(TNS) — For nearly four years, there has been just one fueling station in the San Diego, Calif., area for the few owners of hydrogen cell vehicles to fill up their cars.

But the California Energy Commission has OK'd $39.1 million to help construct 36 new hydrogen fueling stations across the state, with a portion of that money going to four new stations in San Diego County.

Funding will defray some of the costs to build three fueling stations operated in San Diego by True Zero and one station in Carlsbad operated by Shell. The proposed stations will go up at: 1832 W. Washington St. 1666 First Ave.11030 Rancho Carmel Drive and7170 Avenida Encinas in Carlsbad.

"I think it's going to improve accessibility and create what we think of as a cluster market," said Shane Stephens, chief development officer at First Element Fuel, which owns and operates True Zero hydrogen fueling stations around California, including the sole existing station in the county, at 3060 Carmel Valley Road and Interstate 5 in Del Mar. Before the commission's announcement, True Zero already had plans to build a fueling station in Mission Valley, which means the county may soon have six hydrogen fuel cell stations up and running.

Stephens said each of the three new True Zero stations will cost about $700,000 to $800,000 to construct and hopes to have them ready for customers by the end of next year or early 2022. The Mission Valley station is scheduled to open in the first quarter of next year.

"It's one thing when you have just one station in a region," Stephens said. "It means the population is reliant on just that one station. Also, it means that accessibility is difficult. For us, this starts to fill out what we see as a big opportunity in San Diego."

A spokeswoman for Shell said its station in Carlsbad is part of the company's larger program to develop 51 refueling stations over about six years.

The funding is subject to formal approval at a future Energy Commission business meeting.

Like electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles emit no greenhouse gases. But they are quite different than EVs.

Instead of plugging into a charger, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which runs a motor. To fuel the car, drivers pull up to a pump similar to a conventional gasoline station and pump hydrogen into the tank.

It takes about three to five minutes to fill up — much shorter than the time it takes to charge an EV — and the only emissions are a few drops of water that come out of the tailpipe.

Drivers can expect to go more than 250 miles per tank, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the public-private group based in the Sacramento area that promotes the development of the vehicles.

Like EVs, drivers of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles receive the much-desired sticker that allows them to drive solo in the HOV lane. They also are eligible for a federal tax credit of up to $8,000 and a rebate from the state of $4,500. Those incentives are important, since the sticker price starts at nearly $60,000.

The industry is in its infancy. California is the only state in the continental U.S. where a hydrogen fuel cell car can be purchased and fewer than 9,000 are on the road in the Golden State. Compare that to 726,000 EVs and 26 million autos registered in California.

Three automakers sell and lease hydrogen fuel cell models in California — the Honda Clarity, the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo.

There are 42 hydrogen fueling locations across the state and the Energy Commission's funding is aimed at helping boost sales.

"This award puts us well beyond 100 stations, potentially upward of about 180 stations open or in development," said Keith Malone, spokesman for the Fuel Cell Partnership. "That really helps us get much closer to the next milestone of 200 stations" by 2025 that then-Gov. Jerry Brown issued in an executive order two years ago.

Proponents think it will also help solve the "chicken and the egg" problem for hydrogen vehicles — that potential customers shy away from buying or leasing the cars because there aren't enough fueling stations but there aren't enough fueling stations because there aren't many hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road.

"If you look at fuel cell cars today, they are about where battery cars were back in 2008 or so," Stephens said. Toyota plans to increase production by tenfold this year and Hyundai said it will produce 13 times more hydrogen-powered cars by 2022.

"With automakers taking that next leap in volume production, in the next years in California you're going to see a significant uptick in fuel cell cars with the release of the second generation Toyota Mirai, for example," Stephens said.

Not everyone is cheering, though.

Wayne Winegarden, senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based organization that advocates free-market solutions to policy issues, said state agencies should not be funding such projects.

"I have nothing against the technology," Winegarden said. "There are better ways to support innovation, which is what the state should be doing, especially in light of the budget crisis we're already facing, the homelessness crisis, the wildfires. It's the state playing the role of venture capitalist."

Stephens said the company will pay for the construction of the three new True Zero fueling stations while the money from the Energy Commission will help cover the cost of equipment, which will reduce the overall price tag by about 30 percent.

The three stations will have four fueling positions, compared to the existing station in Carmel Valley that has just one.

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.