Rohnert Park joins the 'hydrogen highway'

The town is set to be among the first places embracing hydrogen-powered cars with a grant to build special fueling stations.|

The next generation of green cars - hydrogen-powered vehicles that only emit water vapor from their tailpipes - are right around the corner, and Rohnert Park is set to be among the first places for early adopters of the new technology to fuel up.

A Eureka company recently received a $5.3 million grant from the California Energy Commission to build three hydrogen fueling stations in the state, including the only one on the North Coast at a Rohnert Park 76 gas station.

The stop would be part of California’s so-called “hydrogen highway,” a long-envisioned string of fuel stations in major metropolitan areas and along busy transportation corridors. So far, only 10 such public stations exist in the state, including nine in southern California and one in Emeryville. The only other public stations outside of the state include one in South Carolina and one in Connecticut, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

But now, after years of delay caused in part by the economic recession and lagging consumer demand for anything beyond hybrid vehicles, the push is back on to a build a hydrogen fuel network for California drivers.

The Rohnert Park station is one of about 50 planned to come online next year in anticipation of Toyota’s launch of the first mass-produced hydrogen fuel-?cell car.

“We need a carbon-free paradigm,” said Paul Staples, CEO of HyGen Industries, the company building the Rohnert Park station and two others in Southern California. “This is the beginning of the infrastructure deployment.”

Supporters hope it will spur a parallel expansion in the green vehicle marketplace, offering a choice to drivers beyond the popular hybrid models and plug-in electric vehicles.

The green vehicle market in California is lucrative and expanding. Plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles represent 9 percent of the $58.3 billion new car market in the state, according to the California New Car Dealers Association.

Supporters say hydrogen fuel cars may offer the greatest promise for that market, surpassing electric vehicles in their range on the road and allowing drivers to fuel up much faster. It takes about three minutes to fill up with hydrogen versus 30 minutes for a fast electric charge, and a tank of hydrogen can last for about 300 miles, about three times the range of an electric vehicle on a full battery.

“Batteries are not the way it’s going to be,” Staples said. “People want a vehicle that you can get into and just drive without having to reschedule their lives.”

The debate over the promise of such technology, including its costs and benefits, however, is far from settled, and the infrastructure needed to support it appears to be far harder to roll out on a large scale than the charging stations that are now available for electric vehicles in many cities across the state.

California started building hydrogen fueling stations in 1999 through a public-private partnership to promote fuel-cell technology. In 2005, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law investing $6.5 million in the hydrogen highway. About three dozen stations were built, some as test cases, but due to the recession and lack of users, only eight stations survived.

In May, the California Energy Commission announced a $46.6 million grant to eight companies, including HyGen, to build 28 hydrogen fueling stations, which will add to those already in service and another 17 under development.

“Transitioning to low- and ?zero-emission vehicles is critical to meeting air quality goals and to reducing the emissions that lead to climate change,” Energy Commissioner Janea Scott said in a statement. “With this funding, California will accelerate the construction of a reliable and affordable refueling infrastructure to support the commercial market launch of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.”

The technology that powers such vehicles has existed in prototypes for years after several decades of research and development by industry with backing from government.

For the auto industry in particular, there have been significant hurdles to commercialization, including the prohibitive expense of the vehicles. The Toyota FCV will cost $69,000 when it is launched in Japan in April. A U.S. launch will follow later in 2015, and the company has not released the U.S. pricing. Toyota hopes the car will do for fuel-cell technology what its Prius did for the hybrid vehicle market. Worldwide sales of Toyota’s hybrids have topped 6 million vehicles since their debut in 1997.

Drivers of fuel-cell cars fill up with hydrogen just like petroleum-powered cars. Once onboard, the hydrogen combines with oxygen to create electricity, which powers a motor that propels the vehicle. The gas is made by zapping water with electricity. The oxygen is released into the atmosphere and the hydrogen is captured in a tank at the fuel station. Aside from any fossil fuels used to generate the electricity tapped for hydrogen production, the vehicles’ fuel has a zero-carbon footprint.

Besides Toyota, a handful of companies have produced hydrogen fuel-cell concept cars. Hyundai last month began leasing the first fuel-cell vehicles in the U.S. - a limited number of its Tuscon FCEV crossover at Southern California dealerships.

Fuel cell vehicle development has lagged other zero-emissions technologies like plug-in electric cars by a few years. Electric vehicles such as the Tesla models and the Nissan Leaf have been on the market for three years and the network of charging stations has grown to tens of thousands across the U.S.

Despite that head start for the competition, Staples remains bullish on the outlook for hydrogen-powered vehicles. A former environmental consultant, he has worked on hydrogen fuel cell technology for two decades, starting his business in 1998.

He has partnered with Royal Petroleum, a Santa Rosa gas station company, to build the Rohnert Park hydrogen facility at its 76 gas station on Redwood Drive.

Staples said he plans to split the profits from selling hydrogen with the gas station owner. A full tank of hydrogen is expected to cost about as much as a tank of gas, he said.

David Worthington, fleet manager for Sonoma County, said that having a local hydrogen fueling station could benefit county government as it looks to reduce its carbon footprint with alternative fuel vehicles. The county has a number of plug-in electric vehicles, and Sonoma County Transit has a fleet of compressed-natural-gas buses. Worthington said he is meeting with Toyota to explore adding fuel-cell cars to the county fleet.

“We’re always looking at all sorts of technologies to reduce our cost and carbon footprint,” he said. “There are lots of benefits to fuel-cell technology. From our perspective, the biggest is that the only thing that comes out of the tail pipe is water vapor.”

This report contains information from the Associated Press. You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or ?On Twitter @PDRoadWarrior.

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