Hydrogen Highway revisited 

Is the plan by Arnold Schwarzenegger — and Gordon Campbell — for a hydrogen highway visionary, or just hot air?

click to enlarge California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger fuels up at one of the state's 24 hydrogen stations.
  • California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger fuels up at one of the state's 24 hydrogen stations.

By Matt Palmquist

High Country News

“Shakespeare said, ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; but omitted, and all of life's voyage is bound in shallows and regrets,’” intoned Terry Tamminen, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, when it was his turn at the podium on an overcast morning in April 2004. "We are afloat upon such a sea at this moment as we face our energy future. But who has the strength to lift our ship of state on a tide of clean, renewable energy that will carry our economy into the 21st century and beyond? Who has the wisdom to set us on course to protect our air, water, public health, and the health of our economy?

"Who has the vision to set sail towards our energy independence now?" Tamminen's answer, as Shakespeare could not have predicted, was Arnold Schwarzenegger. The last-action-hero-turned-Republican governor, who had won the recall election against Gray Davis the previous October, was still in the honeymoon phase of his first term when he addressed the large crowd of educators, automotive and energy executives and reporters at the University of California at Davis that day.

"As you can see, this looks kind of like a movie set here, right?" a beaming Schwarzenegger joked of the photo-op surroundings, which included a gleaming, sky-blue bus with a promise painted on it: "Zero Emissions — Cleans the Air As It Drives." Moments earlier he had drawn "oohs" and "aahs" when he pulled up to the fuel pump in a hydrogen-powered sports-utility vehicle.

"But of course it will be better," he said. "Because what you see here today, this is the future of California and the future of our environmental protection."

Schwarzenegger, heretofore synonymous in many environmentally attuned minds with his proud ownership of a fleet of huge, gas-guzzling Hummers, had come to Davis to announce Executive Order S-7-04, the establishment of a California Hydrogen Highway Network. By 2010, the governor vowed, every Californian would have access to hydrogen fuel along 21 of the state's interstate highways, "with a significant and increasing percentage of that hydrogen produced from clean, renewable sources."

Schwarzenegger's plan called for an initial 150 to 200 hydrogen-refueling plants throughout the state at an estimated cost of about $90 million, to be funded with corporate, state and federal money. By the end of the decade, Schwarzenegger said, he hoped to see 500,000 hydrogen-consuming vehicles zooming along California roads.

But as the governor made clear, his vision of progress was about both dollars and sense. "As I have said many times, the choice is not between economic progress and environmental protection," said Schwarzenegger, who, in topping off the SUV he'd arrived in, became the first person to use the inaugural station on his own Hydrogen Highway. "Here in California, growth and protecting our natural beauty go hand in hand. We have an opportunity to prove to the world that a thriving environment and economy can co-exist.

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