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It takes an island: Hawaii builds hydrogen infrastructure with GM

September 23, 2010 |  3:00 am

Chevy_equinox_hydrogen1Islands are often targeted for experiments, many of them social and/or scientific. Take Hawaii, which will soon be the site of an ambitious plan for the first viable hydrogen fuel cell network in the United States.

Over the summer, the Honolulu-based utility, the Gas Co., announced it had partnered with General Motors, in Detroit, to tap into Oahu’s 1,000-mile utility pipeline and supply hydrogen gas to fuel stations that could power thousands of fuel-cell vehicles.

“The idea is that you’ll never be more than 10 minutes from a filling station,” said the Gas Co.'s president, Jeff Kissel, noting that the first pilot stations are now being installed.

Hawaii's Gas Co. currently makes the hydrogen equivalent of 7,000 gasoline gallons per day, which, Kissel estimates, could power as many as 15,000 fuel-cell vehicles.

Hawaii has a surplus of hydrogen gas because it is a byproduct of the state’s natural gas production. Hawaii -- already saddled with higher prices for anything it has to import, whether it’s food or fuel --  doesn’t have any naturally occurring gas reserves, so the island makes its own. 

Most of the natural gas used to heat water and power stoves and clothes dryers in Hawaiian homes is produced from naphtha, a byproduct of the oil-refining process. The rest is produced from renewable sources, such as the bio-gas resulting from wastewater treatment. Hydrogen is used to turn these waste products into useable methane, the primary component of natural gas. 

Between 7% and 12% of Hawaii’s natural gas is hydrogen, which is added to improve the burn quality of natural gas and to reduce emissions of oxides of nitrogen. While the Gas Co. isn’t separating hydrogen from its natural gas pipeline at the moment,  it will do so as service station operators, such as Shell, begin building hydrogen fueling stations on Oahu over the next few years. At that time, the Gas Co. will also increase the amount of hydrogen it adds to its natural gas pipeline to 20%.

“There’s been a chicken-and-the-egg issue with [fuel cell vehicles],” said Charlie Freese, executive director of global fuel cell activities for General Motors. “You can’t put a vehicle in a dealership and have customers wondering where they can refuel. Similarly, you can’t have a large investment go forward on the station infrastructure and have an insignificant number of vehicles in the field.”

Freese said GM has worked out most of the vehicle issues. GM currently has 119 Chevy Equinox fuel-cell vehicles on U.S. roads through its Project Driveway consumer test-loan program. It’s targeting 2015 to bring fuel-cell vehicles to market.

“One of our last remaining areas of concern is a clear road map to commercializing the technology,” Freese said. “We wanted to take some bite-sized pieces and start working on advancing the technology in an achievable way.”

One bite-size piece turned out to be Hawaii, with its built-in hydrogen infrastructure servicing a small and population-dense area.

The island’s first hydrogen fuel-cell stations will be installed in Honolulu. The state capital is home to 80% of Hawaii’s population, most of whom live along a 24-mile stretch of beach that reaches four miles inland from the coast.

“Our infrastructure is already in place. All we need to add is the hydrogen separation equipment and the dispensers,” Kissel said. “If we can show it’s economic here, then people in the continental U.S. can decide if it’s worth risking the money. We’re incubating this technology in a controlled environment.”

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo credit: General Motors