General Motors is installing hydrogen pumps at fueling sites in three metro areas to support its launch of a test fleet of Chevrolet Equinox crossovers powered by fuel cells.
The 17 GM-funded pumps will supplement sparse hydrogen refueling outlets and reduce the threat that users of the 100 test vehicles will be stranded. Consumers in New York, Los Angeles and Washington are driving the test Equinoxes.
The shortage of hydrogen pumps highlights a big challenge for the auto industry in its efforts to develop vehicles that don't use gasoline: fuel distribution.
But as GM executives planned the fuel cell test fleet, they say they learned that building a hydrogen refueling infrastructure will not be as onerous as some critics suggest.
Dan O'Connell, GM's director of fuel cell commercialization, says the installation of hydrogen pumps at 12,000 filling stations would give 70 percent of U.S. motorists access to the fuel. There are about 170,000 gasoline stations across the country.
GM estimates that hydrogen pumps at 12,000 stations would cost $10 billion to $15 billion.
GM envisions a pump within two miles of any location in the 100 most populated metro areas. There would be at least one pump every 25 miles along the nation's major highways, which total about 130,000 miles.
The Bush administration and some states, especially California, are looking at ways to build a network of hydrogen stations. GM suggests that energy companies could help, along with other automakers interested in deploying fuel cell vehicles.
Executives say hydrogen fuel could virtually remove motor vehicles from the environmental debate. A fuel cell uses hydrogen fuel and oxygen from the air to create an electric current. That current can drive wheels or recharge batteries that power motors. The only byproduct is water vapor.
Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of materials. It could free the nation from its dependence on petroleum, proponents say.
O'Connell says the best initial source of hydrogen is natural gas. A 2 percent increase in natural-gas supplies would support 10 million vehicles powered by fuel cells, GM executives contend.
Greenhouse gases from the fuel for those vehicles would be 50 percent lower than if they burned gasoline, measured on a "wells to wheels" basis, the executives add.
GM says it wants a fuel cell that is competitive with a gasoline engine by early next decade. Other studies suggest a much longer time frame. c