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“Hydrogen Highway” for Fuel-Cell Cars Coming to East Coast

by Jim Motavalli

SunHydro station

Artist’s vision of the Sun Hydro station. (SunHydro image)

If he builds it, will they come? It’s a question worth asking a fellow named Tom Sullivan, who says that, through his companies SunHydro and Proton Energy, he will build an East Coast “hydrogen highway” to compete with the still-underdeveloped West Coast version announced by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Sullivan, who made his fortune with Lumber Liquidators stores (the largest retailer of hardwood floors is now in 180 locations), bought the Connecticut-based Proton Energy fuel-cell company for $10.2 million last summer. And it’s at Proton’s Wallingford, Connecticut headquarters that the state’s first public hydrogen refueling station will open in June.

Although Connecticut has only one United Technologies fuel-cell bus plying a route in Hartford, plus some visiting Chevy Equinox hydrogen cars, the $2 to $3 million station will be capable of generating 65 kilograms of hydrogen (enough for refueling 10 to 15 vehicles) daily. It may be some years before there’s that kind of volume on state roads.

Only California has fuel-cell cars in any abundance, and there we’re talking a few hundred at most. And Connecticut (home to several fuel-cell companies) has a virtual abundance of them compared to other East Coast metropolises. Nonetheless, this ambitious highway is rolling out. Ten to 15 stations will be built by SunHydro along the East Coast corridor, approximately 300 miles apart. Within two years, the companies plan to install them in such cities as Portland, Maine, Braintree, Massachusetts, Hackensack, New Jersey, Claymont, Delaware, Richmond Virginia, Charlotte, North Carolina, Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia, and Orlando and Miami in Florida.

This plan demonstrates, if nothing else, amazing confidence in a technology that is as old as the hills (first demonstrated by a barrister and amateur scientist in the 1830s) but never successfully commercialized. But both Honda and Toyota plan to put fuel-cell cars in consumers’ hands by 2015, and General Motors is working on it, too. Pike Research has estimated that almost three million hydrogen cars will be sold by 2020, but that is an extremely optimistic assessment. Mercedes-Benz is fielding a small demonstration fleet of F-Cell fuel-cell cars this year, but like other manufacturers it prefers hydrogen-friendly California.

In 1999 and 2000, Daimler fuel-cell chief Ferdinand Panik was predicting that there would be 100,000 Mercedes-Benz fuel-cell cars on the road by 2004, and the hydrogen highway did look imminent (as I wrote in my book of that period, Forward Drive: The Race to Build Clean Cars for the Future). I rode in a Benz fuel-cell car, and it sure seemed like the future to me. But infrastructure is king–we now have companies building electric charging stations commercially. If there are other Tom Sullivans out there, the hydrogen dream can indeed be reborn instead of remaining always 20 years in the future.

Mike Grey, president of SunHydro, envisions a motorist, just a few years hence, driving from Maine to Miami on hydrogen. He said the stations will be entirely environmentally friendly, using his company’s solar panels to power electrolysis technology from Proton Energy. The result: very low-emission hydrogen made from water.

Rob Friedland, president of Proton, said his company has reached break-even status selling 1,200 electolyzers for commercial applications since 1996. It will shortly release its first small hydrogen re-fueler, a scaled-down $250,000 version of the Wallingford station that can produce two kilograms of hydrogen daily. Fuel-cell cars are “full” with four kilos on board, so that’s enough to top off maybe two to three fuel-cell cars weekly, Friedland said.

Grey said that Sullivan is “a huge believer in hydrogen.” He must be, since he’s putting cash on the line. Although there is a federal tax credit for installing hydrogen stations, it’s capped at $200,000 each, so there are much better tax shelters out there.

April 16, 2010 - 10:30 AM