It's Frustrating Times for Owners of Hydrogen-powered Cars
They’re the rarest breed on the road, drawing their car’s fuel source from the world’s most plentiful element — which just happens to be the hardest to get your hands on in any large quantity. Fuel cell vehicle drivers, of which none exist outside of California, depend on a small network of H2 refueling stations to stay on the road, and the drawbacks to using this rare power source are already well documented.
You’ll be renting a car if your road trip takes you too far from San Francisco or the SoCal area. Supply issues sometimes leaves that one nearby station out of service, as happened earlier this year. It’s almost as if a vehicle you plug into a wall is a better green idea, at least on the downstream side.
Regardless, these Honda Clarity FC, Toyota Mirai, and Hyundai Tucson FC owners made their bed and were prepared to lie in it. Unfortunately for them, the refueling network has once again revealed its fragility.
As revealed by Tire Meets Road, it isn’t just supply issues affecting the H2 pumps. The unique nature of H2 stations means the need for maintenance is greater than, say, your local Mobil or Shell station. And, when enough of the single-vehicle H2 stations are out of commission, it puts pressure on the ones that remain.
The hydrogen tanks at these stations can only fill about 40-50 vehicles before running dry, after which it’s an arduous process to compress the delivered hydrogen on-site. California currently has 33 stations in the two geographical areas, serving roughly 4,200 drivers (as of April). There’s also one in Sacramento and another bridging L.A. and San Fran.
Right now, drivers in the SoCal area are probably considering taking their spouse’s Prius to work. With six of the region’s H2 stations out of service for maintenance, increased demand has led three more to go dry, leaving just 11 stations for the entire area spanning from Santa Barbara in the north to Del Mar in the south.
While some of the shutdowns are due to routine maintenance that can go overlong, a broken compressor — the cause of one of the shutdowns — can lead to a much longer wait. That part must be sourced from overseas.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles create their own electricity from a chemical reaction; essentially, they’re an electric car with an onboard powerplant feeding the juice directly to the electric motor. In the early years of the 21st century, as the first hybrid cars were just beginning to appear on North American roads, the fuel’s potential led to big headlines about a future powered by hydrogen. However, in the ensuing years, interest in electrification quickly overtook fuel cells. It’s a lot easier to generate electricity and deliver it to the consumer than pull hydrogen out of the environment. The fledgling H2 network shows it.
While a few automakers still hedge their bets and include hydrogen in their green vehicle stable, the industry has more or less decided that electrification is the way of the future. A quick search of the U.S. Department of Energy website shows 18,644 electric vehicle charging stations in the U.S.
[Images: Steph Willems/TTAC]
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