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New concepts for hydrogen fueling stations take form

7 April 2021

Two companies on opposite coasts offer solutions to the “chicken and egg” problem holding back the widespread adoption of fuel-cell vehicles.

hydrogen fueling station
Credit: Standard Hydrogen Corporation

A major obstacle to greater adoption of hydrogen-fueled cars and trucks is the simple matter of getting the light element from the large plants where it’s produced to the service station pump. Now two companies have announced plans to generate and store hydrogen at the point of sale using their compact modular systems.

Standard Hydrogen, based in Albany, New York, will go one step further by including a power-generating stationary fuel cell in its “energy transfer system.” The company will install its first facility in early to mid 2022 at a power plant in New York operated by the utility National Grid, pending regulatory approval. Meanwhile, PowerTap Hydrogen of Vancouver, Canada, says it will install 10 of its hydrogen fueling systems at existing service stations in northern California later this year. They are expected to fuel that state’s small fleet of hydrogen-powered long-haul trucks.

In a three-year pilot demonstration, National Grid will assess the economics of Standard’s 1 MW electrolytic hydrogen plant for three separate applications: generating electricity, mixing hydrogen with natural gas, and powering fuel-cell and battery electric vehicles. Electric companies might use power generated by the plant’s fuel cell during times of peak demand and thereby reduce the need to fire up high-cost natural gas “peaker” plants. Alternatively, they could blend hydrogen into the natural gas supply to lower the carbon intensity of the fossil fuel. Fast-charging electric vehicles with DC power generated by the stationary fuel cell could ease the demand on the grid during peak periods, Standard says. And hydrogen might also be dispensed directly to fuel-cell vehicles. To a utility, the system “looks to the grid a lot like a gas tank with a throttle, with high efficiency and zero emissions,” says Standard CEO and cofounder Paul Mutolo.

Since renewable energy will be purchased to operate Standard’s electrolyzers, the hydrogen will have zero emissions. Not only is renewable power relatively abundant in New York state, it’s also less costly than fossil-generated electricity, Mutolo says. The company is in the early stages of discussions for potential installations at other utilities and large electricity consumers.

Unlike in California, where the fuel-cell vehicle fleet is small but growing, hydrogen-powered cars and trucks are practically nonexistent in the Northeast. Indeed, Mutolo says, it’s illegal to operate a fuel-cell vehicle on New York City bridges and in the city’s tunnels. That prohibition is due to a technicality, however, not to any safety issue. “Part of our business model is to get grid services in place now and then be available for transport opportunity when that comes along,” he says.

Stored hydrogen could provide backup power for the grid for days at a time, far longer than batteries, Mutolo says. For periods longer than six hours, fuel cells can provide power more cheaply, he adds. Although New York State offers incentives to encourage utility-scale batteries, fuel cells don’t yet qualify.

On the opposite coast, PowerTap’s stations will be built solely for fuel-cell vehicles. Using the steam reforming process, the plants will strip hydrogen from natural gas that is delivered through the installed gas mains.

Integral to PowerTap’s business plan are two types of credits available under California’s carbon dioxide emissions trading program. A hydrogen refueling infrastructure (HRI) credit allows companies to generate revenues even before they sell hydrogen, with the amount based on the anticipated capacity of the service station. In addition, PowerTap plans to offset a portion of the carbon emissions from the service stations by purchasing renewable natural gas produced by farms and landfills. That will allow the company to claim credits under the state’s low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) program, says Kelley Owen, chief operating officer of PowerTap. LCFS credits are based on the amount of CO2 emissions avoided and are currently valued at about $200 per ton of CO2.

Both types of credits will be sold to oil companies and other large CO2 emitters that must meet increasingly stringent caps on their carbon intensities. Of the $4 million cost of a PowerTap station, $1.3 million is expected to be generated in advance of hydrogen sales from the sale of HRI credits, according to company documents. That revenue will permit debt servicing until hydrogen is produced and sold.

In January, the Andretti Group agreed to install PowerTap’s modular fueling stations at some of the 39 service stations Andretti operates in California.

PowerTap’s CO2 emissions won’t be completely offset by its renewable natural gas purchases. The company says it will capture and store the CO2 but hasn’t yet chosen a method for doing so. “We have four or five different types of carbon capture,” says Owen, who notes that for every kilogram of hydrogen, 9 kilograms of CO2 are released. “You have to have multiple solutions within a solution.” One method under consideration is an enzymatic conversion process that produces a solid calcium carbonate material. Owen acknowledges the method has not yet been commercially deployed.

Should it succeed in capturing CO2, PowerTap will qualify for the federal 45Q credit, currently set at $50 per ton for permanently sequestered CO2 or $35 a ton for CO2 that is reused for enhanced oil recovery or other applications.

In January, Governor Gavin Newsom of California proposed $1 billion in new revenue bond authority to finance construction and maintenance of hydrogen fueling infrastructure and electric vehicle charging stations. Also included in his budget proposal for the year beginning 1 July is $465 million in new incentives to boost sales of zero-emission vehicles. Newly constructed hydrogen filling stations would be exempt from property taxes for 10 years. The legislature has until 15 June to consider and approve a budget.

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