Ewanick's Calif. startup wins $27.6M grant for hydrogen filling stations

Ewanick: "We're putting some stations in areas that will not be profitable."

UPDATED: 5/2/14 1:16 pm ET - adds detail

A California startup headed by former Hyundai and General Motors marketing executive Joel Ewanick plans to install 19 hydrogen fuel filling stations for fuel cell vehicles starting next year in California.

The company, FirstElement Fuel Inc., of which Ewanick is CEO, scored a $27.6 million grant Thursday from the California Energy Commission to kick-start the project.

The stations will enable California residents to eventually drive their hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles anywhere in the state without having to worry about running out fuel, Ewanick told Automotive News.

He said the company has selected the 19 locations and is ordering the fueling equipment, which takes months to build and install. The equipment will be located at existing filling stations.

Initially, the gaseous hydrogen will be delivered to each station, but Ewanick said that eventually, the hydrogen could be produced on site.

Starting in the next few years, Hyundai, Honda and Toyota will launch low-volume leases to consumers of fuel cell vehicles in California. Hyundai’s hydrogen-powered Tucson SUV arrives this spring. Honda plans to launch its fuel cell vehicle late this year and Toyota is scheduled to introduce a fuel cell vehicle sometime in 2015.

“We’re putting some stations in areas that will not be profitable,” Ewanick said. “We did that to demonstrate that customers will have the ability to use their cars anywhere in California, same as a gasoline-powered car. It will be a true network,” he said.

Ewanick says FirstElement believes the Northeast will be the next area that could get hydrogen filling stations. Several northeastern states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Jersey, have adopted California clear air standards.

Fuel cell vehicles -- which emit just water vapor from the tailpipe -- are technically feasible but lack a cohesive fueling infrastructure. In a fuel cell vehicle, hydrogen is converted to electricity through a chemical reaction. The electricity powers an electric motor, which drives the vehicle.

FirstElement scored the $27.6 million -- the largest chunk of funding -- as California speeds plans to build as many as 100 hydrogen fuel stations in the next decade. The state currently nine stations open and 17 under construction.

“The issue of hydrogen refueling infrastructure is not so much about how many stations; but rather, location, location, location,” stated Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales USA, said at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas four months ago.

“Solutions are being found through collaboration between government, academia, carmakers and energy providers.  Stay tuned, because this infrastructure thing is going to happen.”

A total of 28 stations are expected to be opened as part of the $47 million in grants unveiled today.

Bloomberg contributed to this report.

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