Monday, July 07, 2008

Hydrogen-powered car advocates optimistic about local possibilities

A Portland-area fueling station could be in place within the next couple of years, they say.

Portland Press Herald

July 6, 2008

Rick Smith has been talking about hydrogen-powered cars for more than 15 years. And finally, with gasoline at $4 a gallon and the recent rollout of the world’s first commercially produced hydrogen cars, people seem to be listening.

“They don’t think I’m crazy any more,” said Smith, a Portland-based real estate attorney and the founder of Maine’s Hydrogen Energy Center.

Hydrogen cars are making a splash these days in a few major markets, especially southern California. Honda last month began marketing the first commercially produced hydrogen fuel cell cars around Los Angeles, a market that has a cluster of fueling stations as well as Hollywood stars eager to pay $600 a month in leasing fees for the newest green vehicle.

While Maine may not be a critical-mass market like California, Smith and other hydrogen advocates say the state could still be on the hydrogen highway map within a couple of years because of a plan to create a small Portland-area fueling station to serve the first fuel-cell vehicles.

“We’ll get them here, too,” Smith said.

Hydrogen has long been considered the ultimate replacement for oil. It can be made from water, power anything that runs on petroleum or electricity, and it creates little or no air pollution. Advocates claim it could end wars, stimulate the domestic economy and slow global warming.

It’s already been used for decades to power rockets and in industrial applications, and is now used to run Wal-Mart’s forklifts.


Hydrogen cars, however, are likely still a decade away from being widely available here, in large part because there are no places to fill up. There also is resistance to the technology, mostly because it takes energy to make the hydrogen, and concern that the promise of a futuristic “silver bullet” will discourage conservation and energy efficiency in the short term.

Smith created the Hydrogen Energy Center in 1992 after learning that hydrogen could power cars without polluting the air. He also saw the potential for keeping energy dollars in the local economy and creating jobs. His goal for the past 16 years has been to establish a fueling station that uses renewable wind or solar energy to extract hydrogen from water, and use it to generate electricity for a fleet of clean cars.

“We could replace our oil in less than 10 years. We could probably do it in five years, and you created a pile of jobs and there’s no more pollution,” he said.

Smith and other leaders of the effort say they’re closer than ever.

In March, a Connecticut-based hydrogen developer got a $1.9 million federal grant to build a new-generation electrolizer – the machine that uses electricity to extract hydrogen from water. Avalence LLC is the company that built Maine’s only existing hydrogen energy station – it provides backup electricity to Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset – and it is looking to Maine as a possible site to demonstrate its newest machine.

“If Avalence can build it, we’ll find a place for it,” Smith said.

The Hydrogen Energy Center already has a potential site. It has been leasing a vacant industrial lot off Wallace Avenue in South Portland for the purpose, and plans to seek funding from the Maine Technology Institute to create the fueling station and install a wind turbine or solar panels to power it. The cost of the project is uncertain, but the group expects to ask for at least $2 million later this year.

The idea also is generating interest from private developers who may help finance – or host – the project, he said.

The fueling station would have a small initial capacity of 30 kilograms of hydrogen per day, enough to fuel several vehicles for local travel. A fuel cell car can typically travel 60 miles on one kilogram.

The small size and large cost means the initial station would not make a profit. Once it demonstrates the technology, however, it could be converted into a commercial-scale station able to fuel a larger fleet, Smith said.

There are about 60 existing stations in the United States, with the closest now in Burlington, Vt., and South Windsor, Conn., according to the National Hydrogen Association.

Although water can be used to make hydrogen, most stations get the hydrogen from natural gas because the process is less expensive. Fueling stations can now generate hydrogen at a cost comparable to between $3 and $6 per gallon of gasoline, said Patrick Serfass, a spokesman for the association.

“The technology to produce hydrogen affordably is not a barrier,” Serfass said. “I think everyone is noticing that we need more vehicles and more fueling stations. The trick is for them to come out in the same places.”

Big markets such as Los Angeles and New York will get the large stations and vehicles first, he said. But there also will be small pockets in places like Maine, where proponents are putting together demonstration projects. The idea is clearly a novelty here.

Quirk Chevrolet in Portland had a fuel cell vehicle – a Chevy Equinox – on its lot last month as part of a traveling demonstration. The vehicle is expected to be in commercial production in 2010.

“People really couldn’t get enough of the fact that you could walk around the back and breathe in the air coming out of it,” said Rob St. Clair, marketing manager at Quirk. “The whole problem right now with the vehicles is there’s no refueling infrastructure. As soon as we can do that, then the door’s open.”


Hydrogen is no longer widely seen as a silver bullet, however. A big reason is that it takes power to make hydrogen from water – the cleanest method – and that it’s inefficient to convert the hydrogen back into power for use in vehicles or homes.

Advocates say the answer is to use surplus power from renewables, such as solar or wind.

Many conservationists also are wary about hydrogen’s promises because they can be used as an excuse not to conserve energy, finance mass transit or make conventional cars fuel efficient.

“I would hate to see a speculative, potential future energy source distract us from the more urgent and more difficult task of making our existing energy system cleaner and more efficient,” said Steve Hinchman, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation in Brunswick. “While I support development of a clean alternative like hydrogen, I would hate to see it draw money from the things we have to do now ... Maine desperately needs ways to get its people to work this summer.”

Steve Linnell, coordinator of Maine Clean Communities and a supporter of the fueling station plan, said both things have to happen.

“I see it as one of many fuels that we need to develop to replace our addiction to petroleum. There is no one fuel that could ever replace the amount of petroleum that we got used to using,” he said.

What’s frustrating to hydrogen advocates, Linnell said, is that there had been little support for developing the technology until now, and it can’t be made available quickly.

“We used to say hydrogen is the fuel of the future and it always will be,” he said. “I would say now it still may be the fuel of the future, but it seems to be getting closer.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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