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US Army Could Be Silent Partner In New GM Honda Fuel Cell Initiative

GM and Honda have just announced a next-generation fuel cell and hydrogen storage collaboration, and since their joint press release rather cagily mentions that the two companies will work with other “stakeholders” to develop a fueling infrastructure we’re guessing that the US Army is or will be holding some of those stakes in the GM Honda fuel cell tent. Just last year, the Army launched the world’s first military fuel cell vehicle fleet in partnership with GM in Hawaii, and for that matter Honda has signed on to the Obama Administration’s new initiative to promote a national fueling infrastructure for next-generation fuel cell vehicles. Wait for it…hey, we built this!

The GM Honda Fuel Cell Partnership

The new collaboration between GM and Honda is described as a “long-term, definitive master agreement to co-develop next-generation fuel system and hydrogen storage technologies,” and the matchup promises to deliver on its self-imposed time frame of 2020. Between the two of them, GM and Honda rank first and second in total fuel cell patents filed in the ten years leading up to 2012, adding up to 1,200 different patents.

Aside from patent filings, the two companies have also been building up a body of real-world experience.

GM has piled up almost 3 million miles of fuel cell driving for its 119-vehicle fuel cell fleet under the long running Project Driveway program, and Honda began leasing its FCX sedan ten years ago in the US and Japan. Honda launched a successor in 2009 called FCX Clarity and already plans a third iteration of the vehicle for 2015.

The H2USA Fuel Cell Umbrella

The Obama Administration launched H2USA this past May in order to break out of the chicken-or-egg conundrum facing the fuel cell vehicle industry. It’s the same problem that confronted early manufacturers of gasoline vehicles. Not too many people are going to buy into the new technology until you can make it reasonably convenient for them to fuel up, but how do you get companies to invest in a fueling infrastructure until there are enough vehicles on the road to make it worthwhile?

Honda signed on to H2USA shortly after the initial launch, in which the Energy Department was joined by the American Gas Association, Association of Global Automakers, the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the Electric Drive Transportation Association, the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, Hyundai Motor America, ITM Power, Massachusetts Hydrogen Coalition, Mercedes-Benz USA, Nissan North America Research and Development, Proton OnSite, and Toyota Motor North America.

As you can tell by the launch partners, one strong focus of H2USA is the production of hydrogen with natural gas, specifically shale gas, and for that reason we’re giving the sustainability stinkeye to the project, at least for now.

However, H2USA does not preclude more sustainable means of hydrogen production, and in announcing their fuel cell partnership GM and Honda emphasize that hydrogen can be generated from wind power, biomass and other forms of renewable energy.

The US Army And Fuel Cell Vehicles

That brings us right around the to US Army’s interest in fuel cell vehicles.

Last year, the Army launched a fuel cell vehicle pilot program in Hawaii, in partnership with GM. The pilot program consists of a fleet of 16 GM fuel cell vehicles stationed at Fort Shafter in Honolulu, on Oahu. That sounds modest enough but according to the Department of Defense, it’s the world’s largest military fleet of fuel cell vehicles.

The choice of Hawaii for the project indicates that the Department of Defense could nudge H2USA into a stronger focus on renewable hydrogen. Given its lack of local fossil resources and high fuel prices, Hawaii has ample incentive to transition out of fossil fuel dependency. The state has already established itself as a national test bed for transitioning to locally sourced renewable energy through its Clean Energy Initiative.

With military facilities accounting for an enormous chunk of Hawaii’s overall fuel consumption, it’s pretty clear that the fuel cell vehicle project will eventually interact with other renewable energy projects in the state.

For now, though, the Hawaii fuel cell project appears to be focused on gas. The program kicked off in collaboration with the gas company Hawai’i Gas (formerly TGC), which already has a track record in hydrogen production along with a distribution network.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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