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Tina Casey headshot

Is Your Business Ready for the Hydrogen Fuel Cell EV of the Future?

By Tina Casey

Business owners who are thinking about buying or leasing an electric car may soon have another option to consider: hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles. FCEVs are just beginning to nudge their way into the mass market, and a three-company collaboration called SimpleFuel may help accelerate the trend.

What's holding hydrogen FCEVs back?

Hydrogen FCEVs run on electricity, just like the now familiar battery EV. The difference is that FCEVs generate electricity on-the-go from a chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen.

The problem for FCEVs is two-fold. First, they need to compete on price with mainstream battery EVs for the zero-emission mass market. Battery EVs caught on quickly: Many are now price competitive with gasoline-powered cars, and most cost less than an FCEV.

Second, hydrogen fuel stations are still few and far between. When the fuel station network does build out, FCEVs are still at a disadvantage in terms of convenience: EV charging stations are compact and can fit just about anywhere, including a home or business. A grid hookup isn't even necessary if on-site wind or solar energy is available.

Hydrogen fuel, on the other hand, needs to be delivered and stored.

The first problem has a pretty straightforward solution. As FCEV technology improves and economies of scale kick in, prices will fall.

Bringing a hydrogen fuel station into a home or business is a more daunting mission, especially if the end goal is to reduce carbon emissions all along the supply chain.

Battery EVs can be charged on-site from small-scale wind or solar, if such a power source is available, or through a grid mix that includes renewables.

In contrast, the primary source for hydrogen is natural gas. Typically that involves a high-temperature steam process that does not lend itself to home or business use.

That's where SimpleFuel comes in.

A hydrogen machine in every garage

SimpleFuel says its hydrogen production and fueling unit is small enough to fit on commercial properties, community centers and public buildings, multi-unit housing, and other relatively large residential properties.

Instead of sourcing from natural gas, the SimpleFuel system uses electricity to "split" hydrogen from water. So, like battery EVs, FCEVs could derive their fuel from on-site or grid-supplied renewables.

Renewable hydrogen is coming into large-scale use as energy producers look for ways to store excess power generated by renewable sources including wind, solar and tidal energy.

The U.S. Energy Department and other stakeholders recognized the potential for small-scale energy storage based on hydrogen. Several years ago, the agency launched the $1 million H-Prize competition, challenging innovators to come up with a solution.

SimpleFuel won that contest in January 2016 with a compact water-splitting system powered by electricity. Massachusetts companies Ivys Energy Solutions and McPhy Energy North America, as well as PDC Machines of Pennsylvania, are collaborating on the SimpleFuel project.

The Energy Department offered an update last week:

"The 7-foot-long enclosure with its iconic curved silhouette houses all the equipment necessary to convert water into clean hydrogen fuel. It can be used in a variety settings: homes, community centers, municipalities or small businesses, and it’s grabbing the industry’s attention by storm."
The system is designed to provide up to six kilograms of hydrogen daily. A one-kilogram fill of hydrogen takes about15 minutes or less and gives an FCEV a range of about 60 to 70 miles.

A commercial-scale hydrogen filling station can provide far greater range in less time, but the 60- t0 70-mile mark is more than enough to satisfy the typical daily use of most consumer and fleet vehicles.

Why hydrogen?

The SimpleFuel system is modular and transportable, an important advantage for business owners.

The small scale also provides a significant cost advantage. Large-scale commercial systems typically run into the $2 million to $3 million range and involve a lengthy installation timeline.

The Energy Department sees the mobility market of the future relying at least partly on small-scale hydrogen generation and fueling stations:

"Modular fueling projects like these could be an integral part of the deployment of hydrogen infrastructure across the country to support more transportation energy options for U.S. consumers."
Darryl Pollica of Ivys Energy Solutions is satisfied that demonstrating the viability of SimpleFuel's small-scale solution will propel the system to market:
"Through our participation in the H-Prize competition, we have received great exposure and interest across the industry from codes and standards organizations to federal/local government agencies to politicians and more. That’s putting wind in our sails to commercialize."
Commercialization may happen even sooner than Pollica expects. The semi truck startup Nikola already has big plans for a network of hydrogen generation-and-filling stations in the U.S. powered by on-site solar arrays. And UPS recently announced an FCEV demonstration project that could also boost interest in on site hydrogen generation.

Demand for FCEVs is also accelerating in the logistics field. Toyota is testing an on-site generation-and-filling station for forklifts powered by wind energy, and Amazon's interest in fuel cell forklifts is catching attention.

What's up with the Department of Energy?

As a side note, it's interesting that the Energy Department broke the news about SimpleFuel at this particular time.

After all, the Donald Trump administration is not known to be a fan of clean technology, and the president has pledged to withdraw the U.S. from the historic Paris climate agreement.

In addition, there doesn't appear to be any milestone or other big "new" news to report on the SimpleFuel project.

Nevertheless, the Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy put out a press release for SimpleFuel on May 8 as part of its ongoing "Success Stories" series.

It's just one in a torrent of positive stories about clean tech and renewables that the Energy Department has cranked out during the Trump administration, through the agency's blog posts, social media and press releases.

It almost seems as if Energy Secretary Rick Perry is thumbing his nose at the president's pro-coal rhetoric.

If you know what to make of it, drop a note in the comment section.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Energy.




Tina Casey headshot

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey