Hope for Hydrogen: Fuel Station Buildout

Welcome to the second installment in the Hope for Hydrogen series: Hope for Hydrogen: Fuel Station Buildout.

In the previous article, the premise of this series was explained: Pretend there are no battery electric vehicles in the world. Imagine that hydrogen fuel cell cars are the inevitable replacement for the 156-year-old internal combustion engine and the two billion gas-guzzling cars currently roaming the roads of planet Earth.

I left off discussing the availability of hydrogen fueling stations. Currently, in the United States, there’s only 13, 70% of which are in Los Angeles. In a country of 120,000 gas stations that thrives on convenience, the situation obviously must improve.

So, what is being done about the problem?

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Genesis in California

In 2013, California Gov. Jerry Brown allocated $200 million for the construction of 100 hydrogen fueling stations in his state. While they are going up relatively slowly, at only about nine stations per year—and won’t be complete until 2024—it’s still a start. This is government attempting to kick-start what private enterprise and large energy corporations, driven (and funded) by consumer demand, must complete.

Let’s also dispel the myth that hydrogen fueling stations cost $3-5 million to construct. California is proving that they can be built for $2 million each (if they can stay on budget). If a new hydrogen fueling station can be constructed for $2 million, it goes to assume that existing gas stations, like those operated by Shell, BP, and Exxon (or their franchisees), could be fitted for hydrogen at a lower cost. Let’s just assume this is $1 million (and maybe provides only two or four pumps, meaning waiting queues in areas of dense FCV adoption).

Criticisms that hydrogen is dangerous and highly explosive are somewhat, um, overblown here. Gasoline is also dangerous and highly volatile. Yet, we’ve managed to construct regulatory oversight, a production (refinement) infrastructure, and distribution networks that deal with it and protect consumers, ensuring public safety.

If we assume that big energy companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron must spend $1-2 million to retrofit existing gas stations with hydrogen fueling capabilities, the picture begins to clear. Despite the recent dip in gas prices, these are international corporations with deep pockets. If they choose to begin the mass conversion of petrol stations to hydrogen depots, they certainly have the funds.

Lack of Fueling Stations: Only Temporary

Criticisms that there are no hydrogen fueling stations, while currently true, are potentially very temporary. In only two to three years—if big energy companies and their franchisees wave their magic wands (bags of money)—there could be tens of thousands of such stations in the United States.

However, let’s be realistic about the cost. Unless the driving range of fuel cell cars in the future greatly exceeds that of current gasoline cars (as in 500 or even 800 miles on a single tank), the convenience our society demands probably won’t be satisfied. There would need to be roughly the same number of hydrogen fueling depots as there currently is gas stations.

Because the genesis of hydrogen fueling infrastructure is California, let’s consider the Golden State as a case study. With 10,000 gas stations, it would cost between $10 billion and $20 billion to convert them all to hydrogen (assuming a cost of $1-2 million each).

Modeling the Nation

California is, admittedly, a large and very populated state (at 39 million, it exceeds second in line, Texas, by 12 million residents). Thus, for ballpark numbers, let’s assume that all other states would cost only half of California’s numbers to convert existing stations to hydrogen. Remember: These are just rough estimates. Pretend we’re blind and just trying to get a feel for the size of the elephant.

Thus, best case, 49 (states) x $5 billion (half the cost to equip California) = about $250 billion. Assume occasional budget overruns, unexpected engineering challenges, and consideration for heavily populated states (like Texas, New York, and Florida). This would inevitably drive this cost to $300 billion.

The building of hydrogen fueling stations in the United States—minus all other production and distribution infrastructure—will cost more than a quarter trillion dollars. And possibly as much as $400 billion or even $500 billion (because this ain’t our first rodeo).

However, several factors could help lower the expenses associated with the construction or retrofit of hydrogen fueling stations. I hit up Aaron Turpen from CarNewsCafe for his opinion:

“Currently, there are only a couple of companies making the compressors and such that operate these fueling stations. And those items are the second largest expense, next to the tanks, for building a station.”

Turpen continued, “We can safely assume that, if the stations were to begin to roll out in quantity, others would enter the game and costs would drop significantly, purely through economies of scale and market competition—never mind any technology improvements that lower costs.”

Could this price tag also be dramatically decreased by implementing a model like that developed by Toyota and the University of California (described below)? In a nation where convenience is king, will picky (and arguably lazy) consumers be willing to drive long distances to refuel?

Will the millions of drivers not within a few minutes of a hydrogen fueling station eschew the technology, instead choosing to continue purchasing old-school gas burners or opting for alternative clean technologies?

