Can Hydrogen Fuel Cells Drive Cleaner Vehicles in New Jersey?

Tom Johnson | January 21, 2014 | Energy & Environment
Technology is virtually pollution-free, but without refueling stations -- as well as cars, buses, and trucks -- it may be going nowhere fast

hydrogen fueling station
When it comes to cleaning up New Jersey’s polluted air and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, much of the attention has focused on electric plug-in cars, and larger trucks and buses running on compressed natural gas.

Not a whole lot of notice, however, has been directed to fuel-cell electric vehicles running on hydrogen, whose only emission is water vapor — not counting the natural gas often used to produce the hydrogen.

But Linde North America, a firm based in Murray Hill, is joining the U.S. Department of Energy in a private/public partnership to advance the building of a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure to support cleaner transportation options for consumers around the nation.

It is no small task.

Like other efforts to convert vehicles running on conventional gasoline to less polluting fuels, the strategy is riddled with unanswered questions. These include how many refueling stations will be needed to convince consumers to buy fuel-cell electric vehicles? Who will pay for the infrastructure? And how quickly can the transition take place?

“It will be some time before it happens here,’’ said Chuck Feinberg, founder and chairman of the Clean Cities Coalition, a nonprofit promoting alternative fuels. “Frankly, the vehicles aren’t there yet and the demand isn’t there.’’

There are no hydrogen-fueling stations in New Jersey. In comparison, there are at least 27 compressed natural gas refueling stations and more than 100 publicly available plug-in electric vehicle stations, and those numbers are small compared to the thousands of conventional gas stations.

Still, the issue is crucial to New Jersey because the transportation sector contributes the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions. Unless the state can significantly reduce those emissions, it will fall far short of its aggressive goals of reducing greenhouse gas pollution by 80 percent from 2006 levels by 2050, according to environmentalists.

To Feinberg, fuel-cell electric vehicles offer a tremendous opportunity for the state.
“From a tailpipe emissions standpoint, they are wonderful,’’ he said, adding many auto manufacturers are planning to roll out new vehicles powered by fuel cells in the next few years, including Toyota, Honda, and GM.

Pat Murphy, president of Linde North America, was enthusiastic about the company’s partnership with the federal agency.

“We believe this DOE-led effort to create a consortium of like-minded public/private entities will accelerate the advancement of both fuel-cell vehicles and the infrastructure required to expand their use throughout the U.S.,’’ Murphy said in a press release.

So far, the progress is mixed. California, as in most other areas involving alternative fuels, is leading the way, although at not much more than a snail’s pace. It has 10 publicly available hydrogen fuel stations with a target of 100 more within the next decade.

Linde has equipped more than 80 hydrogen-fueling stations around the world, supplying hydrogen for projects large and small. In the U.S., its efforts include powering a variety of vehicles, ranging from forklifts to cars and buses.

“Our big challenge is how to get people close to those stations,’’ said Mike McGowan, government affairs director of Linde North America. To make hydrogen fueling stations economical, companies like Linde need to ensure that there are enough motorists to pay off the investment, he said.

A lot of that dynamic will rest with the economics of fuel-cell electric vehicles. “We want to prove hydrogen fueling stations can go toe-to-toe with conventional stations,’’ McGowan said.

Unlike electric plug-in vehicles, which can take at best up to 10 minutes to get a charge (with a 40-mile range), at the most advanced stations, hydrogen refueling can take only three to four minutes and have a range of up to 300 miles, according to McGowan.

Not everyone is equally convinced. “There are a couple leaps of technology for this to happen,’’ Feinberg said.