Molecule burner: Chris White

Fuel-cell advocate and Clarity driver digs clean hydrogen.

Photo by Devin Armstrong

Photo by Devin Armstrong

Eighteen months ago, Chris White did something no one else in Northern California had ever done. She leased a new car that operates only on hydrogen.

Honda, Toyota and Hyundai are among a few manufacturers offering hydrogen-run vehicles. Other manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz, have plans for hydrogen-only vehicles, the emissions of which are water. The just-released 2018 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell is available in only 12 dealerships in California, including only one in the region, at the Roseville Auto Mall. White is a longtime communications director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento. She often refuels her car at the only hydrogen station in the area, which is near her home and office, at a Shell service station. She often travels for work to the Bay Area and to Truckee, where one of her sons lives, and where other hydrogen stations are located.

What kind of reaction haveyou received when people notice your car?

It’s kind of funny—as soon as it got warm this spring, and people had their car windows down again, for about three days in a row, every time I was at a stoplight or a stop sign, the person next to me asked me about my car.

The Honda Clarity is eligible for a single-driver sticker for High Occupancy Vehicle lanes. Have you had any unusual experiences using the lane?

I was coming home from the Sacramento airport at night. I was tired. The car in front of me just stopped for no reason. Even though I was depressing the brake, I couldn’t have stopped in time. The car’s collision mitigation system depressed the brake further and it steered a little bit crooked, and so I was like at a 45-degree angle. Therefore, the car behind me didn’t smash into the back of my car. It completely saved me from getting sandwiched between two cars on the freeway.

There are detractors of the hydrogen car industry.

I am personally over it. I am personally very committed to clean air and reducing our petroleum use. I really believe to get there we need to drive battery electric vehicles and fuel cell electric vehicles and use more fuels made from bio-wastes. We need to ride our bikes more and ride the bus. To really tackle our pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, it will take a combination of factors.

You mentioned to me in an earlier conversation that there have been some really angry people who dislike hydrogen cars. What’s the issue?

As I tell people, it’s not like football. It’s not like my team is better than your team and only my team can win the Super Bowl. It does take a combination of factors. But some people are very passionate about only one kind of technology. They’re passionate about wooden boats as opposed to fiberglass boats. I do admire the passion that some people have.

It’s a complicated issue, right?

Here’s my short answer: What I usually tell people is you can think of [gasoline] in a gas car like a beach ball. And electricity in a battery car, and hydrogen in a fuel cell car, are like a golf ball and a ping-pong ball. One of them is slightly bigger than the other, but does it make any difference when you compare them to the beach ball?

Are you an alternative fuel vehicle user because of your environmental beliefs, or because of the financial considerations, or both?

I am going to neither of those. I was driving a Chevy Equinox. I loved it. It was a 2008, and it had a lot of miles on it. It had leather seats and the leather got a crack. It was starting to need a lot of repair work. It was time for a new car. And when I started looking, it seemed a little silly as a single person who lives by herself that I need an SUV. But I am a hauler. I do a lot of volunteer work. Moving down to a sedan was a big change. But I also love the technology, and I love driving an electric car. I’m at the point in my life where I want to drive a luxury car, and the Clarity is definitely a luxury car.

What else can you share about the alternative fuel industry that the public might not realize?

We hear a lot of about the average statistic that the average person drives 40 miles per day. First, it’s an old statistic. What we’ve found is that people who are buying electric cars are not the average driver. They tend to be super commuters. We have a lot of drivers in the area who are commuting every day from Sacramento to San Francisco. They want the electric driving experience, they want the free fuel and they want the carpool sticker.