The Hydrogen Highway: Lots of Fuel-Cell Cars, But in Pockets of America

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 20, 2011

The hydrogen troops gathered in Vancouver, and they brought their cars. (Jim Motavalli photo)For the last several months, I've been driving a state-of-the-art Toyota FCHV-adv fuel-cell car, and refilling it at a solar-powered hydrogen station in Wallingford, Connecticut. I wish I could report that the car did something dramatic, but in fact aside from some minor trouble with an auxiliary battery (nothing to do with hydrogen) it's been completely reliable, quiet and efficient. Toyota set out to make its fuel-cell car a transparent experience for people who've spent a lifetime behind the wheel of gas vehicles, and it definitely succeeded. The training session takes about five minutes.

I was thinking about my fuel-cell car this week during a trip to Vancouver, Canada for the "Hydrogen + Fuel Cells 2011" conference. The message was that fuel-cell cars, as well as hydrogen-fueled back-up and auxiliary power, are rapidly moving from the research phase to commercialization by 2015. And that includes Proton OnSite, which runs that SunHydro station in Wallingford as a beachhead in what is planned as a 12-station "hydrogen highway" from Maine to Miami. Proton gets around. It's also building a $1.7 million refueling station for the U.S. Army in Hawaii.

Alas, Tom Sullivan, the Lumber Liquidators founder who bought Proton at a tax auction three years ago and has the vision for the hydrogen highway, didn't appear for a planned talk in Vancouver, but CEO and co-founder Robert Friedland took his place.

I had been curious to see whether the hydrogen highway was still moving forward. It is, Friedland said, with a site in Braintree, Massachusetts, to be built very late this year or early next. But the approach is being re-calibrated to concentrate on an interim Boston-to-Washington corridor, with completion of the whole network moving out to two or three years. Essentially, Friedland said, the hydrogen stations are going to follow the cars, and it's going to be a while before there are many fuel-cell cars below the Mason-Dixon Line. The Connecticut station has a number of customers, including the 10-Toyota fleet that my car is part of, as well as some United Technologies fuel-cell buses. Other automakers, including Daimler, have flirted with the idea of basing fleets in Wallingford.

It's Sullivan's game plan because he owns Proton and SunHydo both. Lumber Liquidators has 200 stores and did $620.3 million in revenue in 2010, so Sullivan can undoubtedly afford the $20 million or so his network is going to cost. Without much fanfare, he handed out a cool $1 million to fund 10 science scholarships (check out the video on Facebook). But Sullivan didn't get where he is by making wrong-headed moves, and it makes sense to wait and see how the fuel-cell rollout proceeds.

The big news in Vancouver was not that Daimler, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota are planning to commercialize fuel-cell cars in 2015--we already knew that. The news was how many of them they plan to make--tens of thousands per manufacturer in just the first year.

The companies made clear that they're deadly serious about this--the long night of tiny demonstration projects is finally over. Daimler, for instance, has taken a fleet of its B-Class F-Cell vehicles on a round-the-world endurance tour that so far mirrors my own driving experience--nothing more serious than flat tires.

Christian Mohrdieck, director of fuel-cell and battery development at Daimler, says that automakers will be fielding "serious production volumes" in 2015 and after. Joshua Mermelstein, senior fuel-cell engineer at Hyundai-Kia, says to expect "tens of thousands" of hydrogen cars from his company in 2015. Taken together, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of cars, and relatively soon.

A key question is whether there will be enough hydrogen stations when the cars arrive. I have to drive 45 minutes to fuel in Wallingford, and that's a disincentive, not to mention a fuel waster. Stations cost more than $1 million to build, so we won't see them on every corner. It looks like the stations will be clustered--in California, Connecticut, western Canada, Europe and Japan, and automakers will send the initial cars (like the third generation of those Mercedes F-Cells) to those places, too. If you live elsewhere, make other plans.

Tom Sullivan: He's building the hydrogen highway, with Boston-Washington first. (SunHydro photo)
Actually, I don't know how many fuel-cell cars will make it to Connecticut. I just threw that one in because, well, I live here, and there is an unusual concentration of hydrogen-related companies in our minuscule state--Fuel Cell Energy, Proton OnSite, UTC Power and Avalence, to name a few.

The hydrogen conference was encouraging. Despite Energy Secretary Chu's short-sighted 40-percent de-funding of hydrogen from the 2012 DOE budget (a repeat of an unsuccessful attempt in 2009), fuel cells are alive and well and on track to play a meaningful role in American transportation. I was able to take a drive in the Mercedes F-Cell in Vancouver, along with Mercedes Tech Raymond Lee, and here's a video to prove it:

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