Clusters and corridors: Building a hydrogen infrastructure

For hydrogen mobility to reach its potential, fuel cell vehicles need to reach a refuelling station. Linde can provide them – but what’s the roll-out strategy?

Seattle, 1907: a certain John McLean – sales manager for Standard Oil of California – mounted a 30-gallon (114 litres) tank of gasoline on a wooden post, attached a flexible hose and started to sell gasoline to passing motorists.

And so, the first urban gasoline station in the U.S. was born. Fast-forward to 2015, and a network of around 120,000-150,000 retail gasoline refuelling stations serves the 240 million gasoline-fuelled light-duty vehilcles on American roads – that’s a ratio of roughly 2000 vehicles per station.

While they pale in comparison, sales of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), are slowly growing year on year. According to a 2017 report by The Hydrogen Council, FCEV passenger cars could represent almost 3% of new vehicle sales in 2030 – a total of  four million vehicles – ramping up to about 35% in 2050. But a potential barrier to their widespread adoption is the lack of extensive refuelling infrastructure – and it’s a chicken and egg problem. Automakers are reluctant to market cars and consumers are reluctant to buy them if the relevant infrastructure is lacking. At the same time, investments in stations only make sense if vehicle numbers grow.

»A potential barrier is the lack of extensive refuelling infrastructure – a chicken and egg problem.«

»If anything is to be learned from the case of gasoline, it might be that less is more.«

Insights from the petrol past

Governments in hydrogen hotbeds such as California, Germany, Japan and South Korea are determined not to let this conundrum stand in the way of what is a promising zero-emission alternative to the gas-guzzling combustion engines wreaking havoc on our planet. With the help of Linde and others, they are spurring the roll-out of early hydrogen infrastructure through public-private partnerships in the hope it will reach a self-sustaining level. Another Hydrogen Council report indicates that, on a global scale, the combined tally of such efforts could see about 3,000 total hydrogen stations supporting a total of two million hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the 2025 timeframe.

As of 2018, Linde’s efforts in the field contributed more than 150 hydrogen refuelling stations. A member of H2Mobility in Germany and the California Fuel Cell Partnership, Linde is playing a vital role in supplying and constructing refuelling stations in two of the world’s leading markets. But establishing a new fuelling network from the ground up requires more than just innovative technology; it requires a detailed strategy.

If anything is to be learned from the case of gasoline, it might be that less is more. Research suggests that the gasoline station networks are overbuilt in terms of their coverage and that hydrogen networks could potentially achieve comparable coverage with only 10%-30% as many locations.  But with no ‘guidebook’ for the roll-out of early hydrogen infrastructure, a conceptual approach to station placement and design has been proposed.

On the highway to hydrogen

First, stations are clustered in areas that have been identified as likely to include early adopters, ensuring high use and thus cost efficiency. This is done by way of calculating the Early Adopter Metric (EAM) – a reflection of likely consumer demand for FCEVs considering factors like historical sales of other hybrid vehicles and income. In the case of California, unsurprisingly those clusters are the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles Areas. In Japan, it’s Tokyo and other major metropolitan areas like Osaka. In Germany, Munich serves as an example where Linde built three hydrogen refueling stations in the city and two in the greater metropolitan area.

Of course, if one were to cruise outside of the cluster on a longer trip, access to fuel becomes limited. This is where the “corridors” come in. Corridors, or “hydrogen highways”, connect clusters, for example Linde’s refuelling station in Ulm, Germany, which links the hydrogen hubs Munich and Stuttgart. Although probably frequented less, corridors are vital for allowing longer trips outside of the cluster area. Finally, destination stations are placed at top sights, attractions or popular weekend destinations. Corridor and destination stations would hopefully breed a new cluster over time as they facilitate the local adoption of FCEVs.

Enabling early adopters: Linde builds stations in key locations – like this one in Berlin.

»Whether chicken or egg first, let’s just hope we get there.«

Taking the initiative

By building the minimum number of stations required but strategically placing them as per the above model, markets can start to influence the chicken and egg conundrum. For example, the H2Mobility initiative in Germany has vowed to build 100 stations by the end of 2019, independent of the number of FCEVs sold in the country: six clusters of ten in each of the big cities, as well as 40 corridor and destination stations. Expansion beyond that (a further 300 stations) will depend on how the FCEV market unfolds. 

Linde is proud to be involved in this and various other hydrogen projects, demonstrating the potential of H2. Moreover, as the company with the most experience and the most refuelling stations worldwide, Linde is a key enabler in the global roll-out strategy. Whether chicken or egg first, let’s just hope we get there.