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November 12, 2018

CT laying groundwork for next green wave: Hydrogen cars

Photos | Contributed Steve Szymanski, director of business development at Nel Hydrogen (formerly Proton Onsite in Wallingford), fills up a hydrogen car at the company's hydrogen fueling station, which was the first in Connecticut and has recently been upgraded to accept credit cards.
An Air Liquide hydrogen fueling station.
Rob Klee, Commissioner, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
Joel Rinebold, Chairman, Connecticut Hydrogen-Fuel Cell Coalition and Energy Director, Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology
Ole Hoefelmann, Americas Vice President, Air Liquide

Just as hundreds of public electric-vehicle charging stations have cropped up in Connecticut in recent years, helping put thousands of clean cars on the road, the stage is gradually being set for a new green transportation option — hydrogen vehicles.

Connecticut now has two commercial refueling stations publicly available for hydrogen (also called hydrogen fuel cell) cars, including one at the newly constructed Pride Travel Center on Jennings Road in Hartford and another in Wallingford on the campus of hydrogen generator manufacturer Nel Hydrogen (formerly Proton OnSite, acquired by Norway-based Nel in 2017). 

A third state-backed facility will open in New Haven as early as late next year.

“This transition to zero-emission vehicles needs to have a diversity of options,” said Rob Klee, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), which recently awarded an $840,000 grant to New York-based Standard Hydrogen Corp., to develop the New Haven facility.

DEEP has also incentivized hydrogen-car purchases with the highest $5,000 rebate under its so-called CHEAPR program, which has been a key driver of electric-vehicle adoption in the state.

With several hydrogen passenger vehicles now on the market, and more expected over the next decade, industry observers say it's not a question of whether the cars will eventually proliferate on Connecticut roads, but at what pace.

“I think we will see a very rapid ramp-up once the vehicles and the refueling infrastructure is here,” said Joel Rinebold, chairman of the Connecticut Hydrogen-Fuel Cell Coalition and energy director at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology in East Hartford. Rinebold said he believes hydrogen-car adoption will outpace that of electric cars in their earliest years.

However, speed bumps remain. Perhaps the biggest: No New England auto showrooms, including in Connecticut, currently sell hydrogen vehicles. That means hydrogen-fueling station developers are taking a “build it and they will come” approach, which poses risk.

The best-selling hydrogen car to date, the Toyota Mirai, is only available in California and Hawaii and has sales of just over 4,000.

Another issue is that a handful of hydrogen stations, while helpful, may not be enough to spur greater consumer demand, as hydrogen cars typically get less mileage out of a fillup than gasoline cars (the Mirai can go about 300 miles on a full tank).

In addition, unlike electric cars, hydrogen vehicles can't be juiced at home, which makes hydrogen fueling stations all the more important.

Edmond Young, who works in hydrogen fuel infrastructure for Toyota, said the Japanese automaker is excited about Connecticut's recent growth in facilities and would like to bring the Mirai to the state. However, he declined to give an exact timetable for when that might happen.

“We'd look to do so when there is an appropriate network of [fueling] sites,” Young said.

That would include, he said, “at least” a second station in Hartford, as station clusters are important to hydrogen-car users.

Rinebold said government or corporate purchases of hydrogen-car fleets will likely be a key piece of the demand puzzle. An early wave of fleet sales could spur enough demand to attract more investment in building out stations, and also familiarize drivers with the vehicles.

Rinebold and CCAT are also mapping out manufacturing facilities that use a lot of hydrogen on-site and could therefore be a good location for placing a fueling facility.

Air Liquide's Hartford station

Car dealerships front both sides of Jennings Road in Hartford's North Meadows section.

There is also a newly constructed Pride Travel Center.

The fill-up station/convenience store is the site of one of four newly completed hydrogen fueling stations in the Northeast developed and operated by chemical giant Air Liquide, which has a dozen planned.

Ole Hoefelmann, Americas vice president for the company's advanced business and technologies unit, said the station, and others, are key to growing hydrogen-car popularity in Connecticut.

“This is important for communities to give them choice, to help build the future on hydrogen's role in the energy transition,” said Hoefelmann, who works in California and drives a Mirai.

Though technically Air Liquide will be competing for business with Nel Hydrogen and the future New Haven facility, Hoefelmann is happy about the stations.

“In the early years, it's about making sure you have enough stations, density and a reliable infrastructure for the market,” he said.

Air Liquide consulted with Toyota and other hydrogen-vehicle automakers to determine the sites for its four Northeast facilities. While no hydrogen vehicles are being sold in the state yet, Hoefelmann seems comfortable with his company's undisclosed long-term investment.

He said the California experience has given him confidence that hydrogen vehicles can gain a broader mass appeal quicker than some may think.

“That puts positive pressure on the infrastructure builders,” he said.

Steve Szymanski, director of business development at Nel Hydrogen in Wallingford, which built its fueling station in 2010 to test a small fleet of Toyota demonstration vehicles, said it's still pretty rare that a hydrogen car comes through the station, which was upgraded to commercial standards last year with the help of a state grant.

He said he agrees that fleet purchases will be crucial to building demand, which is still very much in its infancy, even in California where the vast majority of cars exist.

“It's one of the things that has been a little bit of a struggle for station operators in California,” he said. “The cars are getting to market but (sales have been) slower than everybody had hoped.”

If there aren't enough cars, he added, fueling-station owners will struggle to make a return on their investments.

Electric-car experience

Electric cars continue to proliferate on Connecticut roadways, ramping up since 2011, though there remains some doubt about whether Connecticut will hit a goal of getting 125,000 electric vehicles registered by 2025.

There were 7,973 electric-battery/hybrid vehicles registered in the state as of Sept. 2018, state records show.

While the current adoption pace may not cut it, Klee noted that sales have accelerated over the past year. For example, a year ago there were under 5,600 electric cars in the state.

Auto dealers have largely embraced electric vehicles, though they've battled (successfully) in the legislature for the past four years with Tesla over the California clean-car maker's attempt to sell its vehicles directly to consumers, which is currently outlawed.

James Fleming, president of the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association, said he believes hydrogen cars are the future. His dealership members want to sell fuel cell vehicles as soon as manufacturers are prepared to send them here.

Even though Connecticut has just two fueling facilities right now, it's still more than most other states, he noted.

“So three, four or five [stations] might be enough to get manufacturers to introduce them,” Fleming said. “I'm very hopeful, because we have some infrastructure, and if we can add more, we'll see these vehicles introduced.”

Read more

How clean is hydrogen?

Editor's note: This story has been updated to refer to the former Proton OnSite in Wallingford as Nel Hydrogen, its new brand after a 2017 acquisition by a Norwegian company.

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