HONOLULU — Vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells will soon be shuttling visitors around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and towing aircraft to the flight line at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
But it will probably be a while before Hawaii motorists in any significant numbers will be able to take one of the emissions-free cars for a spin on isle roads.
Three of the top makers of fuel cell vehicles — Hyundai, Toyota and Honda — have chosen California as the location to premiere their hydrogen-powered cars. That's because of California's commitment to develop a network of stations where motorists can fill up with hydrogen.
Hyundai is leading the way with its Tucson hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, which California drivers will be able to lease for $499 a month beginning this summer. The cost of the hydrogen is included in the lease.
The California Energy Commission announced Thursday it would spend nearly $50 million to expand the state's fledgling network of hydrogen fueling stations. The money will be used to add 13 locations in Northern California and 15 in Southern California, bringing the state's total to 70 hydrogen fueling stations.
While Oahu has been a leader nationally in charging stations for plug-in electric vehicles, there are no plans in the near future to develop the infrastructure needed to provide hydrogen to the general public. The only hydrogen supply readily available for use in fuel cell vehicles is produced at Hickam and Schofield Barracks, where solar-powered electrolyzers are used to extract the hydrogen from water. A third hydrogen fuel station is under construction at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe.
State lawmakers last week killed language in a bill that would have taken a portion of the state barrel tax on oil and earmarked it for the "development of hydrogen production, storage and dispensing infrastructure." House and Senate conferees rejected all proposals to amend the barrel tax bill, keeping the status quo with the bulk of the tax going to the state general fund.
Removal of the language authorizing the development of hydrogen infrastructure was a blow to Hawaii's clean-energy efforts, according to the Hawaii Auto Dealers Association, which supported the proposal.
"Over the years, Hawaii's new-car dealers have ardently worked to fulfill the goals of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative," said Dave Rolf, HADA executive director. "Our charts showed that hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles would need to be part of the mix to fulfill the state's goals for clean energy," he said.
As part of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, the state set a goal to meet 70 percent of its energy needs by 2030 through energy efficiency and renewable energy.
"Fueling infrastructure needs to be in place in advance of the arrival of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Every hunter knows to hit a duck, you have to shoot ahead of the duck," Rolf said.
Building a hydrogen fueling station isn't cheap. The average cost of the new stations being built in California is $1.7 million apiece. Hawaii's only two large-scale hydrogen fueling stations, at Hickam and Schofield, were built with federal funds.
The hydrogen fuel cell vehicle movement is suffering from the same chicken-and-egg syndrome that affected electric vehicles in their debut, said Dan Davids, a part-time Hawaii resident who is chairman of Plug In America, a California-based nonprofit organization that promotes the use of electric vehicles.
"The manufacturers won't deliver the cars until they know there are fueling stations to support them," Davids said. California is setting aside a "big pot of money" to address that, he added.
There is an added incentive to promote fuel cell cars in California, which is pushing to have 15 percent of new vehicles sold in the state produce zero emissions by 2025: Under the mandate, fuel cell cars will get double the emission credits compared with electric vehicles.
One of the advantages to a fuel cell vehicle over a plug-in electric vehicle is range. A GM Equinox powered by a hydrogen fuel cell has a range of 200 miles, compared with a Nissan Leaf EV, which can travel about 75 miles on a single charge.
That makes fuel cell vehicles a better fit than plug-in electric vehicles on Hawaii island, where range becomes an issue, said Paul Ponthieux, chief technology officer for Blue Planet Research, which was started by Honolulu-based entrepreneur Henk Rogers.
Blue Planet Research has already installed a solar-powered hydrogen production facility at Rogers' off-grid Pu‘u Wa‘awa‘a Ranch on the Kona Coast. The ranch uses the hydrogen to run a forklift and to provide heat for cooking, Ponthieux said. Blue Planet Research is looking to build a network of five hydrogen fueling stations spread out across Hawaii island that would be available for visitors and residents, he said.
The Hawaii Natural Energy Institute is also working to bring hydrogen to Hawaii island. HNEI is in negotiations with the state's only geothermal energy facility to use excess power from the plant to make hydrogen through electrolysis.
The hydrogen would be used to power three fuel cell shuttle buses being built by a contractor for the federally funded Hawaii Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies on Oahu. HCATT is retrofitting gas-powered 19-passenger ElDorado buses with hydrogen fuel cells that power electric motors. Two of the buses will be used at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, while the third will join the Hawaii County Transit Agency's bus fleet, said Edward Russell, HCATT project manager. HCATT buys the buses for about $100,000 and spends another $300,000 to retrofit them with hydrogen fuel cells and batteries.
The HNEI is negotiating with the owners of Puna Geothermal Ventures to buy "wasted" power that it can't sell to Hawaii Electric Light Co., said James "Mitch" Ewan, the HNEI's hydrogen systems program manager. The institute also is looking at other sources of renewable energy to provide the power for the electrolysis process if a deal can't be reached with Puna Geothermal, Ewan said.
The Hawaii County Transit Agency's contractor, US Hybrid, is also retrofitting six other vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells to be used at Hickam. Crews have completed work on an Air Force shuttle bus and are installing fuel cells in a dump truck, a weapons loader, a runway sweeper, two aircraft tow vehicles and a van, Russell said.