Mobile Hydrogen Refueling Will Serve as Stop-Gap Solution

Hydrogen, Stations  /   /  By Bradley Berman

In January 2015, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a $35 million funding opportunity for hydrogen fuel cell technology. That opportunity targeted, among other things, demonstration of “mobile hydrogen refuelers” to help accelerate adoption of fuel cell cars.

The D.O.E. made a clear case for mobile hydrogen refuelers, stating that fuel cell vehicles will be sold only near existing infrastructure, but that those locations are quite limited. “Mobile hydrogen refueling is an approach that may be able to provide solutions to meet this initial demand,” according to the Energy Department’s call for proposals.  It promised to make one award up to $1.5 million for design and deployment of mobile hydrogen refuelers that are flexile in meeting customers’ needs.

The industry is in its infancy, and still in search of optimal solutions. What’s clear is that construction of permanent hydrogen stations will not keep pace with sales of hydrogen-powered cars. Some kind of mobile or temporary fueling installation will be needed to keep fuel cell drivers on the road.

The first customers for the Toyota Mirai fuel cell car are taking ownership in November and December.  Our records show only three retail hydrogen refueling stations open in California—two near Los Angeles, and one in West Sacramento. There are an additional six non-retail locations that might be accessible to some customers—five of which are in Southern California. Another 23 stations received permits to build, but based on the current pace of construction, it could be a couple years before they are all commissioned for use.

The progress is better in Southern California than in the northern part of the state. That could be the reason that four Toyota dealerships in Northern California—Roseville, Sunnyvale, San Jose, and San Francisco—will use temporary stations situated at the dealership.

Mirai drivers will be able to fill for free. Unfortunately, the units will dispense at 5,000 psi, rather than the capacity of 10,000 psi. As a result, driving range for a fill- up at this pressure will yield about 150 miles, instead of nearly 300 miles in a full-service high-pressure stations—such as the one in West Sacramento (not far from the mobile unit at the Roseville dealership, but too far away to be practical for drivers based at the other locations).

Only a handful of cars can be fueled per day by these mobile units, and according to Toyota correspondence, customers need to call ahead so that dealership employee can perform the refueling task.

Japan is further ahead on this same track. In late March 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that Japan had opened its first mobile fueling station. The new station is operated by Nippon Mobile Hydrogen Station Services LLC.

Dubbed the “Hydro Shuttle,” the mobile solution was championed as only needing 30 percent as much land as a permanent station, and only 60 percent as much time to bring online. It’s unclear if these mobile stations are truly mobile—meaning, moving around—or if they are more like a semi-permanent food truck operating in a fixed location.  Regardless, these units should be viewed less as mobile fueling trucks—even if they look a lot like trucks—as temporary stations that could stay in operation for a year or longer.

In May 2015, the U.K’s Department for Transport announced that it had completed the installation of a single permanent station—and a new project, worth more than $8 million, to get four more stations commissioned, including two mobile units.

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