6th International Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Expo Begins

California, facing a bit of a chicken or egg dilemma, is plunging ahead on building a hydrogen fueling infrastructure. The hope is that doing so will open the door to fuel-cell vehicle adoption – and at least one big carmaker is getting in on the effort.

Legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last fall included provisions for funding at least 100 hydrogen stations, and now the California Energy Commission is doling out $46.6 million to eight companies that will move ahead on 28 stations where fuel-cell cars can fill up – including six that will use so-called “renewable” hydrogen. A “mobile refueler” has also been earmarked; it will “provide refueling capability when stations are off-line,” the commission said.

Right now, California has a mere nine public hydrogen fueling stations, compared to 10,000 gasoline stations, and with fuel-cell vehicles virtually non-existent in the state, expanding the network via private investment is a challenge. But the Golden State sees fuel-cell cars becoming a big part of a climate-friendly transportation sector, and automakers are advancing beyond the demonstration vehicles they began deploying a decade ago, beginning with Hyundai’s Tucson Fuel Cell, which the company says will soon be available for lease in Southern California at $499/month.

Honda and Toyota plan to follow with their own fuel cell models in 2015, and the latter company is jumping in on the fueling side of the equation, too: Toyota said it will support FirstElement Fuel on “the long-term operation and maintenance expenses” of new stations.

FirstElement was the big winner in the Energy Commission’s new funding round, receiving awards totaling about $27.5 to build 19 stations from Laguna Nigel in the south to Truckee in the north. Toyota did not reveal the amount of its financial commitment.

“The first few years here in California will be a critical period for hydrogen fuel cell technology,” Toyota executive Bob Carter said in a statement. “California has stepped up with the offer to invest $200 million dollars to build 100 stations, and through this financial arrangement with FirstElement, Toyota is showing its full commitment to deploy zero emission fuel cell vehicles here in California. Perhaps most importantly, we are showing the future owners of this amazing technology that Toyota is helping to ensure that hydrogen refueling will be available, no matter what car brand is on the hood.”

Two of the FirstElement stations will be among the six “renewable” hydrogen stations funded by the state in this round of construction.

Hydrogen is typically obtained from natural gas in a process called steam reforming. In “well to wheels” analyses, vehicles using hydrogen produced this way contribute around half the greenhouse gases of a gasoline powered car. But the state wants to do better, with a goal of using renewable energy to produce hydrogen by electrolysis of water, or by getting the hydrogen from biogas.

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The Energy Commission said it has “concluded that a fuel cell vehicle using 33 percent renewable hydrogen can be as clean for the environment as an electric vehicle, resulting in greenhouse gas reductions of about 68 percent compared to gasoline powered vehicles.”

California is also encouraging the development of battery-powered electric vehicles, rejecting the idea that the future of personal transportation lies exclusively with either that technology or with fuel cells. Many fuel-cell advocates, such as Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at UC Irvine, have suggested the two technologies are complementary, with EVs charged at home or work serving as short-range vehicles, while fuel-cell vehicles, with their much faster charging and greater driving range, serving a more versatile purpose.

California foresees having 68 strategically located stations open to the public by 2017. That’s a number the state believes will support several thousand fuel-cell vehicles on the roads. It will also make California a world leader; according to tracking by TÜV SÜD, “Eleven new hydrogen refueling stations opened throughout the world in 2013, bringing the total number of hydrogen refueling stations in operation to 186 as of March 2014.”