Enter Toyota’s 15%

Toyota, the company that in the fall of 2015 introduced its flagship hydrogen fuel cell car to the U.S., the Mirai, has offered an even more innovative solution. At the January 2014 CES show in Las Vegas, Bob Carter, Senior Vice President of Automotive Operations at Toyota, said to a packed crowd:

“If every vehicle in the state of California ran on hydrogen, we could meet refueling logistics with only 15 percent of the nearly 10,000 gas stations that are currently operating in the state. We don’t need a station on every corner.”

The Toyota executive emphasized that satisfying the needs of a hydrogen fuel cell driving population isn’t about the raw number of fueling stations, but rather their locations. He said that Toyota developed this model with the Advanced Power & Energy Program at the University of California and, “…collaborated on a spatial model that maps out specific distribution of stations. The locations considered a variety of data, including hybrid and electric ownership patterns, traffic patterns, population density, and so on.”

Carter stressed that this minimal refueling station distribution model centers on the assumption that owners desire to reach a hydrogen fueling station “within six minutes of their home or work.”

I have to admit, I’m cynical of his assertions. I want to believe, but it simply sounds too good to be true. However, we should all support any effort to construct 1,500 hydrogen fueling stations in a single state in an orchestrated and intelligent approach to serve an entire population of drivers propelled by clean car technology.

Will the Government Help?

Will the U.S. government, which currently extends subsidies to the big energy companies equaling tens of billions of dollars per year, help fund this burgeoning hydrogen infrastructure? Will Uncle Sam allocate new subsidies and tax incentives aimed specifically at speeding hydrogen fueling station buildout?

How much of this tab is government—and, thus, U.S. taxpayers, many of whom don’t care about clean cars or the environment—willing to assume? (A 2014 study by Yale University revealed that 23 percent of Americans are climate change skeptics or deniers.)

To start, California threw $200 million at the task—about 1% of the final tab to convert those 10,000 stations to hydrogen, or 13% of the cost to convert Toyota’s hypothetical 1,500 stations. Private enterprise and the energy company stakeholders and executives of the existing fueling infrastructure will obviously need to step up to the plate. But will dipping gas prices (lower revenue) and a sluggish economy disincentivize them from doing so?

Will Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and other FCV manufacturers step in and help fund the buildout? Can Toyota and Hyundai afford to assist in this effort if they’re already giving away hydrogen fuel (at $50 a tank, retail) to their buyers and lessees? Automobile companies must invest billions in the development of new hydrogen fuel cells, advanced powertrain control systems, and the cars wrapped around them. Can they really afford to be helping build hydrogen production facilities and fueling stations at the same time?

Sales Will Falter Without Fueling Stations

Let’s face it: Nobody is going to purchase a Mirai, Tucson Fuel Cell, or any other FCV as long as they don’t have a fueling station within an acceptable driving distance. That means close to their home and office and on the path of their commute (like they enjoy now with gasoline). We already know that Toyota and Hyundai won’t even sell a Mirai or Tucson Fuel Cell to anyone but those who live within five areas, most of whom reside in Los Angeles.

“We expect to have over 50 stations [in California] by the end of 2015, early 2016. So it’s going to happen very quickly from here on out,” said Catherine Dunwoody, former Executive Director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, adding “We have nine stations that are currently open, fueling cars today, and that will grow very quickly over the coming years.”

Yes, we have a bit of the chicken and the egg here. Which Toyota is obviously trying to remedy by spending billions to introduce to market a comfortable, quiet FCV that is basically an entry-level Lexus (with a matching $58,000 price tag), despite the fact that it wears the Toyota badge.

Lest you perceive that it’s only California that’s forging ahead with efforts to establish a viable network of hydrogen fueling stations, the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association, based in Washington, D.C., on January 16, 2015 released a document outlining national efforts. “Eight states are working to develop a network of hydrogen fueling stations to support growing numbers of zero-emission FCEVs on their roadways,” the organization wrote in its press release.

Taking Sides

For those who care about issues like clean car tech, taking sides is not only inevitable, but also human. Be your motive political, technical, financial, or environmental, if you’re reading this, you probably feel strongly about hydrogen cars, whether you’re pro or con.

Don’t allow your allegiance to any particular transportation technology or platform to stand in the way of envisioning a hydrogen future. I’d be frustrated if someone wasn’t at least willing to consider my perspective on an issue—and think them very close-minded for not even entertaining the idea that it might be a good way to go.

