May 24, 2010 | last updated May 29, 2012 7:39 pm

Hydrogen Highway Starts In Wallingford | CT firm plays key role in creating a market for alternative energy cars

Proton Energy Systems in Wallingford broke ground last week on the first connection of its planned Hydrogen Highway, a network of nine stations stretching from Maine to Miami where hydrogen cars can be refueled.

The Hydrogen Highway spearheads the company's effort to create an East Coast market for cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells and, therefore, boosting the need for Proton Energy's products that create hydrogen out of water.

Even though these SunHydro stations will operate at a loss for the conceivable future, the effort is vital to convincing automakers an American market exists for fuel cell cars, particularly on the East Coast, said Rob Friedland, Proton president and CEO.

"As people get more comfortable with this technology, they will realize it has all the benefits you want from an alternative energy," Friedland said. "It's not as daunting or complicated as some people make it out to be."

Founded in 1996 in Rocky Hill, Proton Energy Systems is a global leader in hydrogen energy, holding 68 patents related to hydrogen generation. The company, now located in Wallingford, has more than 75 employees.

As of the 2008 report by the National Hydrogen Association, there were 210 hydrogen-powered cars on the road in the United States, although that number likely has grown to 300 vehicles, said Patrick Serfass, spokesman for the National Hydrogen Association.

The majority of those cars — as well as half of the operational hydrogen fueling stations — are in California, particularly Southern California. The vehicles range from SUVs such as the Chevy Fuel Cell EV, Hyundai Tucson FCEV and the Toyota FCHV-adv to smaller, sportier rides such as the Mazda RX-8, Honda FCX Clarity and the Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL.

All of the fuel cell cars in the field are pre-production vehicles and are not available for purchase in the United States. Some are available for lease, such as the Honda FCX Clarity for $600 month with insurance included.

Auto manufacturers are targeting 2015 as the year most of the models will go on sale, Serfass said, but that depends on whether they believe a market exists for the cars.

"The auto manufacturers don't want to roll out 100 vehicles; they want to roll out several hundred or thousands," Serfass said.

The joint effort by SunHydro and Proton Energy Systems — both companies are owned by entrepreneur Tom Sullivan — to build these stations on the East Coast could drastically change automakers' opinion of this as a viable market for fuel cell cars, Serfass said. With the nine SunHydro stations and other hydrogen stations scattered in New York and Washington, D.C., owning these alternative-energy cars would be much more convenient.

"The auto manufacturers don't want to roll out a vehicle that will be entirely inconvenient for the owner to maintain," Serfass said.

Fuel cell cars are zero emission vehicles that run an electric motor using compressed hydrogen gas. The only by-product of the systems is water vapor. The only time carbon dioxide is emitted into the environment is during the creation of the hydrogen, which typically is accomplished with natural gas.

All the SunHydro stations would use Proton Energy equipment that creates hydrogen out of water using solar power, so there are no carbon dioxide emissions.

"Our goal would be to be 100 percent off the grid," said Michael Grey, president of SunHydro.

Proton Energy expects to be completed with its nine stations by 2012. After the first in Wallingford, next will be one in Braintree, Mass. followed by stations in Maine and Delaware, or perhaps New Jersey.

Fuel cell cars have a range of 200-450 miles, so with the hydrogen highway stations strategically placed, owners can drive the entire East Coast using the alternative fuel.

The cost to fill a fuel cell car with hydrogen is roughly equivalent to filling a car with gasoline, Friedland said. Hydrogen may cost as much as $5 per kilogram, but a kilogram of hydrogen gets more than twice the mileage of a gallon of gas, so a 5-kilogram hydrogen car can drive as far as a 12-gallon gasoline vehicle.

The Mercedes Benz B-Class F-CELL gets the equivalent of 71.3 miles per gallon out of its hydrogen system, according to the Mercedes Benz marketing materials.

Central Connecticut already has one hydrogen fueling station on UTC Power's campus in South Windsor. The station serves the campus' fuel cell vehicles and the CTTransit fuel cell bus that has served Greater Hartford since 2007.

Since opening in 2007 with the help of a $2.9-million Federal Transit Administration grant, the only time the UTC Power station sold fuel to a private customer was in 2008 when the Hydrogen Road Tour drove the East Coast.

"CTTransit is expecting to get more (fuel cell) buses this year, so the station will continue to be used," said Peg Hashem, spokeswoman for UTC Power.

The automakers plan to roll out their hydrogen fuel cell centers around locations where stations already exist, Serfass said. The first place will be Southern California followed by Northern California. Next will be Washington, D.C. and the greater New York City metropolitan area, which will include Connecticut.

Fuel cell vehicles will be competing in the Connecticut alternative energy car market with the more visible electric vehicles, those cars running on a battery that is recharged by plugging it into an energy source, such as an outlet.

A group of utility companies including Northeast Utilities and United Illuminating have been working with Gov. M. Jodi Rell's Electric Vehicles Infrastructure Council to be prepared for companies such as General Motors, Ford and Nissan to introduce their electric cars into Connecticut next year.

Northeast Utilities, which owns Connecticut Light & Power, already has three charging stations in place for electric cars and has been in talks with dozens of communities and customers about installing more, said Watson Collins, Northeast Utilities manager of business development.

An electric car charging station takes as little as a week to get up and running, so infrastructure can balloon quickly and prove to the automakers that Connecticut is a place to sell their cars, Collins said.

"We are trying to say the infrastructure is here, and the consumers are here," Collins said.

As for the hydrogen car, the majority of the market so far is outside the United States. More than 60 percent of hydrogen units sold by Proton Energy Systems are for foreign use, Friedland said. The company believes this country can have a viable hydrogen car market, but the manufacturers and the consumers have to be convinced of that.

"Removing hydrogen as a viable alternative energy option is already a mistake," Friedland said.

The Wallingford hydrogen fueling station is expected to be finished in June, and Proton Energy Systems will have a showcase at the grand opening with fuel cell cars.

"The other key to this is education and outreach," Friedland said. "As people see it, they fear it less."

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