Infrastructure Grows as More Fuel Cell Cars Hit the Streets
Along with plug-in electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell cars have a major part to play in the movement away from the internal combustion engine. The latest fuel cell cars look and perform just like “regular cars,” and you can drive one home today from a local Toyota, Honda or Hyundai dealership “if.” The “if” is the impediment to mass adoption because of the still fledgling hydrogen fueling infrastructure.
“Gassing” up with hydrogen is becoming easier
To help remedy that situation, the State of California is building 100 hydrogen fuel stations. As part of that effort, San Ramon (on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay) now hosts station #29. It’s an attractive and spacious new facility that just opened in the sprawling Bishop Ranch industrial park, which just happens to be the headquarters of oil giant Chevron. The land for the station is leased from Toyota for $1 a year (the new station borders on Toyota’s Northern California zone office). It’s very convenient for refueling the manufacturer’s Mirai hybrid sedans, although any hydrogen-powered car is welcome.
Station #29 is one of seven stations slated for the San Francisco Bay Area in the next year (or two, the process of commissioning and building a station is long and not always predictable). Ross Koble, Toyota’s Advanced Technology PR representative, said that in the two years the Mirai has been on the road, Toyota (which pays for the fuel for leased or purchased cars, has noticed that owners appear to be extending the time between fill-ups. He thought that indicated a learning curve as owners became more comfortable with fuel cell technology and the refueling infrastructure, reducing the fear of running out of fuel.
The Ribbon Is Cut
I attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, where a group of the people responsible for bringing this new community asset to San Ramon each spoke to an appreciative crowd.
The hydrogen station has the look and feel of the familiar gas station
We first heard from Bill Elrick, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, an industry/government collaboration that has worked since 1999 to expand the market for fuel cell hydrogen-powered vehicles. Elrick touted the multiple benefits of the station—environmental, economic and for energy independence. He thanked the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which has been instrumental in promoting the market for fuel cell vehicles with cash incentives on the vehicles and a regulation that encourages automakers to produce zero emission vehicles like fuel cells.
Michael Beckman, VP/Head – Key Customers & Hydrogen Fueling at Linde, the folks whose technology powers the station, thanked the assembled city and county representatives for getting the job done. “It’s tough to build in California,” Beckman said, but he was very happy with the outcome. Linde’s Ionic Compression technology is found in many applications, including the sprawling A/C Transit yard in Emeryville, which fuels 13 fuel cell buses, and a large facility at the BMW factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina. They also built the public hydrogen station in West Sacramento.
It’s not a community ribbon-cutting without the appropriate dignitaries, so San Ramon Mayor Bill Clarkson spoke briefly. Democratic State Senator Steve Glaser, who represents California’s 7th Senate District, praised the state’s aggressive goals and provision of incentives for alternate fuels. Republican Assemblymember Catharine Baker, who represents the 16th California Assembly District, noted the bipartisan agreement in support of this technology as it moves into cities and towns around the state.
Candace Anderson, Contra Costa County District 2 supervisor, hailed the public/private partnership that has made the air in California cleaner today. She presented a certificate of appreciation for the building of Station #29. I spoke privately with San Ramon Assistant City Manager Eric Figueroa, who was pleased to have the state-of-the-art facility in his community.
Representing the auto industry, Dawn Mercer, National Manager, Advanced Technology Vehicles Marketing, stepped up to the microphone. She explained that Toyota has been working on fuel cells for 20 years, since the days of the first Prius, and was sanguine about the growth of fuel cell vehicles. About 2,100 Toyota Mirai fuel cell cars are tooling around California (60 percent are in the Los Angeles area, where the infrastructure is more developed than in the north) already, compared to 10 million hybrids on roads all over the world. The fuel cells are sold by only eight Toyota dealers, four in the south and four in the north.
Fuel-cell vehicles run on electricity, but unlike a plug-in electric car, which is charged from an electric source, they generate the electricity in the vehicle itself. The process involves combining the hydrogen fuel with oxygen, creating energy, with the sole byproduct being H2O—water. A Toyota Mirai can get around 312 miles on a tankful of hydrogen, and it only takes a few minutes to fill it. This replicates the experience most drivers are accustomed to at their local gas station.
The Hyundai Tucson SUV is one of three fuel cell EVs on the market
The issue for early adopter hydrogen car owners has been finding a station, so placing a facility in the heart of this prosperous area is a good way to boost sales of the three hydrogen cars currently available: the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity midsize sedans and the Hyundai Tucson compact crossover.
