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Racing across the country

This week’s Shell Eco-marathon calls teams to the starting line in California. The Golden State is working hard to make low-emission mobility concepts commercially viable by 2025.

After three years at the Cobo Center in Detroit (Michigan), where automotive fans gather to view the car industry’s newest revelations every January, the Shell Eco-marathon has travelled across the US to arrive in California – a fitting host given the state’s impressive efforts to establish a network of hydrogen filling stations as well as other alternative energy concepts.

As a business development manager with Linde North America, Nitin Natesan is responsible for growing the network of hydrogen fuelling stations and alternative energy market applications in California. Since late 2014, Linde has opened four hydrogen fuelling stations in the Golden State, where the total reached 33 in April 2018. Another 34 hydrogen fuelling stations are funded (Date: December 2017) or on their way to being built over the coming years.

Low emission mobility receives considerable funding from the state government. California aims to have five million zero-emission vehicles on its roads by 2030, according to an executive order by Governor Edmund Brown. The Order also calls on state agencies to work with the private sector “to spur the construction and installation of 200 hydrogen fuelling stations and 250,000 zero-emission vehicle chargers by 2025.” This effectively increases government funding from some $20 million per year according to an earlier executive order to more than $90 million per year.

According to a joint report by the California Energy Commission and the Air Resources Board, the capacity of existing and funded stations could support some 21,000 fuel-cell vehicles. This is miles away from the roughly 4,000 fuel-cell vehicles on California’s roads today. “But it solves the old chicken-and-egg-problem of infrastructure and vehicles: Which comes first? The car companies are closely following the build-up of the infrastructure network to see where their hydrogen vehicles can be deployed,” Natesan says.

»This is definitely an exciting time. Hydrogen growth is here.«

Let’s get serious

The California Energy Commission, which began soliciting operators for hydrogen fuelling stations in 2010, is one of the strongest supporters of hydrogen powered mobility. “The year 2010, when the Energy Commission came on board, is really when the drive for alternative concepts in California began,” says Natesan. “Before that, we had one-off projects, often supported by universities and other one-off funding, to increase awareness for the potential of alternative energies.” Over recent years, California has funded some 10 hydrogen refuelling stations per year at the cost of $2.5 to $3.5 million per station.

In the early days, the government support, for example by paying some of the yearly running costs, was vital. “When I joined Linde’s hydrogen fuelling group in 2010, this coincided with the California Energy Commission beginning to fund hydrogen infrastructure investments,” Natesan recalls.  The industry was in its infancy and demand for hydrogen was limited. “When we opened the first station in January 2015, we were assuming a turnover of five to 10 kilograms of hydrogen per day.” This equals roughly one to three tank fillings as modern hydrogen-powered vehicles such as the Hyundai Nexo carry up to six kilograms of hydrogen.

The hydrogen market in California matured significantly thanks to the government funding. “By the time we opened our fourth station in Mountain View, Cal., in March 2018, we went straight from zero to almost 50 kilos of hydrogen sold per day. This is also the average consumption at the four stations we operate in California.” 50 kilos of hydrogen fills up 16 or 17 cars. While this is more than Linde expected at this stage of the project, turnover should grow to roughly 200 kilos per day over the longer term.

There are many more promising signs that make Natesan confident the hydrogen market will sustain itself when government subsidies taper off around 2025. Natesan points to more than 4,200 zero-emissions cars on California’s roads today. They are complemented by other fuel-cell applications, for example, in buses and forklifts. In the long run, the technology may well spread to ports, ships and trucks. “If you are considering these numbers, the market will likely sustain itself around 2025,” Natesan says.

To further boost awareness for hydrogen as an alternative energy source, Linde co-sponsors the Shell Eco-marathon this week in Sonoma, California, and in London in July. It will be Natesan’s first time to experience the race for sustainability. “The hydrogen market will definitely grow, so the Shell Eco-marathon is a great tool to highlight the industry’s commitment,” he says. “This is definitely an exciting time. Hydrogen growth is here.”