrogen might have been viewed as competing with battery cars as of ten, 15 years ago, but the market has moved strongly towards battery-powered cars,” said Robert Howarth, Cornell University professor and co-author of a recent study on hydrogen’s climate impact.

For experts like Howarth, emissions from hydrogen production remain a colossal sticking point.

“Today, 96% of hydrogen in the U.S. is made from natural gas, and has a huge greenhouse gas footprint,” Howarth told dot.LA. “The natural gas industry is claiming they can do better and reduce emissions some, producing so called ‘blue hydrogen’” by employing carbon capture technology. However, Howarth says his research “clearly shows this marketing claim is not true.”

For its part, FirstElement says its hydrogen comes from “renewable biofuel sources” and is “‘green’ by any measure,” although it did not respond to further questions on its sustainability practices. In the past, the company has advertised its fuel as 33% renewable hydrogen, and the California Fuel Cell Partnership station map still lists the fuel dispensed at some FirstElement stations as such.

“Hydrogen made from renewable biofuel could in theory be zero carbon,” Deepak Rajagopal, professor at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, told dot.LA. But the fuel would likely require offsets to truly be considered zero carbon, he said.

Regardless, the company — along with firms like fossil fuel giant Shell — is working to make hydrogen more accessible. The expansion plans are crucial for the roughly 7,500 Californians who currently drive hydrogen cars such as Hyundai’s Nexo or Toyota’s Mirai. Some early adopters say they’ve faced fuel shortages, or “hydropocalypses” — building more stations could make getting around easier while potentially driving down costs.

Still, the slow progress made in overcoming these challenges, together with meager sales, explains why automakers like Honda and Volvo seem to have lost interest in hydrogen passenger cars.

Meanwhile the electric vehicle market is booming. California alone has roughly 73,000 EV chargers, serving the approximately 425,300 plug-in vehicles registered in the state today.

The Future of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

But hydrogen has noteworthy support in other avenues, including as an alternative to combustion engines in larger vehicles.

Companies like Daimler, Toyota and Volvo are eyeing hydrogen fuel cells to replace diesel engines in long-haul trucks. They support hydrogen because hydrogen fuel tanks fill up quickly and weigh far less than batteries.

FirstElement plans to serve commercial customers such as these, too. The firm says at least 12 of its 80 stations will support heavy-duty trucks in addition to light-duty cars.

Plus, there’s air travel. Hawthorne-based Universal Hydrogen has plans to test the first hydrogen-fueled airliner, because it could prove more practical for flying than heavy batteries, especially for long trips.

Beyond transportation, Hydrogen is used to make artificial fertilizer and refine petroleum. Down the road, it could also play a key role in decarbonizing steel.

So even if hydrogen-powered passenger cars are doomed to eat Tesla’s and Rivian’s dust, the need for clean, green hydrogen — and the infrastructure to distribute it — isn’t going anywhere.

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Cadence

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.

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