Chris Weeks, director of transportation for Bishop Ranch, told Clean Fleet Report he felt San Ramon was a great spot for station #29. “There’s plenty of disposable income here, people have long commutes, and the types of people who live and work around here appreciate the new technology,” he said. Weeks drives a fuel cell Hyundai Tucson.
The sales manager for one of the eight Toyota dealers selling the Mirai, Russ Mobley, told Clean Fleet Report that some of his customers are converts from Tesla’s electric cars—some trading in their Model S and others abandoning the long line for the just-introduced Model 3 to move to an advanced technology they can drive home now. He also added that the availability of the HOV-lane sticker, which allows a Mirai driver to use the carpool lane while driving solo, is a major motivator.
Toyota executives noted that they are finding Mirai owners forming ad hoc affinity groups, sharing their experiences on social media.
The Station Process
John Kato, deputy director of the California Energy Commission, also spoke to the crowd. The California Energy Commission is tasked by state law with developing and deploying alternative and renewable fuels and advanced transportation technologies to help meet California’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and petroleum dependence in the transportation sector. The Energy Commission is responsible for building California’s network of 100 hydrogen stations; so far, they have funded 60 stations, of which 31 are currently open.
Some FCEVs stand out more than others
Later, Kato and I chatted about the other area of hydrogen technology that needs development. Although there are many ways to produce hydrogen fuel, it is an energy intensive process today, making it less sustainable. Kato is hopeful that the use of renewable energy generated from biomethane from waste treatment and landfills will help lead to more clean hydrogen production in California soon.
The new station’s pump looks much like a modern gas dispensing unit, with a slot to pay and a small keypad. It also features a screen with a short video explaining how to use the station. Regular patrons will presumably skip that part, but it’s good to learn to use the station properly. It’s a simple process.
The happy crowd had a chance to test drive hydrogen vehicles after the presentation, although some attendees were already proud owners. The presence of hydrogen station #29 should help more people in the Bay Area make the decision to go green with hydrogen.
Note: Michael Coates contributed to this article.
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Welcome To Space Age Transportation
We have driven the future—and it feels a lot like today. We recently drove the production version of the 2017 Honda Clarity, the third entry in the hydrogen fuel cell field (after the Hyundai Tuscon and the market leader, Toyota Mirai). It’s a real car that should help move fuel cell cars incrementally closer to the automotive mainstream.
A normal, functional, high-tech dash
Let’s move past the old narrative that hydrogen fuel cell cars are the transportation of the future—and always will be—and focus on the cars available today. The Honda Clarity demonstrates the exciting aspect of this technology, but also shows the struggle these “future” cars have to fit into the mainstream.
This is the third generation of Honda’s fuel cell cars (the fuel cell “engines” have gone through many more generations during the 20 years of development as all new technologies do). The Gen 1 was the Honda Plus FCEV, which used the company’s electric car platform to get early models out on the road for testing. It was a mundane package, but it drove great.
The second generation, now named Clarity, was a big car, great-looking in the subdued Honda style, but still not ready for prime time. A few were made available for lease to select fuel cell enthusiasts. When we drove it, much like our experience with the first generation, it impressed us with the refinement of it as a functional car. It was fast, smooth and felt ready to hit the showroom.
Now we have Gen 3–also Honda Clarity. It is all new, a more radical design than the previous generation, but still governed by Honda’s conservative approach. It also feels identical to a mainstream Honda in every way except its powertrain. The tip-off that we’re still not in the mainstream comes if you really want to buy one–you still can’t at Honda (the Toyota Mirai can be purchased). For now, the Clarity is a lease-only vehicle, like the Mirai only available in the areas of California that have the initial stations of the still nascent fueling network.
It’s got a look of the future
The advances through the years have shrunk the fuel cell stack size, increased its power and durability and reduced its costs. That’s great, but this advancement also has precipitated a dramatic redesign with each generation since optimal packaging is necessary to reduce weight and make sure the performance is at the top of its game. Challenging doesn’t begin to describe it. It’s not a problem for a concept car every couple years, but for volume production, that’s a big hurdle. It’s one that will likely keep all fuel cell cars at small volumes until the engineers feel like they’ve got a package that will attract a larger audience.
