The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first retail hydrogen refueling station in Northern California occurred on Dec. 10. “If you build it, they will come,” said Janea Scott, California Energy Commissioner, at the event. The San Francisco Bay Area, and Sacramento, are expected to be capitals for adoption of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles—so stations like the one in West Sacramento will need to spring up all over Northern California to support fueling of hydrogen cars.
Last week, I visited the site, where Jennifer Yan, a senior project manager with Linde North America—a major producer of hydrogen—answered my questions about the building and early use of the station. Yan managed the project to bring the station from planning through construction. The site in West Sacramento, managed by Ramos Oil, also offers retail and industrial fueling for gasoline and diesel, blends of biodiesel (B5 and B20) and E85 ethanol.
There are other industrial hydrogen fueling stations—mostly for buses—in Northern California, but West Sacramento is the first one that allows consumers to simply roll up, swipe a major credit card, and access the gaseous fuel. The dispenser column, including the frame, panels and electronic displays, is manufactured by Gilbarco. However, Quantum Technologies, builds the functions related to the flow and management of gaseous hydrogen.
By appearances, an H2 pump looks a lot like a gasoline pump. Yet, Yan helped me understand the following facts that make hydrogen fueling a different proposition.
The station cost $2.5 million to build.
Yan believes that with each new station, construction will get faster and cheaper. But the West Sacramento station cost about $2.5 million to build. Linde applied for permits in January and February of 2014, and the station was opened in December. The high expense results from a need for low-volume hydrogen components—all of which must handle as much as 15,000 pounds of pressure. The pipes, vessels and valves are very specialized, and produced by only a handful of suppliers. The builders of hydrogen stations, including Linde and FirstElement Fuels, are all competing for the same components. The nozzle alone—the component a driver removes from the dispenser and connects to the car—costs about $10,000. I had previously understood that a hydrogen station costs closer to $1 million but only climbs to $3 million if hydrogen is produced onsite. It appears that, given the current scale (even when dozens are stations are being built) will mean greater expense until economies of scale are realized.
Adding a second dispenser will cost about $500,000.
The West Sacramento station can store about 3,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen. The fuel is vaporized and pressurized before going into vehicles at either 5,000 or 10,000 psi—with a full refueling at between 3 kg and 4 kg. That’s enough fuel for about 100 vehicles a day. It will be a matter of years before the stations needs to expand beyond a single H2 dispenser. Yan explained that adding a second dispenser, however, is not a trivial matter. “You have to design it, buy it, get it permitted, dig out the foundation, put it all together, test it and get it certified,” she said. That adds up to about 20 percent of the total station cost—or close to $500,000.
A week can go by without a customer for H2.
The mantra for these stations, as described above, is “If you build it, they will come.” However, until the Toyota Mirai goes on sale later this year, it’s mostly state and industry officials who are using the West Sacramento station. The ramp up of consumer sales will be slow. “Since we opened, the fueling here has been all over the board, anywhere from four times a day when auto companies were doing testing to a couple cars per week,” said Yan. “Last week, we might not have had anybody come through.” The low level of use these days reveals that investment in hydrogen infrastructure—as many as 46 stations promised to come online in California this year—is a long-term proposition.
It’s hard to find good locations for H2 stations.
Most of the precise locations for California stations have been identified—with some level of permitting already in the works. One of the trickiest aspects of building a network of stations is finding sites that meet tough safety requirements. “You need space for it,” said Yan. “Most corner gas stations don’t have space for all the equipment.” The storage tank—like a giant thermos to keep the hydrogen in liquid form—is behind a fence, about 50 yards from dispenser. There is an additional storage vessel for high-pressure gaseous hydrogen, and a larger container-sized box, where the liquid hydrogen is vaporized and goes through five stages of compression. All of this equipment requires degrees of setback from the public to ensure safety. Stations are not likely to be located in the heart of city centers.
Fuel comes is shipped by truck from Southern California.
Hydrogen goes into the car as a gaseous fuel. But it’s managed and shipped in liquid form. According to Yan, liquid hydrogen is transferred into the site’s large vessel, and stored at about 100 pounds of pressure. For now, that liquid hydrogen arrives via truck from Southern California—much the same way that gasoline and diesel fuel is managed for conventional gas stations. To me, there’s a fundamental difference between the efficiencies of electricity for battery-powered cars—which arrives via the grid to homes and businesses—versus hydrogen that requires specialized production, and shipment for hundreds of miles via truck.
The station is unattended.
There are no on-location attendants at the West Sacramento station. (And no minimart selling corn nuts and sodas either.) Training of drivers is handled via a video that plays on the dispenser monitor. All customers are required to watch the video prior to their first use—after which a code is provided to bypass the video on future visits. There is a lot of remote monitoring of the station. Thanks to sensors and other monitoring devices, remote technicians get notified if anything goes wrong. In the unlikely event that the emergency button gets hit—anybody can push it to shut down the station—a remote technician gets notified. Depending on the situation, the remote technician might have to travel in person to the station to make sure everything is safe before manually resetting the system.
The fuel costs the equivalent of about $6.29 a gallon.
The first set of fuel cell car drivers will not have to pay for fuel. The cost, instead, will be included in the purchase or lease agreement. This approach was taken, in part, because the price of fuel—and even its measurement—carries a level of uncertainty. The dispenser at the West Sacramento station indicated $13.59 per kg. The general rule of thumb is to divide the cost of H2 in half to determine the equivalent cost of a gallon of gasoline. That’s based on fuel cell cars being about twice as efficient as gas cars (and that a gallon of gasoline and a kg of hydrogen has about the same amount of energy). By the time consumers are buying fuel cell cars by the multiple thousands, Toyota and the industry at large expect the cost of hydrogen to drop to about half of where it is right now. At that point, hydrogen cars will be on par with gas-powered vehicles in terms of fueling cost, creating a compelling zero-emissions long-range alternative to gasoline.