US Trails in Building Fueling Stations for Hydrogen-Powered Cars

(Los Angeles Times/MCT) -

Hyundai Motor Co. rolled out the first 15 of its hydrogen-powered ix35 sport utility vehicles headed to Copenhagen this week. But part of the news for U.S. drivers interested in the technology was the fact that the event was in Europe and not here.

The reason could be summed up in one word: infrastructure. Europe has it for this kind of demonstration; the U.S. does not.

Europe already has a solid network of hydrogen fueling stations running from the boot of Italy northwest across the continent, through Germany and Belgium.

More stations are sprinkled across Scandinavia. Dozens more are planned throughout the continent.

Byung Kwon Rhim, president of Hyundai Motor Europe, said, “Hyundai Motor is committed to hydrogen as the fuel of the future for Europe.”

Meanwhile, Hyundai says the same kind of activity in the U.S. is a long way off.

“We anticipate more growth in stations from now until 2015, when we plan increased production and consumer purchase availability,” said Derek Joyce, manager of product public relations for Motor America.

Joyce added, “We are currently exploring local commercial fleet potential for partnerships that can best leverage our Tucson Fuel Cell vehicles.”

Tucson is the U.S. name for the ix35.

Energy Department statistics show just how much catching-up the U.S. has to do. Compared with 160,000 gasoline stations, the nation has just 10,000 locations where alternative fuels are available.

More than 3,000 of those are electric charging stations, followed by about 2,700 propane autogas stations, and about 2,500 that sell E85, which is 51 percent to 83 percent ethanol.

There were fewer than two dozen hydrogen fueling stations open to regular motorists in the U.S. as of March 2012, the Energy Department said.

“Most of the automakers say they plan commercial rollouts of hydrogen vehicles in 2015, some as early as 2014,” said Chris White, communications director for the California Fuel Cell Partnership. “Our goal is to have stations built for that first rollout.”

Paul Mutolo, director of external partnerships at the Energy Materials Center at Cornell University, is also founder of the Standard Hydrogen Corp., a startup working on opening new hydrogen fueling stations in the northeastern United States.

Mutolo would love to see projects in the U.S. similar to what Hyundai is doing in Copenhagen.

“What’s needed are more demonstration sites where Americans can actually touch and feel the technology,” said Mutolo. “That would also help us poll the market demand.”