Critical thought requires understanding both sides of an issue. Sometimes, to gain that understanding, we need to do some intellectual gymnastics. Stay with us, dear readers. You’ll be better clean car enthusiasts—and much more informed—at the end of this journey. After you gain enough knowledge to come to your own conclusions, you can begin spreading your own gospel.


All text Copyright © 2003-2016 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.

Gooey Rabinski is a senior technical writer and instructional designer who has contributed feature articles to magazines such as High Times, SKUNK, Heads, Weed World, Cannabis HBK11RenderHealth Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself. He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.

His cannabis-related freelance photos, spanning back more than a decade, are available on Instagram and Flickr. He tweets from @GooeyRabinski.

Hope for Hydrogen: Imagine Fuel Cell Cars

Welcome to the first installment in Hope for Hydrogen. In this series of articles, I ask you to imagine a world void of battery electric vehicles (BEVs). In this contrived intellectual exercise, pretend that the inevitable replacement for conventional gas-powered automobiles will be the venerable hydrogen fuel cell car.

We’re at the cusp of the end of the 100+ year reign of gasoline-powered personal transportation. It has been driven, literally, by internal combustion engine (ICE) technology. No, these vibration-riddled, maintenance-prone, noisy, polluting vehicles won’t go away overnight; the shift will be gradual.

However, the switch has begun. In the next few years, the speed of the transition will only increase. Prices will precipitate. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will improve, offering greater driving range, lower cost, and certainly more convenience.


Replacing Two Billion Cars

Consider that there’s more than two billion ICE cars in the world today, and 100 million new gas guzzlers are sold each year globally (with nearly 17 million of these in the United States). Only then do we begin to understand that it will take a while to overcome not only social stigma about new transport tech, but simply replacing the installed base.

It is estimated that it would take 20 years to accomplish this, based solely on existing production and consumption numbers. And this is if we could magically snap our fingers and immediately eliminate sales of all ICE cars today. Obviously, we must take a long-term view of the situation.

As passenger cars featuring outdated ICE tech inevitably begin to vanish, what will replace them?

This is an issue of no small contention within the ranks of experts and laypeople alike. We’re a culture of duality. You’re either a good guy or a bad guy, and your white or black hat gives you away. Republicans versus Democrats, Christians versus atheists, and progressives versus conservatives split our creative and intellectual aspirations into competing cultural camps.

Typically, the respective fans of battery electric and fuel cell vehicles find it difficult or impossible to reconcile or respect one another. For many, there’s no room in the Venn diagram for an overlap. In fact, there’s no Venn diagram whatsoever (but, fortunately, no gasoline either). There are only two distinct and widely separated circles. While both feature zero emissions, neither is void of a carbon footprint somewhere in the “well-to-wheels” energy lifecycle.

Hope for Hydrogen Series

Enter this series, Hope for Hydrogen. Today our intellectual game will be to pretend that there are no battery electric vehicles in the world. We’re going to assume that “Supercharger,” “LEAF,” “lithium-ion,” and “Soul EV” are terms that never entered the lexicon. We’ll psych ourselves into believing that our common vernacular is free of phrases like “range anxiety,” “charge time,” and “CHAdeMO socket.”

Instead, assume the new kid on the block is hydrogen. Pretend, for just a few hundred words of text, that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the clean car model that will be embraced by one and all (which could turn out to be the case; none of us has a crystal ball).

This is, of course, what reputable corporate titans like Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai are telling us. Organizations such as the California Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership and the South Carolina Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Alliance, among others, are touting the advantages of hydrogen over gasoline and aggressively advocating its use for personal transportation.

Family heir and Toyota Motors president Akio Toyoda has said that his company will migrate away from petrol-powered piston pumpers within a decade. “I do believe that [the] fuel cell vehicle is the ultimate environmentally friendly car,” he told Businessweek last December of 2014. Even the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, is promoting hydrogen fuel cell cars. He took delivery of Toyota’s first Mirai in a public ceremony in Tokyo in January of 2015.

Thus, as a mental exercise, let’s embrace the mindset of hydrogen and explore its merits.


Excitement For a Better Car

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of ICE cars (with the exception of a few classics, like the Porsche 911, those gorgeous C2 Corvettes from the 1960s, and that Audi TT I owned a few years ago). The expense of gasoline and maintenance alone is enough to make me jump ship from internal combustion and the noise and pollution that it brings.

One might as well just hitch a horse to a buggy and try to find a blacksmith. This is the 21st century, and old-school 19th and 20th century tech just won’t cut it. At least not where our wallets and the environment are concerned.

