The era of the electric car has been upon us for several years. Is the era of the car powered by hydrogen fuel cells next? California roads hosted 925 such vehicles in October 2016, up from 331 in April of that year, according to the Zero-Emission Vehicle and Infrastructure Office of the California Energy Commission. That's an increase of 179 percent in six months, and the office expects a 1,359 percent increase by 2019.
For this trend to achieve the status of an era, drivers need to be able to refuel conveniently. There were just 25 up-and-running hydrogen refueling stations statewide in 2016, according to state records and the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Among them are stations in South San Francisco, Campbell, Saratoga and San Jose. Mountain View and Palo Alto have stations in development.
A hydrogen pump, among the other fuel pumps at Woodside's Skywood Trading Post at 17287 Skyline Blvd. across the street from Alice's Restaurant, is set to open in May or perhaps June. Installation is complete and testing of the pump is underway.
The hydrogen system's original opening date of mid-2016 was delayed by a year due to "a host of unforeseen challenges," according to Colin Armstrong, the station's owner/operator and the chief executive of British Columbia-based HTEC Hydrogen Technology & Energy Corp.
One unforeseen challenge was the discovery of easements on four "intertwined property parcels" that had to be sorted out, in part to allow the station's parking spaces to intrude into the public right-of-way, Phil Cazel of the Zero-Emissions office told the Almanac.
The Woodside station would join 13 other stations expected to open statewide in 2017, amounting to a 56 percent increase in the number of stations, according to the Fuel Cell Partnership.
The Woodside station would produce about 40 kilograms of hydrogen per day on site using 100 percent renewable electricity, as required by state law. Another 100 kilograms would come by truck in a "drop-and-swap" system that involves using a forklift to replace empty containers of gaseous hydrogen.
The station could fuel between 30 and 45 vehicles a day, Mr. Cazel said. The 43 gallons of grey water also generated daily would be used for irrigation, he said.
The state is subsidizing the spread of fuel cell technology. By 2050, 87 percent of the cars on the road will need to be full zero-emission vehicles, according to an Air Resources Board statement. "This will place California on a path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, a goal adopted by many nations and believed necessary to stabilize climate temperature," the statement says.
Subsidies were to be forthcoming for the Woodside station -- according to the 2015 plan, about $100,000 a year for three years. Asked if that figure had changed, Mr. Cazel said the amount is "to be determined."
The Energy Commission used a mathematical formula to determine where to locate stations to create a viable hydrogen market, commission staff member and Menlo Park resident Jean Baronas told the Woodside Planning Commission in 2015. Assembly Bill 8, passed in 2014, authorizes the state to spend $100 million a year for nine years on alternatives to fossil fuels, she said.
Subsidies are also available to car buyers. A new hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai comes with a $5,000 tax credit and a fuel card good for $15,000, enough to cover three years of typical driving at 12,000 to 15,000 miles per year, said Stan Wolowski of Toyota Sunnyvale.
Fuel-cell-powered cars also tend to come with "complimentary" maintenance and roadside assistance, Mr. Wolowski added. Some purchase agreements include free rental cars, he said.
Toyota Sunnyvale has been selling 10 to 15 Mirais a month, Mr. Wolowski said. "That's really good for a vehicle that has to be tied to a station," he said. "It's kind of jumping, actually. We're doing really good."
The Fuel Cell Partnership's list of brand names selling hydrogen powered vehicles includes Audi, General Motors, Honda, Mercedes Benz and Nissan. The partnership is a public/private cooperative whose members includes the state Energy Commission, the state Air Resources Board, major automotive manufacturers, hydrogen suppliers and laboratories.
Of the 1,034 hydrogen-powered cars sold in 2016 in the United States, all were Mirais but for 40 Hyundai Tucson SUVs, according to hybridcars.com, and "99.9 percent" of the fuel-cell vehicles in that list were sold in California, said Partnership spokesman Joe Gagliano.