Hawaii's Synergy: New Hydrogen Stations + GM Fuel-Cell Cars

Last Updated Sep 1, 2010 7:05 PM EDT

For the first time, General Motors is exporting a fleet of its hydrogen cars -- to Hawaii. GM has build 119 Chevrolet Equinox fuel-cell cars, which it has strategically deployed around the country as part of what it calls Project Driveway. These are very expensive, nearly hand-built cars, so committing nearly a 10th of production is a big deal. GM is taking the risk because Oahu-based Hawaii Gas has come up with a unique plan to distribute hydrogen to gas stations through its existing 1,000-mile pipeline.

"Hawaii Gas is producing 7,000 kilograms of hydrogen every day," said Charles Freese, executive director of GM's global fuel cell activities. "That's enough to refuel 7,000 cars on a regular basis." He said that GM, which has invested $1.5 billion in fuel cells, has been trying to concentrate its hydrogen car program in regions with widely available refueling "so the drivers will have an unencumbered driving experience." Oahu could deliver that experience, as could Iceland (also a contender for a hydrogen network, though it is focusing more on battery electric cars these days).

Back around the turn of the century, fuel-cell cars were believed to be imminent, and Daimler's Ferdinand Panik predicted that 40,000 Mercedes-branded cars would be on the road by 2004. But that was overreaching, and Panik was ousted. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also went out on a limb, pledging to create a "hydrogen highway" in California.

The highway is somewhat undernourished at this point, thanks to California's fiscal crisis. There are only four stations in the state that can do a fast, three-minute fill at what is becoming the industry standard, 10,000 psi. Nationwide, there are only 60 hydrogen stations (with 24 pending). And that explains why battery EVs have gained the upper hand. EV charging stations are going up across the country, and it's become a competitive business one that even features an evolving price, currently 50 cents a kilowatt hour.

The hydrogen infrastructure is still evolving, which is why the Hawaii plan is exciting. According to Jeff Kissel, the CEO of Hawaii Gas, the company's hydrogen business is the result of a happy accident. The company produces synthetic methane gas from leftover naptha that is a byproduct of gasoline refining (and usually flared off).

The gas is pipelined, with hydrogen added to increase efficiency and to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. Kissel says that hydrogen can be separated from the gas stream and routed to gas stations along the pipeline corridor. Although the state of Hawaii is developing a hydrogen-enabling fund targeted at $10 million, Kissel points out:

We are paying for this out of our own pocket -- it's not subsidized in any way. Hydrogen has needed some stand-alone economics to make it happen for a long time. We think there is a future for hydrogen here, and we can deliver it at a cost equivalent to gasoline [expensive in Hawaii] without subsidies.
That would be great news, because making hydrogen in a cost-effective manner has been a consistent issue.

Hydrogen costs more than gasoline, but it is also more energy dense, so Kissel says the cost of driving would be approximately equal in the company's plan. The geography is also favorable. With just six stations, Kissel said, nobody on Oahu will be more than 10 minutes drive from a hydrogen filling station.

But eventually 12 to 24 stations are planned. Oahu has less than a million people, and the population is concentrated, which makes reaching them with hydrogen much easier.

The company will not itself sell hydrogen, but plans to partner with fuel retailers. The first demonstration stations should be in place soon, and the first commercial installations by 2015 (the same year targeted by many carmakers for fuel-cell car introductions).

One reason GM made its car commitment is that the Department of Defense, which has bases on Oahu and is actively involved in trying to "green" them, has made a substantial commitment to take them. The military is taking an active interest in fuel cells, and Connecticut-based FuelCell Energy recently sold two 300-kilowatt stationary fuel cell power plants to the U.S. Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Connecticut.

The Equinox has a range of 300 miles on hydrogen, Freese said, which is one advantage fuel-cell cars have over range-challenged battery EVs. GM is focused on creating a "production-intent" design that it plans to have ready for manufacturing by 2015 (though it hasn't made a commitment to production yet). The latest fuel cell designs reduce weight by 220 pounds and are much smaller than the cells in the Equinox, Freese said.

Finally, let me add here that I expect to be taking part in a long-term test of a Toyota Highlander-based fuel-cell vehicle, one of 10 that will be refueled in Wallingford, Connecticut at the headquarters of Proton Energy. Entrepreneur Tom Sullivan (he owns Lumber Liquidators) bought Proton -- which makes hydrogen electrolyzers -- for approximately $10 million as part of his own grand scheme to create a "hydrogen highway" between Maine and Florida. The Wallingford station is the first in the network, to be followed by a second in Braintree, Massachusetts (near Boston) late next year.

"When people see there's nothing scary about hydrogen, it will get bigger and bigger," Sullivan told me.


Photo: General Motors