Fuel Stations Are Stumbling Block for Hydrogen-Powered Cars

LCT Staff
Posted on October 1, 2008

LOS ANGELES – On a strip of Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, a futuristic experiment posing as an ordinary fuel station may be bringing the world one step closer to the hydrogen age.

From the moment engineers started dreaming about hydrogen as an alternative to oil, they faced a nagging question: What should come first — the fuel-cell car or the hydrogen pump?

Carmakers have argued that without a network of hydrogen filling stations they couldn’t roll out fuel-cell vehicles from the research lab to the dealership. Energy companies, on the other hand, said that without large numbers of fuel-cell cars available at reasonable prices, they saw little point in building a costly new fueling infrastructure.

This classic chicken-or-egg dilemma has long hobbled the development of most alternative fuels and has assured the supremacy of oil. Thanks to low prices and abundant reserves just a few years ago, energy providers and automakers simply had little incentive to end the petroleum age. But, faced with the perils of global warming and soaring prices, automakers and oil companies have begun a hasty search for alternatives and have been working together to break the hydrogen logjam. Their answer is to introduce both cars and new fuel stations, clustering them in urban centers like Los Angeles, Berlin, and Tokyo.

“The game now is about clustering; it’s the only way to take this next step,” said Duncan Macleod, vice president of Shell Hydrogen. Shell’s Santa Monica Boulevard station — which has conventional gasoline pumps as well as an odd-looking nozzle with bright blue “hydrogen” labels — is part of this strategy. So is Honda’s decision to lease about 200 of its newly developed FCX Clarity cars over the next three years to selected customers in Southern California, who will be able to fill them up at the new Shell station and others. The FCX Clarity uses a fuel cell to power an electric motor; the cars are being leased for $600 a month, a fraction of what they would cost to buy.

But the experiment underscores the tremendous path that hydrogen must travel before it can nudge petroleum off our roads and highways. Given the prohibitive cost of a fuel-cell vehicle — they are custom-made, not mass-produced — no automaker will be selling them to the public for at least 10 years. And many energy companies remain skeptical of the long-term prospects for hydrogen, arguing, among other things, that even with government help the infrastructure costs would be enormous. Automakers also recognize that there are other ways to wean cars from oil, like using biofuels or batteries. But hydrogen offers a plentiful and clean form of energy and cannot be ignored, experts said. And the public is interested in the technology: when Honda announced its leasing program, more than 50,000 people registered for it online.

So carmakers are stepping up their efforts to develop hydrogen cars. Honda plans to have a model in mass production by 2018. G.M. aims to put 100 fuel-cell cars on the roads over the next few years, mostly in Southern California, as well.

Other carmakers, including Ford, BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler, are working on prototypes. The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recently estimated that automakers could be selling as many as two million hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars by 2020, which would represent only 1% of all vehicles on our roads. After that, the numbers could rise quickly, reaching 60 million by 2035 and 200 million by 2050.

“In the long term, hydrogen and fuel-cell vehicles look like a major part of the solution,” said Larry Burns, G.M.’s vice president for research, development and strategic planning. “The dilemma is, how do you manage the transition? We don’t have a hydrogen infrastructure like we have a petroleum infrastructure.”

More than 170,000 fuel stations now distribute gasoline around the country, and millions of miles of pipelines and thousands of tanker trucks feed into a huge system that took more than a century to develop.

Replacing that infrastructure entirely is unrealistic. Instead, G.M. believes that a hydrogen network can be built at a fraction of the cost by concentrating on select urban centers.

In a study released in December, the company said that if 12,000 hydrogen stations were built in the largest 100 cities, that would put a station within two miles of 70% of the American population. That number of stations would be enough to fuel one million cars. “We don’t think about this as a nationwide deployment on Day 1, where everything has to be covered immediately,” said Britta Gross, G.M.’s manager for hydrogen and electrical infrastructure. An initial network of 40 hydrogen stations in Los Angeles would cost $80 million and cover the needs of that city in the early years of hydrogen deployment, Ms. Gross said.

The government is backing this new approach, said Steven Chalk, deputy assistant secretary for renewable energy at the Department of Energy. “Five years ago we would have said that we need to launch hydrogen nationally but we now think that this cluster idea is the way to go,” Mr. Chalk said. “The way to do that is to concentrate in areas where you have critical mass.”

Hydrogen holds the promise of turning the internal-combustion engine into a relic while helping to solve the transportation sector’s carbon emissions problem. More than 95 percent of the nation’s cars now rely on petroleum, and transportation is responsible for a third of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Hydrogen can be produced in a variety of ways, from natural gas or from electricity. Used in a fuel-cell — an electrochemical device that produces electricity — it emits no carbon dioxide, only water. Fuel-cell cars also possess advantages over those that rely primarily on batteries: they have greater range and take only minutes to refuel, compared with several hours to recharge batteries.

Governments around the world have given billions in subsidies for the development of hydrogen technology, with little to show for it. In the United States, the Energy Department has spent $1.2 billion in research and development grants for hydrogen over the past five years. Still, more work is required to increase the durability of the fuel cells and reduce their costs.

“Hydrogen was forever 20 years away, but now, for the first time, you see some of the milestones moving closer, not away anymore,” said Mike McGowan, the chairman of the National Hydrogen Association, the industry’s trade group. “There is now almost a sense of urgency about the infrastructure.”

Source: New York Times

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