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Published on August 8th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Like It Or Not, $27.6 Million Worth Of Fuel Cell Stations Coming To California

August 8th, 2014 by  

FirstElement Fuel has won a $27.6 million grant for a fueling network for fuel cell electric vehicles in California, and with the grant announcement still fresh off the press the company has already lined up the global firm Black & Veatch to build the stations by fall 2015.

Check out a global map of Black & Veatch projects and you’ll see that what Black & Veatch signs on to build, gets built. So, despite some clear misgivings about the current nature of fuel sourcing for fuel cell electric vehicles, it looks like those of you in California who are burning to wrap your hands around the steering wheel of a brand new fuel cell EV will get your chance to fuel up sooner rather than later.

FirstElement fuel cell EV California

Fuel cell EV fueling station (cropped) courtesy of FirstElement Fuel, Inc.

Renewable Hydrogen For Fuel Cell EVs

We’ve been hashing out the hydrogen fuel cell EV issue in CleanTechnica practically all summer and aside from technology and cost it boils down to this: right now, the primary source of hydrogen for fuel cell EVs is fossil natural gas.

That means fuel cell EVs are subject to the same criticism that once dogged battery EVs, namely, that the source of the electricity consists primarily of fossil fuels. For that matter, as more utilities have switched from coal to fossil natural gas, both battery EVs and fuel cell EVs are in the same pickle.

The bottom line is that while fuel cells are great for reducing tailpipe emissions in pollution hotspots (that includes watercraft and warehouse vehicles btw), fuel cell EVs are piling on to the sourcing issues that encumber fossil natural gas.

For those of you new to the topic, aside from fugitive methane emissions the continued boom in natural gas fracking has led to numerous water resource issues, earthquakes (yes, earthquakes), and waste disposal issues among other environmental impacts.

The good news for battery EVs is that the ongoing surge in both utility scale and distributed renewable energy generation is untethering battery EV ownership from natural gas issues.

Fuel cell EV ownership is running behind that curve at the moment, but renewable sourcing for hydrogen has picked up recently. The two main avenues of approach are extracting hydrogen from renewable biogas, or splitting it from water using a solar-powered electrochemical process.

FirstElement And Renewable Hydrogen

The natural gas issue didn’t feature in FirstElement’s announcement of the Black & Veatch partnership, but renewable sourcing does play a role in the company’s plans.


FirstElement already lays claim to 30 percent renewable hydrogen, and it is on record stating that 100 percent renewable hydrogen should be a goal for the fuel cell industry. The California grant also comes with a partial renewable sourcing string attached.

Fueling Up Your Fuel Cell EV

FirstElement’s initial round of construction will consist of 19 fueling stations. Although 19 public fuel cell EV fueling stations sounds like a drop in a bucket, apparently that’s triple the number that California currently has.

These first 19 are also just the first round of a bigger network planned by FirstElement. These first 19 will be located at existing gas stations, a strategy that dovetails with a recent Sandia National Laboratory survey indicating that fuel cell EV fueling stations can safely piggyback onto existing service stations for gasmobiles.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • eveee

    For 27.6 million, you could buy 1000 Leafs. The 2014 budget for fusion is 458 million. But we cut the wind PTC to nothing. And 100 year old oil has generous support. Yet interest in conservation and sustainability is thin. You can’t make a renewable economy with exponential growth. Maybe there should be a billion dollar budget for math education on the exponential function.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Or 789 Tesla supercharger bays and get very rapid charging into every nook and cranny of California.

  • TinaCasey

    I’m gonna go out on a limb here, based on the emerging technology for solar powered home-scaled hydrogen production, for some FCEV buyers public hydrogen stations will just be backup for the fuel they can produce on their own property.

    • Bob_Wallace

      That’s a limb.

      Wonder how to get the price of a home hydrogen extraction apparatus down to the level of an electrical outlet?

      And don’t forget, you’ll need more than twice as many panels….

    • jeffhre

      That would be a bit of a limb. If the only auto maker claiming that it was willing to work on it (Honda) hadn’t folded up their tent, turned off the project’s solar powered lights for one final time, and called it a wrap!

  • sault

    Darn, if they would have used this money to increase funding for the EV tax credit instead, this could have gone towards incentivizing over 14,000 EV purchases. This would have decreased pollution and energy consumption way more than a few h2 stations that will probably be forgotten about in 10 years.

    • Matt

      If wasteful government spending is to be redirect; then think bigger. Joint strike force fighter, a trillion dollar sink hole; who’s date moves back and price tag goes up every time it is reviewed. Military is biggest FF support cost.

