Gas Co., GM partners in new Hawaii hydrogen-fuel project
• Photo gallery: Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles
BY Greg Wiles
Advertiser Staff Writer
Hawai'i's race to adopt green-energy automobiles picked up speed yesterday with the announcement of a collaboration between The Gas Co. and General Motors Corp. for vehicles powered by hydrogen.
The companies agreed to work in concert, with The Gas Co. pledging to provide the fueling network for the cars, and GM saying it may send dozens of its hydrogen fuel-cell cars here.
"We're not doing this to show what the technology can do," said Charlie Freese, executive director of GM's global fuel cell activities. GM hopes to start commercial production of hydrogen fuel cell cars in the next five years.
"We want to make it part of growth. We want it to be a beginning."
The partnership was the latest in a series of Hawai'i announcements this year related to the ramping up of vehicles using renewable sources of power.
Hawai'i is becoming one of the leaders nationally in alternative fuel vehicles, with Nissan announcing that its much-anticipated electric car, the Leaf, will be sold here starting early next year and South Korean automaker CT&T saying it wants to build a $200 million electric-car assembly plant here.
Hawai'i, as the most oil-dependent state in the nation, has announced an ambitious plan to wean itself off of petroleum-based energy, including electrical generation and transportation needs. About one-third of the petroleum consumed here goes to ground transportation, according to the state.
Gov. Linda Lingle has set a goal of getting 70 percent of the state's energy from clean sources in the next generation and has directed her administration to encourage development of renewable energy sources.
The Gas Co.-GM announcement marks the first significant hydrogen-fuel effort aimed at consumers in the state. GM said Hawai'i presents an unusual situation for its hydrogen cars because a network of fueling stations can easily be developed.
There has been a chicken-and-egg dilemma to the advent of hydrogen-powered vehicles, because unlike electric cars that can be plugged in, a network of service stations where people can gas up with hydrogen is needed.
Drivers won't buy the cars without the fueling stations available and fueling stations won't be built without the cars being sold.
"The goal here is to provide an attractive place for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and other fuel cell technology," said Jeffrey Kissel, Gas Co. president and chief executive officer.
The utility already makes hydrogen in producing synthetic natural gas and has a 1,000 miles of pipeline to deliver the gas to customers. It proposes to eventually hook up as many as 25 stations with equipment that can separate hydrogen from the synthetic natural gas.
The hydrogen would be offered in pumps that look much like regular gasoline pumps but have high-pressure hose hook-ups. GM currently has 119 Chevrolet Equinox SUVs under its Project Driveway program that have been outfitted with three tanks for holding the compressed hydrogen, and a fuel cell stack where the fuel is turned into electricity to power an electric motor.
While hydrogen can be burned in internal combustion engines, in the fuel-cell configuration it has no greenhouse gas emissions.
MILITARY ALREADY IN
Freese declined to say how many of the Equinox SUVs will be sent here, placing the number between five and 50. Already one has been in use around the state, having been brought here in March for the First Hawaiian International Auto Show.
The SUV isn't the first hydrogen-powered vehicle in the state — at least 15 are in use by the military here, including buses, vans and SUVs. The vehicles fill up at a station at Hickam Air Force Base that uses solar power (and soon wind power) to produce hydrogen.
"I'm convinced that hydrogen is the future," said Tom Quinn, who as director of the Hawaii Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies is involved in the Hickam project.
"Fuel cells still have a little way to go in development but they're already being used in buses by transit agencies."
Quinn said other military hydrogen refueling stations are planned for Schofield Barracks and Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kāne'ohe. He said hydrogen cars have the ability to be refueled in a few minutes, while electric cars may need to be plugged in for hours.
Still, it remains to be seen how hydrogen fuel-cell cars are adopted by drivers, because the technology is still said to be a bit more expensive than regular vehicles. GM said it has invested more than $1.5 billion in fuel cell transportation in the last 15 years and is developing a fuel cell system that could be ready for commercialization in 2015.
Quinn sees the cost coming down as manufacturers like GM and Toyota winnow down the amount of expensive precious metals needed in the fuel cells, along with cutting other costs.
"It's like any new technology," said Quinn. "Volume production will bring those costs down."
The Gas Co. also is pledging hydrogen prices that will be comparable on a per-mile basis with gasoline.
Moreover, there is a range of options being discussed for Hawai'i drivers when it comes to alternative fuels.
Ted Peck, state energy administrator, said someone who only needs a light-duty vehicle may choose something like CT&T's E-Zone mini-car, which has a top speed of 40 mph and range of 40 to 80 miles, depending on the battery type.
Others might opt for something like the Nissan Leaf if they want to drive on the highway and drive less than 100 miles on outings.
The weight of batteries may make using pure electric power difficult for big trucks or buses, so hydrogen may be the option for people wanting light, medium or heavy vehicles, Peck said. There also will be vehicles that burn biodiesel in internal combustion engines, he said.
"What we're providing are options," said Peck, who also is working on getting hydrogen-powered buses for use at Volcanoes National Park.
"People can do what works for them."
The plan also dovetails with Peck's efforts to foster renewable energy development. Some people see surplus electricity generated by proposed windfarms in the early morning being used to produce hydrogen.
GM is seeing the collaboration with The Gas Co. as the start of a hydrogen fueling infrastructure that could support tens of thousands of fuel cell vehicles eventually.
It said it hopes to get more support for the endeavor from state and government policymakers. Already, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye has signaled his interest.
"Every step to reduce our dependency on foreign oil is a move forward," said Inouye.
To see an animination of how the fuel cell works, go to the General Motors site. http://www.gm.com/experience/technology/fuel_cells/how_fuel_cells_work/index.jsp