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.

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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.

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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).

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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.”

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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.)

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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.”

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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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Elon Musk: Hydrogen Cars Are “Extremely Silly”

On January 13, when addressing reporters during a Q&A session at the Automotive News World Congress (part of the North American International Auto Show) in Detroit, Elon Musk was asked by Gabe Nelson, from Automotive News, about his previous statements regarding hydrogen fuel cell technology for use in personal vehicles—and whether he regretted previous statements in which he claimed that the tech is foolish and inefficient.

Below is a transcript of this interview segment, from a video published by BloombergBusinessweek of Musk’s Q&A session.

[If you’re a Tesla Model S owner based in Norway, please reach out to me by commenting below. I would like to interview you for my forthcoming book and a couple of blog posts. Thanks.]

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Curt Robbins


Gabe Nelson: “You’ve been very vocal about the need for other companies to produce EVs to reduce emissions and deal with climate change. If that’s the case, then why so critical of hydrogen fuel cells, which are another pathway to zero emission vehicles? Do you regret having been so critical? Do you stand by those comments?”

Elon Musk: “I don’t want to turn this into a debate on hydrogen fuel cells, because I just think that they’re extremely silly [audience laughs]. There’s multiple rebuttals of it online. It’s just very difficult to make hydrogen and store it and use it in a car. Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism, it’s not a source of energy. So you have to get that hydrogen from somewhere.

Musk in DetroitIf you get that hydrogen from water, you’re splitting H2O. Electrolysis is extremely inefficient as an energy process. If you took a solar panel and used the energy from that solar panel to just charge a battery pack directly—compared to try to split water, take the hydrogen, dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen to an extremely high pressure—or liquefy it—and then put it in a car and run a fuel cell…it is about half the efficiency. It’s terrible.

Why would you do that? It makes no sense. Hydrogen has very low density. It’s a pernicious molecule that likes to get all over the place. If you get hydrogen leaks from invisible gas, you can’t even tell that it’s leaking. But then it’s extremely flammable, when it does, and has an invisible flame.

If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is an incredibly dumb one to pick. You should just pick methane. That’s much, much easier. Or propane.

The best case hydrogen fuel cell doesn’t run against the current case batteries. So, then, obviously, it doesn’t make sense. That will become apparent in the next few years. There’s no reason for us to have this debate. I’ve said my piece on this. It will be super-obvious as time goes by.”


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

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

The Reality of Hydrogen Cars

I recently posted to LinkedIn some quotes by Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk regarding the practicality of the current state of hydrogen fuel cells as applied to personal transportation.

The post was inspired by the research I’ve been conducting for my next book, Understanding Alternative Cars. The book will feature a chapter regarding hydrogen-powered vehicles in an effort to eliminate confusion for consumers–while also accomplishing some myth-busting.

My LinkedIn post:

elon musk for twitter 2In January 2014, in an interview with British magazine Autocar, Musk said the following regarding hydrogen fuel cells as applied to personal transportation:

“They’re mind-bogglingly stupid. You can’t even have a sensible debate.”

“Consider the whole fuel cell system against a Model S. It’s far worse in volume and mass terms, and far, far, worse in cost. And I haven’t even talked about hydrogen being so hard to handle.”

“Success is simply not possible.”

“Manufacturers do it [FCEVs] because they’re under pressure to show they’re doing something ‘constructive’ about sustainability. They feel it’s better to be working on a solution a generation away rather than something just around the corner.”

“Hydrogen is always labeled the fuel of the future—and always will be.”

There’s currently quite a bit of contention regarding the topic of hydrogen power for cars. Given Toyota’s recent announcement that it will migrate from fossil fuels to more modern technologies, like hydrogen and electricity, and BMW’s recent statement that it will no longer employ gas-powered internal combustion engines by the year 2025, this is a big deal. The economic and environmental repercussions of the migration from fossil fuels to alternative, modern technologies will be felt by everyone.

A commenter to my LinkedIn post, Joe Wojdacz, who identifies himself as a “disruptive innovationist” within the motion picture and film industry in Los Angeles, posted the following:

“I’m sorry but, what a dumb thing to say by someone claiming the mantle of the incomparable Nikola Tesla! How about looking more than a generation behind at the man himself who found the Cosmos to be a battery. No need for Li or Hydrogen. WTF people?!”

In response, I emailed Mr. Wojdacz the following:

“Joe: I love the ‘idea’ of hydrogen, but every time I research the numbers and efficiency ratio, it makes no sense. The most reputable recent source I consulted stated an efficiency ratio of 1.3 to one. Meaning that 1.3 units of energy are invested to deliver one unit of energy (in this argument, to propel a vehicle).

American consumers love convenience. There’s a fast food drive-thru on every corner and all pizza shops provide home delivery for a reason. Convenience is king, few would argue. Ok, given that, how are we to assume that an expensive network of hydrogen fueling stations is more convenient for drivers than simply plugging in at home or work?

Centralized fueling stations are a thing of the past in an all-EV world. They die, along with the 155-year-old propulsion tech they supported, internal combustion engines.

A factor that will actually generate a surplus of energy on the grid will be rooftop consumer solar power. This will be especially true for those who can afford a storage battery and, thus, engage in the time shifting of energy (charging one’s car after dark/post-work commute, the same way that consumers currently time shift TV entertainment using DVRs).

Even if we assume that the majority of the future hydrogen fuel station infrastructure is derived from stations that currently dispense gasoline, it doesn’t change the fact that consumers will choose the $4 at-home, in-the-garage, overnight refueling over the $50 hydrogen fuel cell, only-at-the-dispensing station, approach.

I would love to engage with an informed and reasonably balanced hydrogen fan/enthusiast/proponent regarding these points. I’m not against *any* clean, renewable tech, given the nastiness of the gasoline production life cycle (fracking, high cost, refineries, and exhaust from tail pipes). But when I do the math for fuel cell vehicles versus EVs, fuel cells always lose by a wide margin.

Unless there’s some magic (and magically inexpensive) leapfrog propulsion fuel on the immediate horizon–like Star Trek-inspired dilithium crystals or something–electricity makes so much more sense that it isn’t even funny.

Joe, thank for you opinion on all this. But is there something I’m missing here? Everything Musk says has made sense to me so far.”

Please consider this post an invitation to both pro- and anti-hydrogen enthusiasts alike to participate in a mature, professional, and educational debate regarding the merits and practicality of hydrogen and electricity as power sources for the next generation of personal vehicles.

I’m sure we’ll all learn something. Because, after all, we share the same planet and we all pay a significant portion of our incomes for personal transportation.

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Curt Robbins


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

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