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Toyota seeks fuel cell breakthrough with California hydrogen plant

Japanese automaker takes on Tesla in race for zero-emission trucks

Toyota Motor displays a fuel cell truck at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

LOS ANGELES -- Toyota Motor will build one of the world's biggest fuel cell power plants in California, coupled with a hydrogen fueling station, underscoring the company's ambition to popularize fuel cell vehicles even as most rivals shift to electric cars.

The Japanese automaker unveiled the plans Thursday at the Los Angeles Auto Show, presenting a 36-ton fuel cell semi-trailer truck -- a model positioned to compete with the new electric semi Tesla showcased just two weeks ago.

"We only announce what we are sure of," said Andrew Lund, chief engineer at Toyota Motor North America, in an apparent jab at Tesla's frequent missed targets. "More pilot test vehicles will come, and then we scale up quickly."

Toyota wants more heavy-duty fuel cell commercial vehicles in use at the Port of Long Beach in California, where stringent emissions standards are being adopted. The megawatt-scale plant will be built at this port and use biowaste, including manure from local farms, to produce hydrogen for generating power.

Procurement will be no problem as California is a big farming state.

"Fuel cells can be a local energy source in many areas like California's agricultural [regions]," Lund said.

Toyota's announcement comes as California embraces alternative energy sources. Household peak-hour electric rates are slated to rise sharply under a pricing structure that debuts in 2019. To counter higher costs, communities are expected to consider introducing decentralized energy -- power produced locally rather than obtained through the bigger grid.

Building more power generation plants that double as hydrogen fueling stations will help combat the shortage of places to fill up, a major obstacle to the expansion of fuel cell vehicles.

But the high price of these vehicles will persist as an challenge. Toyota's production costs for the Mirai fuel cell car may run to twice its price tag, claims an engineer at a competitor that disassembled and analyzed the vehicle. In particular, the cost of the hydrogen tank, made with strong, lightweight carbon fibers, remains stubbornly high.

Although it has begun developing electric vehicles, Toyota continues pursuing fuel cell automobiles in order to avoid the risk of focusing on a single technology at this early stage of competition for a successor to the internal combustion engine. Hydrogen will be needed to replace fossil fuel power, said Lund, who predicted that fuel cells soon will see demand from the aviation industry, which is not excited about the heavy batteries used in electric vehicles.

"Hydrogen will play an important role in the future," he said.

Soon after Toyota's announcement, Tesla turned on a giant battery -- described as the biggest of its kind -- in southern Australia that can power some 30,000 households, far more the equivalent of 2,350 homes that Toyota's plant would support.

Tesla has chosen the risky strategy of creating a market first and seeking to cut costs through mass production to recoup its investment. Toyota is taking a different direction, but automobile technology is changing at an unprecedented speed. If its bet goes wrong, even an established player like Toyota could lose its footing.

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