Hydrogen Fueling Infrastructure: What Comes First, the Chicken or the Egg?
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by Christopher Bordeaux, Program Analyst, Office of Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and Infrastructure Technologies, U.S. Department of Energy

Energy providers and car manufacturers have been somewhat mystified over who should begin developing the first hydrogen fueling stations. On the one hand, car manufacturers argue they can make hydrogen fuel cell vehicles but there is no infrastructure to support them. On the other hand, the energy providers claim they can supply and deliver the required hydrogen if there is sufficient demand. This conundrum is commonly referred to in the hydrogen community as the “chicken or egg dilemma.”

Some believe there is no chicken and egg problem. Yes, the auto manufacturers can produce fuel cell vehicles and yes energy providers can produce huge amounts of hydrogen. The real question to ask is how fast will auto manufacturers change gears on the assembly line from the internal combustion engine to fuel cell vehicles? What are the economic incentives for energy providers to change existing fueling infrastructure from motor gasoline and diesel to hydrogen? What time frame will the stockholders support? One industry will not change without a commitment from the other industry. Perhaps this should be the role of the Federal Government. To establish the timeline for demonstrations and to offset the initial risk of investments. There are other underlying questions about cost and durability that continue to encumber the fuel cell industry.

According to David Garman, Assistant Secretary for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, “We need to provide a framework for evaluating the large infrastructure task that lies before us. Pipelines, trucks, rail, fueling stations. Local, regional, national networks. One of the key questions is: How will we evaluate alternative approaches and reveal all of the costs and benefits, in a balanced manner?”

One mechanism that has helped to unravel the chicken and egg puzzle is the California Fuel Cell Partnership (CAFCP) — which includes both car manufacturers and energy providers. They have begun testing hydrogen fueling stations and related infrastructure in the State of California. According to their website, “This partnership is advancing a new vehicle technology that could move the world toward practical and affordable environmental solutions. For the first time ever, automobile companies and fuel suppliers have joined together to demonstrate fuel cell vehicles under real day-to-day driving conditions. The California Fuel Cell Partnership expects to place up to 60 fuel cell passenger cars and fuel cell buses on the road between 2000 and 2003. In addition to testing the fuel cell vehicles, the partnership is examining fuel infrastructure issues and beginning to prepare the California market for this new technology.”

The Federal Government is now taking a more proactive role. One year ago President Bush published his National Energy Policy (NEP) which was soon followed by the announcement of The FreedomCAR Initiative made by the Secretary of Energy in January 2002. These events propelled the Department of Energy (DOE) down the road to solving the issue of what comes first, the vehicles or the fueling stations. The FreedomCAR Initiative’s stated strategic approach includes “Developing technology to enable mass production of affordable hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles and ensure the hydrogen infrastructure to support them.”

The DOE developed a new hydrogen vision statement with industry’s help in November 2001. This reinforced the Bush Administra-tion’s priority to explore a hydrogen economy as delineated in the National Energy Policy. Additionally, the Department sponsored a hydrogen roadmapping meeting in April 2002, which involved hundreds of industry participants and resulted in a better understanding of a pathway to a hydrogen economy in 2030 and beyond. The complete report on this event can be found online at http://www.eren.doe.gov/hydrogen/features.html.

The DOE is required to submit a Fuel Cell Report to Congress in November 2002. This report will outline a transportation and infrastructure timeline for demonstrating hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technology and supporting hydrogen fueling station infrastructure. The purpose of these vehicle and fueling station demonstrations would be similar to the California Fuel Cell Partnership mission, namely to evaluate the use of fuel cell vehicles under real-world conditions and to collect data on hydrogen generation equipment and determine the safe operation and maintenance of both vehicles and fueling equipment.

More strategic partnerships like the CAFCP are needed to fulfill the hydrogen fueling infrastructure expectations of auto manufacturers, energy providers and local, state and federal governments. Technologies evaluated will include the production of hydrogen by steam methane reforming of natural gas and methane generated from biomass and municipal solid waste, and by the electrolysis of water using renewable resources such as solar, wind and geothermal energy. Additionally, storage and compression technologies will need to be integrated into these fueling stations, where refueling appliances similar to the gasoline pump will be required.

The end results of the first fueling station projects will be to document safety, validate codes and standards, validate the economics, establish the permitting process, and most importantly educate the public. Once the first ten fueling stations demonstrate a safe track record at a competitive price, then it will be a matter of reproducing the same configuration and connecting the dots.

So what is holding back the progress? Wall Street still considers fuel cells a high risk, long term option. In the meantime, the Federal Government is developing a budget for fiscal year 2004, which establishes this Administration’s new priorities such as The FreedomCAR Initiative, new hydrogen vision, and results of the hydrogen roadmapping meeting. The bottom line is that we will likely see increases in the budget request for hydrogen technologies supporting infrastructure, such as fueling stations and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

The DOE is also focusing on the development of a hydrogen fuel infrastructure which utilizes the integration of hydrogen storage and fuel cells for distributed generation, known as the power park concept. The DOE is working in partnership with state energy and air quality offices and with regional air quality management and transit districts to develop and deploy a hydrogen infrastructure in strategic locations. For example, in California, the Air Resources Board and the Energy Commission co-hosted natural gas fueling stations, and SunLine Transit Agency is currently demonstrating renewable hydrogen electrolysis for hydrogen vehicles. These demonstration projects will also help to establish the hydrogen fueling infrastructure to support transportation.

DOE has recently created a number of new 50/50 cost share infrastructure validation partnerships with industry and state agencies in three areas: stationary hydrogen generation systems for backup power, hydrogen fueling stations and power parks. DOE is also participating in the International Hydrogen Infrastructure Group (IHIG) that will develop an integrated industry-government approach to hydrogen infrastructure research and development. The DOE is conducting scenario planning and analysis to explore long-term R&D investment strategies and has launched a roadmapping project to identify critical R&D issues and needs and to develop a more effective collaborative effort with industry to deploy a national hydrogen infrastructure.

If hydrogen is to become as important an energy carrier as electricity, the infrastructure must be developed. This infrastructure must include hydrogen production and storage facilities, and hydrogen distribution and delivery systems. A consistent set of hydrogen-related codes and standards must also be developed as a hydrogen infrastructure is developed. The DOE is conducting a series of hydrogen infrastructure forums in collaboration with its regional offices to gather information from local, state, and regional stakeholders to complement the national vision and roadmap.

Other countries are also beginning to demonstrate the first hydrogen technologies with hydrogen fueling stations and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

The U.S. government plays an essential role in leading the way to establishing the required codes and standards for future hydrogen fueling station infrastructure which will support hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as well as hydrogen distributed generation applications. The transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen will be risky in the short term but the rewards may be immense. One fact remains clear, we need to reduce our oil consumption from foreign sources and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen is one of the best long term solutions we have.   ©2002. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of the National Hydrogen Association.
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