Electric cars and their charging stations have had the alternative-fuel spotlight mostly to themselves in Silicon Valley in recent years. By the end of October, however, they will have challengers, in Skylonda and along the Peninsula.
A hydrogen fuel-cell refilling station is in the works for the Skywood Trading Post at Skyline Boulevard and La Honda Road in Woodside, opposite Alice's Restaurant. A state report lists 14 stations planned for the Bay Area, with seven on the Peninsula, including in Mountain View, Palo Alto and Redwood City.
Representatives for Kalaf Properties Inc., Skywood's owner, appeared before the town's Architectural & Site Review Board recently for a conceptual design review of the remodeling planned for its existing service station. The ASRB gave a "relatively positive response" to the proposal, said Senior Planner Sage Schaan.
The station would have a single hydrogen pump joining the two gasoline pumps now there. The hydrogen processing equipment would be placed on the 0.4-acre property in two 20-foot shipping containers, with associated modules nearby, the report said.
The Woodside Planning Commission is expected to review the proposal to determine whether hydrogen fuel is consistent with the town's definition of a service station. The current definition is already out of date in that it does not include diesel or ethanol, according to a staff report.
The California Energy Commission, acting on the state's long-term goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, would provide about $2.1 million of the $2.8 million needed to remodel this station, said Colin Armstrong, president of British Columbia-based Hydrogen Technology & Energy Corp. The company joined with Kalaf Properties in bidding for a station in Skylonda, Mr. Armstrong said.
The Commission requires that the hydrogen station be up and running by Oct. 31, 2015, or face heavy penalties, the report said.
Bob Boyd, an agent who said he helped arrange the grant funding, called the Skywood Trading Post "a great site. Not large, but large enough." The state will subsidize the station's operating costs to about $100,000 per year for the first three years, he said.
The hydrogen would be stored in above-ground tanks and the system would create enough to refuel about 20 cars per day, Mr. Boyd said. The process is similar to pumping gasoline in that the pump includes a hose designed to be handled by an attendant or driver.
Electric cars are popular, but hydrogen is the future, Mr. Boyd said. He described himself as a real advocate of electric cars and said that the current "tussle" between the two technologies is "really unfortunate," he said. "I think (hydrogen) is the only option."
The key is in the time it takes to refill a vehicle, he said. A depleted hydrogen-powered car can be pumped full in 3 minutes, he said, a fraction of the time needed to recharge an electric vehicle. Mr. Boyd speculated that an electricity recharging station could theoretically have the capacity to recharge in minutes, but the grid would be unable to handle the load.
Electric cars also require recharging infrastructure at home, putting it out of reach of the average person, he said.
Tesla Motors, manufacturer of the electric sedan ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, did not respond to interview requests.
No hydrogen cars?
The Skylonda station's hydrogen processor would produce only as much fuel as its storage system can hold about 100 kilograms. The hydrogen production happens slowly. Over a day, the station could fill about 20 cars, or about three cars per hour, Mr. Boyd said. A fill-up of four to five kilos would take a car 300 miles and cost between $40 and $50.
Why such a remote location for a product that is both new and without a customer base? The Energy Commission determined that it wanted a station in Woodside, based on a study done at the University of California at Davis, Mr. Armstrong said. "I guess they feel that the Woodside area will be early adopters."
While the customer base may be small for some time, a key mission will be educating people on the equipment, the technology and the challenges of using hydrogen as a fuel, Mr. Armstrong said.
"From our perspective, it's a unique location," he said. "No one knows where the drivers are going to be." Hydrogen-powered cars are "incredibly well engineered," he said, and safer than gasoline-powered cars. Hydrogen fuel is an essential component of the steps to address air pollution and climate change.
The state Environmental Protection Agency predicts 6,650 hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road by 2017, and three times that many by 2020. Toyota Motor Corp. already offers a sedan, the Mirai, that is expected to take to California roads this year, according to Car and Driver Magazine.
The Energy Commission, which is subsidizing the placement of hydrogen stations up and down the state, considers gasoline service stations as right for the hydrogen technology, Mr. Schaan said.
Mr. Boyd concurred, saying that co-location has the approval of the state fire marshal. "There's no risk to the public, no risk to the neighborhood," he said.
Denise Enea, fire marshal for the Woodside Fire Protection District, said in an email that her office is involved and will be overseeing the project with respect to permits, safety, adherence to state and local codes, and firefighter training.
There is a perceived high level of risk around hydrogen, but it's unrealistic, Mr. Boyd said, noting that pure oxygen is more dangerous. Hydrogen as a fuel is also nontoxic; the only byproduct is water, he said.
When the German airship Hindenburg caught fire in 1937 over New Jersey, the spectacular flames came from the skin of the zeppelin, not the hydrogen, Mr. Armstrong noted. The hydrogen, a gas, immediately dispersed into the air.
The station would produce at least 33 percent of its hydrogen from renewable sources, Mr. Boyd said. The Skylonda station would have a small electrolyzer producing hydrogen from water and would acquire the rest from sources that use solar-powered electrolysis, he said.