Local energy partnership readying North Coast for hydrogen powered cars

Hydrogen production facility among proposed ideas

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Eureka High School graduate Lynn McAuley-Rambach stands next to her Toyota Mirai, one of two hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles available on the market. (Glenn Rambach — contributed)

At the beginning of this year, Gov. Brown signed an executive order mandating in part that, “all State entities work with the private sector and all appropriate levels of government to put at least 5 million zero-emission vehicles on California roads by 2030.” As a result, a local partnership between the Redwood Coast Energy Authority and the Schatz Energy Research Center has begun a series of steps to prepare Humboldt for air friendly hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, or FCEV’s.

“It’s exciting technology …there are certain things that capture peoples’ imaginations,” says Aisha Cissna, who works with RCEA.

But Cissna, among others, is wrestling with a bit of a catch-22. There are currently no fueling stations for FCEVs in Humboldt County. So before FCEVs come to Humboldt, they need a place to fuel. But, for fueling stations to be constructed, FCEVs need to be on the road.

What are Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles?

Unlike battery powered electric vehicles, FCEVs do not need to be plugged in, as they combine hydrogen with oxygen to creates on board electricity, according to Keith Malone, public affairs person for the California Fuel Cell Partnership, an organization created to help commercialize hydrogen fuel cell technology. Cissna said battery powered electric vehicles can take up to eight hours to recharge. FCEVs on the other hand can be refueled in three to five minutes, according to Malone.

“They’re damn fun to drive,” Malone says. “Any car with an electric motor is fun to drive because it has kick.”

Of the two FCEV models on the market,the Toyota Mirai and the Honda Clarity, Malone said they take about five kilograms of hydrogen, which currently costs about $16 per kilogram. Malone, however, says the price of hydrogen is “a bit artificial” because auto manufacturers are offering free fuel for the first three years for purchasers of FCEVs, meaning that there is no reason to lower the price.

The Toyota Mirai, and the Honda Clarity both boast a range of over 300 miles, Malone said. Hyundai is claiming the Nexo, a crossover utility vehicle which has yet to be released, will have a range of 370-380 miles.

For those who might perceive electric vehicles as “wimpish,” Malone presents the ZH2, a truck developed by GM for the US military, powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Because of a decreased heat signature, the truck is able to get 90 percent closer to targets without detection, according to Malone. Additionally, Malone said FCEVs are known to operate well in extreme conditions. The final kicker? Instead of noxious exhaust fumes, FCEVs produce potable water.

Challenges

Malone recently spoke on a panel at Humboldt State University which centered around the regional approach to adopting and accelerating electric vehicle use. Composed of government agencies, major auto manufacturers, and energy companies, all members believe there is a future pathway for both battery and fuel cell electric vehicles. While both technologies are developing in the southern portion of the state, bringing FCEVs to the North Coast comes with a few unique challenges.

“It’s all about infrastructure.” Malone said.

“You can’t sell the cars unless you have the infrastructure.”

Cissna said the primary approach to solving the “cars before construction” dilemma is approaching state agencies.

“We’ve been reaching out to different fleets,” she said. Cissna said among those contacted are California Fish and Wildlife and the California Department of Transportation. She hopes that if large fleets convert to FCEV’s, they will at least begin the process of establishing hydrogen fueling stations in the area.

FCEVs may for now be out of reach for many consumers. Jerome Carman, a senior research engineer at SERC said one of the biggest challenges to bringing FCEVs to the North Coast is that Humboldt County has a lower average income than other areas. This makes the possibility of affording a new FCEV less likely.

“We have a large used vehicle population,” he said.

Carman said we probably won’t see “significant adoption,” until used FCEVs are available.

Then there is the question of where to get hydrogen from. Hydrogen is traditionally transported via truck, much like gasoline and natural gas. In our remote area, this means the cost might be significantly increased, according to Cissna. One proposed solution is the local production of hydrogen. While the proposal is still in its early stages, Cissna said local hydrogen production could increase local energy resiliency and decrease the costs of hydrogen.

“We want to position ourselves to be as ready as possible for when they want to develop up here,” she said.

Philip Santos can be reached at 707-441-0506.

 

 

 

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