California prepares for hydrogen fuel stations

Shane Stephens-Romero: "I think it's going to be a labor of love for a few years."

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Now that Toyota and other automakers are preparing to introduce fuel-cell vehicles in California, entrepreneurs are starting to build a network of hydrogen fuel stations.

FirstElement Fuel Inc., based in Newport Beach, Calif., has gotten a state grant to install 19 hydrogen fuel dispensers in various locations in California. The installations are part of the state’s effort to create a network of 68 hydrogen stations for fuel-cell powered vehicles that will go on sale next year.

President Shane Stephens-Romero says FirstElement hopes to expand its network to a total of 40 dispensers in the next few years.

The company hopes to be profitable in five years or so, said Stephens-Romero, following his presentation today at the 2014 Management Briefing Seminars.

“I think it’s going to be a labor of love for a few years, but in 2019 or 2020 we hope to start seeing some profits,” he said.

FirstElement will buy the dispensers from a supplier, then install them on the premises of traditional gasoline stations. The company will own and maintain those dispensers, and keep them supplied with hydrogen.

Later, the company may install some dispensers at shopping malls and other retail establishments.

Stephens-Romero is trying to set up his network of dispensers as the initial wave of fuel cell vehicles come to market. Hyundai has introduced a fuel-cell version of the Tucson, and Honda will roll out the FCX Clarity next year.

Toyota FCV

Daimler is developing a fuel-cell vehicle, and Toyota will introduce a production version of its FCV fuel-cell vehicle in the summer of 2015.

Toyota's Justin Ward on the upcoming FCV: "We’re still trying to figure out the market. The cars can come without an infrastructure." Photo credit: Greg Horvath

Justin Ward, Toyota’s general manager of power systems control, said the company’s fuel-cell vehicle will have a range of 400-plus miles.

At today's seminar, Ward said Toyota has made steady progress improving its FCV. The fuel cell stack fits under the front seat, and the vehicle now requires just two hydrogen tanks, rather than four. The vehicle can withstand cold weather without damage, and motorists will perceive it and use it like a conventional car.

But Ward declined to forecast likely sales, noting the uncertainties that accompany a fledgling technology. “We’re still trying to figure out the market,” Ward said. “The cars can come without an infrastructure.”

However, a California state official appeared confident that fuel cell vehicles will establish a niche. Alberto Ayala, the deputy executive officer of the California Air Resources Board, said he expects the state’s initial network of fuel stations will support a fleet of 6,600 vehicles in 2017.

That fleet will grow to 18,000 units in 2020, Ayala predicted during his presentation at Tuesday’s seminars.

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com

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