Fuel cells hold great promise as an emission-free way to power cars and other vehicles, but range is the bottleneck. Without a national infrastructure to support fuel cell re-fueling, drivers are pretty much stuck to a network of local charging stations.
That could change fairly rapidly, if a test under way by the Department of Defense bears out. In cooperation with several DoD agencies and the car manufacturer GM, the U.S. Army has just launched a pilot fleet of 16 vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells in Hawaii. That’s small potatoes compared to the tens of thousands of vehicles owned by DoD, but according to the Army it’s the largest military fleet of fuel cell vehicles in the world.
Fuel cell vehicles for national defense
The new fleet is stationed at Fort Shafter in Honolulu on the island of Oahu. The choice of Hawaii as a location to test fuel cell vehicles underscores the military’s tactical need to develop alternative fuels that can be produced on or near Department of Defense facilities. Hawaii is the most fossil fuel dependent state in the U.S., and imports account for about 90 percent of its petroleum consumption.
"Our pursuit of alternative energy is closely tied to our commitment to continually adapt to an ever-changing security environment," explained George Ka'iliwai, the Army’s Director of Resources and Assessment for U.S. Pacific Command in a press statement. "Defense relationships and military approaches alone can't solve all of our energy challenges, but they underpin the initiatives we're taking within the Department of Defense to reduce the dependence on foreign sources of energy."
Fuel cells to stabilize the price of gasoline
The Hawaii location also illustrates the extent to which military and domestic energy needs are entwined. Combined with tourism, U.S. military facilities account for about half the state’s energy consumption.
Hawaii typically has the highest gasoline prices in the U.S., so an Army-assisted push for alternative fuel vehicles could help buffer the state’s economy from global market swings.
Advantages of fuel cell vehicles
Fuel cell vehicles are essentially electric vehicles with an on-board generator. As an alternative to battery-electric vehicles, fuel cells have the potential to offer greater range at highway speeds, and they can also provide more power to accommodate larger vehicles than the typical electric vehicle. The vehicles in the new Army fleet, which were manufactured by GM, have a range of about 200 miles.
"Hidden" emissions from hydrogen fuel cells
In contrast to combustion engines, fuel cells do not burn fuel. They create electricity through a chemical reaction. In a hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen create the chemical reaction, and the emission-free byproducts are heat and water.
However, there is a "hidden" emissions problem for hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen is a simple, abundant element but producing it at a commercial scale is an expensive, energy intensive operation, and the energy of choice in the U.S. right now comes from fossils.
As the most fossil fuel dependent state in the U.S., Hawaii poses a particular challenge for the widespread adoption of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Alternative energy and emission-free fuel cells
Hawaii has developed a pair of initiatives that will help solve the emissions problem for the Army’s new fleet, and together they hint at the ways in which long term public-private partnerships could come into play for launching hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure in other states.
One is the state’s Clean Energy Initiative, which launched in 2008 with the ambitious goal of supplying the state with 40 percent of its energy from local renewable resources by 2030. That includes solar, wave or tidal power, geothermal, and wind, all of which Hawaii has in abundance.
With enough renewable energy to manufacture hydrogen at hand, a growing use of fuel cell vehicles could be managed without a consequent increase in fossil fuel consumption.
Building a hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure
The other initiative is the Hawaii Hydrogen Initiative, which launched in 2010. This program partners local agencies, federal agencies including the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, and private companies in a push to establish up to 25 hydrogen fueling stations around Oahu by 2015.
That would be enough stations to make hydrogen refueling readily available to the island’s entire population of 1 million. The distribution system would use existing pipelines owned by TCG, the state’s major gas company, which is a partner in the initiative.
TCG currently manufactures hydrogen and can increase its capacity as more fuel cell vehicles are added to the Hawaiian market.
GM and hydrogen fuel cells
Another key partner is GM, which supplied the fuel cell vehicles. GM has been noodling around with fuel cell basis for years and launched the world’s largest non-military test fleet in 2007, which it calls “Project Driveway.”
The goal is to use actual driving conditions to help develop a compact, lightweight hydrogen fuel cell system that can fit into the same space as a four-cylinder engine.
Given those parameters, the fuel cell could function as a kind of drop-in replacement for combustion engines, enabling car manufacturers to retain some familiar looking model lines while switching over to a completely different power system.
The company has set a goal of 2015 for commercial production of the new fuel cell vehicle, just in time for Hawaii to put the final touches on its new hydrogen refueling infrastructure.
Support for fuel cells from the DoD
GM is optimistic that the Hawaii model can be transferred to the rest of the U.S.
"Once the key hydrogen infrastructure elements are proven in Hawaii, other states can adopt a similar approach. The military is paving the way, demonstrating the practicality and applicability of this technology," explained GM's executive director of global fuel cell activities Charles Freese.
If there are significant obstacles, they are more likely to be political than structural given the intense push back faced by GM's other electric vehicle the Chevy Volt. As the Hawaii pilot test progresses, it will be interesting to see if the same pundits and politicians are going to turn the stinkeye on fuel cell vehicles supported by the Department of Defense, and how far they will go if they do.
Image: Army fuel cell fleet courtesy of GM, by Marco Garcia.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.