Smaller, but more powerful
So what’s an automaker to do. Put a stake in the ground and launch. Hyundai took a short cut, dropping a fuel cell powertrain in its Tucson SUV and hitting the market first. It also was only available for lease. Toyota followed with a bigger splash—the purpose-designed Mirai, which incorporated some Prius styling hints/synergy, but it is clearly its own vehicle. And you can purchase as well as lease it.
Now comes Honda. Rather than carry forward with the slick, if not instantly recognizable design of the Clarity, Honda laid out a course like its rival Toyota with a unique, edgy design. It works. Of course, the company has announced it’s sharing that design with new battery electric and plug-in hybrid models, but it should help make a mark.
For all its future technology under the hood, the 2017 Honda Clarity drives like most contemporary electric cars. It’s responsive with great low-end torque. The true five-passenger, four-door sedan comes well-equipped with all of the modern technology expected in a car, such as a dual-zone climate control, an infotainment system that includes a 540-watt/12-speaker audio system and an eight-inch high-res touch screen with navigation that includes hydrogen refueling stations. Additionally, the system is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible. The fuel-cell vehicle also features the Honda Sensing package of safety equipment and the LaneWatch blind-spot monitoring system. You do lose some trunk space because of the hydrogen storage tank placed behind the back seat; the 11.8 cubic feet of trunk space in the Clarity is almost five cubic feet less than the subcompact Fit.
The trunk is sacrificed to the fuel tank
While it is an electric drive car, the Clarity has a 350+ mile range between fill-ups (one of the big advantages of a hydrogen-fueled electric car compared to a battery-powered one). The limitation, of course, is there are not that many fueling stations (28 are open in California as of this writing and that number is expected to double within a year or two). Less this cramp your style, Honda and its competitors include free fuel in the price of their fuel cell cars.
The lease price of the Clarity is only a few dollars different than the Mirai, which is to be expected at this stage of the game. For those who qualify and live near the 12 California dealers that will be the initial market, the 2017 Honda Clarity can be leased for $369/month with $2,868 down. Not a bad deal to drive the future.
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Clean Fleet Report is loaned free test vehicles from automakers to evaluate, typically for a week at a time. Our road tests are based on this one-week drive of a new vehicle. Because of this we don’t address issues such as long-term reliability or total cost of ownership. In addition we are often invited to manufacturer events highlighting new vehicles or technology. As part of these events we may be offered free transportation, lodging or meals. We do our best to present our unvarnished evaluations of vehicles and news irrespective of these inducements.
Our focus is on vehicles that offer the best fuel economy in their class, which leads us to emphasize electric cars, plug-in hybrids, hybrids and diesels. We also feature those efficient gas-powered vehicles that are among the top mpg vehicles in their class. In addition, we aim to offer reviews and news on advanced technology and the alternative fuel vehicle market. We welcome any feedback from vehicle owners and are dedicated to providing a forum for alternative viewpoints. Please let us know your views at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Western Automotive Journalists’ Media Day Review
Unexpected luxury in a work truck (Ford F-250)
Once a year a group of automotive journalists including Clean Fleet Report gathers on the Monterey Peninsula to drive a selection of the latest models available. This year we had the opportunity to sample a variety of vehicles, with First Drive stories scheduled to appear in the near future.
Here’s a preview of what we drove over two days and a headline of what we thought (in alphabetical order):
- Acura MDX Sport Hybrid – This is a big SUV that is now pushing close to 30 mpg with some careful driving. It’s got some odd gearwork inside, but comes loaded with luxury items.
A big SUV with big MPG
Chrysler Pacifica Plug–in Hybrid – Chrysler’s rep told us the plug-in nature of this model may not be highlighted and we found out why. The added fuel economy (84 MPGe with a 32 mpg in gas-only mode) is nice, but the overall car is the best minivan I’ve ever driven.
- Ford F–250 Super Duty – Diesel is definitely not dead in this class of big truck. The power and added fuel economy are expected, but the luxury in this serious work truck is a real plus.
- Honda Clarity – The third entry in the fuel cell car sweepstakes is a stunner. It looks great and travels as smooth as we’ve come to expect from most electric cars. It’s good competition for the Toyota Mirai.
- Jaguar XE 2.0d – A sure-footed AWD sedan that feels a bit like a throwback—specifically the first generation BMW 3-Series—and that’s not a bad thing.
- Kia Niro Hybrid – My colleagues have already praised this model highly so my expectations were high, but like several other Kia models—it delivers.
