In 1801 Humphry Davy demonstrated the principle of what became the hydrogen fuel cell. In the 1960’s NASA first used the hydrogen fuel cells in space missions. During the 70’s and 90s, oil crisis situations prompted the development of larger fuel cells for commercial and industrial use. In 1980, Honda introduced the FCX Clarity, and this year it released its third version of the fuel celled automobile. The car comes with all the bells and whistles you can imagine, and even a $15,000 fuel allowance. Toyota, BMW, GM, Kia, and Hundai have spent the last few decades promoting hydrogen fueled vehicles and have collectively put over 2,000 fuel cell-powered cars on the road. Insurance companies have also done their part to promote the industry, offering discounts and cheap car insurance to the owners of electric and fuel cell powered cars. The biggest issue in transitioning these cars into mainstream consumerism is the lack of infrastructure. So far the development of hydrogen fuel stations has stagnated into a kind of chicken or the egg situation. How can more stations be built if there are not more cars being purchased to fund that development, and how can more cars be sold if there are not a sufficient amount of fueling stations to make owning a hydrogen fuel cell car a practical reality? More progress is needed before the average American can embrace the technology, and before insurance companies can use it as an incentive to offer cheap car insurance.
Fortunately, there has been progress in building fuel stations, as well as companies that are trying more out of the box style development in order to forward the momentum of the fuel cell industry. In 2013 Governor Brown signed AB 8, a bill to fund 20 million a year for 10 years for up to 100 stations. The California Energy Commission funded $46.6 million for 28 stations to be completed in 2016, making significant progress towards the goal of establishing a 100-station refueling network in California. Currently, California has the most fuel stations available with 16 in Los Angeles and 9 in the Bay Area. San Diego has its first station, opened in December 2016 at the Shell Station on Carmel Valley Road and Interstate 15. The fueling station was built by First Element, a company which has built a number of stations which combine to having powered over 6,687,000 zero-emission miles in hydrogen cars. Dr. Shane Stephens, founder and chief development officer of FirstElement stated that, “That’s the equivalent of planting a forest 16 times the size of Disneyland.” Anyone would call that progress, but there’s more. The California Energy Commission provided FirstElement with a $27.6 million grant to build its first 19 hydrogen stations and they recently were selected to receive a second grant to build eight more stations, including one in Mission Valley on Mission Center Road.
In addition, Toyota, Shell, and H2USA are creating public-private partnerships to promote the commercial adoption of hydrogen fuel celled busses, medium and heavy duty fleets, and material handling equipment. Unlike consumer stations, these fueling stations can be fewer, and centralized to the area that meets the needs of the fleet. Targeted areas are the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach. These are where the build of the diesel-powered semis are, and converting even a portion of those trucks could go a long way in helping the Clean Air Action Plan. Since a fleet operates in a defined area, just one or two large refueling stations will be needed. Once those are in place, they can also be used to supply fuel cell powered tug boats, shuttle busses and forklifts. Removing diesel power from airports, harbors, and warehouse complexes would be a big step forward, and hopefully generate the other financial resources for more stations across the country.
The fuel cell industry has faced many obstacles in the past, and continues to face challenges as it comes through a
period of recession to complete the transition from R&D to commercialization. On the whole, it has continued to survived extremely difficult circumstances, and keeps moving in a forward direction. More progress is needed before the average American can embrace the technology of hydrogen fuel cells, and before insurance companies can use it as an incentive to offer cheap car insurance. Although many fuel cell companies are still far from being profitable they are not giving up, and the opportunities for growth in the future are very promising.