This being the case, many are excited about the availability of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). Toyota began selling its flagship FCV, the Mirai, in September of 2015. Hyundai has already begun a limited leasing program for its first hydrogen-powered car, the Tucson Fuel Cell.

That’s right, all of us now have the ability to lease or purchase a space-age hydrogen car that emits zero polluting emissions and features a familiar driving range of 265 to 300 miles (just shy of what most ICE cars achieve; improvements to these first generation versions will obviously extend this freshman effort).

Lack of Fueling Stations

Well, not so fast. These groovy vehicles aren’t really available to all of us. In fact, not most of us. Why? Because we don’t live close enough to a hydrogen fueling station. According to PC World, Toyota won’t even sell you a Mirai if you don’t live within a “reasonable” distance of a hydrogen fueling station. The same is true of the new Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell.

And here’s the rub, especially if you pride yourself in being an early adopter and want to put your money where your mouth is in terms of progressive transport tech: There’s currently only 13 hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. Nine of these 13, or 70%, are clustered around Los Angeles. The other four? One each in downtown San Francisco and downtown Sacramento, plus Wallingford, CT and another in Columbia, SC. Unfortunately, that’s it.

If you look up hydrogen fuel cell cars on Wikipedia, it will indicate that there are more stations, like some in Dearborn, MI, Phoenix, AZ, and at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. However, these either no longer exist, are private (like for corporate and commercial fleets), or are prototypes. In other words, you can’t drive up in your Mirai or Tucson, swipe your debit card, and fill your hydrogen tanks.

As such, residents of cities like Portland, St. Louis, Miami Beach, Ft. Worth, Boston, and Indianapolis couldn’t even purchase a fuel cell car if they wanted.

Creatures of Habit

Humans are creatures of habit. Thus, many will enjoy that FCVs offer the familiar experience of visiting a fueling station and standing next to their car for three or four minutes as they inject pressurized hydrogen into two or three tanks that reside under the back seat. Unfortunately, hydrogen fuel currently costs more than gasoline. In fact, the cost is about identical to pre-dip gasoline prices (think the first two-thirds of 2014).

Although both Toyota and Hyundai will be incentivizing new customers to purchase their fuel cell vehicles by offering free fuel for the first three years of ownership (including lessees), owners of other models—and Mirai owners after 36 months—will be paying roughly $50-55 to fill their cars with hydrogen (deriving about 265-300 miles of travel from the expense).

This is somewhat disappointing. Can’t we come up with a transport tech that would allow us not only more flexibility in filling stations, but also a lower fuel cost? No wonder people don’t like to give up their gas guzzlers or be early adopters. There may be savings in maintenance (no oil changes, tuneups, transmission work, or conventional exhaust repairs), for hydrogen-powered cars, but there clearly are not in terms of fuel costs. At least not currently.

Only the Beginning

However, let’s be fair. This is, after all, the genesis of a revolution in personal transportation. Passenger vehicles didn’t instantly overtake the horse and buggy at the turn of the last century. Henry Ford’s Model T, introduced in 1908, didn’t spontaneously replace competing forms of transportation. Unlike today, there wasn’t a gas station on every corner when the Model T was first introduced (there are now 121,000 in the United States, with nearly 10,000 in California alone).

To make hydrogen fuel cell cars practical, we need not only a solid network of hydrogen fueling stations, but also what pundits call “infrastructure.” By this, they mean not only the consumer-friendly stations at which people will swipe their card to fill their tank (and buy a soda or a pack of smokes), but also the production and distribution networks that create (extract), pressurize, and transport hydrogen to these stations.

Lest this become a 4,000 word treatise, let’s consider only the fueling station side of the equation. You already know that there are paltry few hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. Basically, it’s currently practical to own an FCV only if you live in one of five areas in the U.S. (and, to be realistic, mostly Los Angeles).

It’s easily possible that you live 30-45 minutes from one of the stations in any of these regions. Personally, I have a gas station that’s two minutes from my front door. Anything less convenient or more challenging than their current situations will be perceived as a pain by most consumers.

But that’s just the here and now. What does the future look like? What is currently being done to alleviate the lack of hydrogen fueling infrastructure?


All text Copyright © 2003-2016 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.

Gooey Rabinski is a senior technical writer and instructional designer who has contributed feature articles to magazines such as High Times, SKUNK, Heads, Weed World, Cannabis HBK11RenderHealth Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself. He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.

His cannabis-related freelance photos, spanning back more than a decade, are available on Instagram and Flickr. He tweets from @GooeyRabinski.