- Land Rover Discovery Td6 – Another big, high-riding SUV, this one with diesel power giving it mid-20s mpg. The torque from the diesel reinforces a feeling of invincibility.
Big, powerful and ready to go anywhere
Mazda CX–5 – Mazda seems to keep pumping up this model, which is the heart of its SUV lineup. It’s understated, but a real pleasure to drive while tagging on fuel economy up to almost 30 mpg on the highway.
- Mercedes–Benz GLA 250 – I wasn’t sure what to expect from this little red number. It looked sporty, but offered a hint of SUV utility. It turned out to suffer from this kind of schizophrenia, which muddled its image.
- Toyota CH–R – Toyota finally jumps into the hot subcompact SUV segment with this wild-looking model. It’s fun, but quirky in more than just its looks.
- Toyota Prius Prime – This round the plug-in Prius gets a redo to distinguish it from the non-plug-in Prius and also adds some new gadgets. It’s definitely a step up, but the competition hasn’t been standing still so it is going to continue struggle with all but Toyota loyalists. Some of my colleagues have been impressed with their time in this car.
- Zero Motorcycles – Zero brought out its full line of electric bikes and got a lot of attention for the bikes quiet performance. It turns out police all over the country love that combination (quiet+performance).
In addition to all of the fun hardware (and trust me, I didn’t have a chance to try everything I wanted to), WAJ Media Day also gave me a chance to learn more about Navdy’s head-up display and get updated on why high-strength steel is still used so extensively in the auto industry.
Government Contest Seeks to Advance Fuel Use
The U.S. Department of Energy, in collaboration with Hydrogen Education Foundation, launched two years ago the Hydrogen Refuel H-Prize Competition to build the on-site hydrogen (H2) generation refueling systems.
In 2015, the organizers announced finalists to the competition and evaluated their solutions to the task of bringing hydrogen refueling to homes and companies and making it affordable.
The finalists had seven months to finish and install their systems at their choice of locations before testing began. Each system had scores for their dispensing pressure and time, their number of daily standard fills for cars, the tested availability, total cost of the system and its installation, and the direct cost per kg for every user.
Recently, the organizers announced SimpleFuel as the winner of the $1 million competition prize. People from Ivy’s Energy Solutions, McPhy Energy North America, and PDC Machines make up Team SimpleFuel. Its headquarters is in Waltham, Massachusetts.
The onsite SimpleFuel hydrogen station is so small it can fit in a garage of an ordinary residence. The mechanism behind their project involves electrolysis, which is the separation of hydrogen and oxygen that make up water molecules.
Electrolysis for hydrogen production
Hydrogen refueling replicates the gas station experience
The unit operates through a combination of electrolyzer, compressor, and dispenser, with water as feedstock. While there aren’t any further details available on the hydrogen station’s proprietary electrolysis process, it basicly involves the use of electricity to split water into the needed hydrogen and oxygen molecules.
The electrolyzer used in the station consists of an electrolyte that separates a cathode and an anode. Depending on the kind of electrolyte material used, an electrolyzer may function differently from another. There are currently three types of electrolyzers: polymer electrolyte membrane, alkaline, and solid oxide.
With an electrolyzer, the carbon fiber tank of the SimpleFuel can deliver around 5 to 10 kilograms of hydrogen daily (the same fuel capacity of a Toyota Mirai), while oxygen is the only byproduct of the process.
Hydrogen station winner
The SimpleFuel can produce up to one kilogram of fuel in more or less 15 minutes and has a 700-bar fueling capacity. It is a bit weighty—larger than an EV charger or a gas pump—but it is solid when considering its functions.
It has the potential to deploy at different locations and has regular hookup utilities for water and electricity. It has an initial estimated cost of $200,000 for installation in businesses and public spaces, but eventually hopes to become affordable for individual owners to acquire.
It’s expected that utility companies will be the first to install units such as this, just like they have installed EV charging infrastructure in many locations.
A small unit like this can offer convenience for drivers using fuel cell vehicles that run on hydrogen, particularly while the H2 fueling infrastructure is underdeveloped in many states. Further, it could be economical for companies that use fleets of hydrogen-powered machines and vehicles.
Building infrastructure that can support hydrogen fueling of individual owners will eventually help increase the demand for this kind of renewable fuel. Supporting hydrogen refueling is promoting a sustainable future that will surely benefit younger generations.
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