Hope for Hydrogen: Fueling Station Buildout

Welcome to the second installment in the Hope for Hydrogen series. 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 155-year-old internal combustion engine and the two billion gas-guzzling cars currently roaming the roads of planet Earth.

We left off discussing the availability of hydrogen fueling stations. Currently, in the United States, there’s only 13 of them, 70 percent 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?

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).


Could this price tag 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 opting to continue purchasing old-school gas burners or opting for alternative clean technologies?

Enter Toyota’s 15%

That said, Toyota, the company on the verge of introducing its flagship hydrogen fuel cell car, the Mirai, begs to differ. 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 percent of the final tab to convert those 10,000 stations to hydrogen, or 13 percent 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 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.

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Curt Robbins

Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.


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