      • sault

        Yes, big picture, I think we could have transitioned completely off oil for the all-in cost of the 2003 – 2011 Iraq War. If the U.S. steadily decreases the 25% of global oil production it consumes, that means the extremists in the Middle East, Putin and many more petro-despots wouldn’t have a (financial) leg to stand on.

        And since the last 30 – 40% of the federal budget is borrowed, any marginal decrease lowers interest payments as well, increasing the savings. Switching off of fossil fuels would also lower the hundreds of billion$$$ in health problems and reduced economic activity pollution causes every year as well. And since the federal gov’t is the biggest payer in the healthcare sector, savings would accrue here too.

    • eveee

      Or bought 1000 EVs outright. Way to step on a dollar to pick up a Penney.

    • jeffhre

      This doesn’t count the cost of the grants required to convert the then abandoned H2 fueling stations to wanted uses. After station owners report of being squeezed by steadily growing fleet-wide vehicle fuel efficiency, a younger generation which adopts car ownership in measurably lower numbers, and the proliferation of battery EV’s. Amid complaints that the state duped them into developing H2 stations with false promises and demonstrably lower margins than promised.

      All after Toyota and Hyundai have absorbed out sized subsidies from CARB, Japan’s MITI and the Government of South Korea.

  • Bob_Wallace

    I like it. I like the fact that we’re going to give H2 FCEVs their day in the Sun so that we can discuss them based on facts and not have to deal with years of H2 advocates go on and on about “If only….”.

    Let’s see, $27.6 million to add a H2 tank and nozzle at 19 existing gas stations. That’s only $1.45 million H2 “pump”. Add a pump at a existing gas station for the price of about 41 Tesla supercharger bays.

    Sure, the pumps can fill H2 tanks faster, maybe 3x to 4x faster. So call it 1:10 rather than 1:41. And the pumps can dispense up to 300 miles per fill vs. 176 miles per 30 minute charge, so move it down to 1:6. Only six times more expensive than a supercharger.

    • No way

      But then you have to factor in that Tesla owners charge 90% at home(s) and only 10% at super chargers while a FCEV gets all it’s miles from the H2 gas station.
      So the dimensioning of stations would be higher. Not 10 times higher since there will be a need for super chargers stations in places where they are not used as much just because of the shorter range. But maybe 4-6 times higher.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Yeah, but that goes past the cost of an individual pump and on toward the cost of a H2 infrastructure. Extracting/reformatting plus compressing and transporting adds an entire other layer of cost on top of the H2 pumps.

        Well less than 5% of our trips are over 200 miles.

        • No way

          True. It doesn’t change the cost when comparing station to station.
          But that among other things are very important when looking at the total infrastructure needed.
          And the end result is that an H2 infrastructure and fuel cells for cars and other light duty vehicles seems to be a big loser no matter how you look at it.

          I haven’t met anyone yet that can put up a good argument for the H2 infrastructure and fuel cells (except for maybe heavy trucks/airplanes/boats sometime in the future).
          I really wonder if there is any good arguments for it, except a larger after market for car manufacturers, easier to scale production and for oil companies that provide stations and fossil fuel for the hydrogen. Which don’t benefit neither the consumer nor the environment.

          • Matt

            For heavy truck, by the time you count H2 generation using todays methods. I wonder if they are really cleaner than just going CNP? I don’t know just asking.

          • No way

            No, CNG straight away is cleaner then. But CNG is not a solution since it’s just another fossil fuel.
            But if you want to go all renewables then it would be possible to do so with fuel cells for trucks + H2 produced by electricity.
            I don’t think it will be the most common solution but it might be a good one for Denmark for example who are planing to use excess wind power to produce hydrogen.

          • jeffhre

            Excess wind power? Which can be traded with other countries for cash? And 40% will be lost in the conversion process. With another 40% loss in drive trains? Isn’t that a steep opportunity cost, vs putting it directly in vehicle batteries of selling across borders?

          • No way

            Well, their excess wind power comes when it’s blowing a lot in this part of Europe and then the surrounding countries also have a lot of power. Which means that they will have to sell it for basically free. There have been times where the spot price have actually been negative so that the wind companies in Denmark had to pay other countries for taking the excess electricity of their hands, which would otherwise either overflow the system = no good or they would have had to stop the wind power from producing any electricity which would have been more expensive and harder.
            So any losses in efficiency will still lead to them earning money instead of losing money on that excess wind.

            Plus there are two more reasons. Denmark is planning on being fossil free at the latest in 2050 which will mean that they will probably at least double or triple their wind power until then (now they have about 30% which sometimes blows way over 100%, so getting a 60-90% “base load” will lead to times when they have more than 200% of their needs covered).
            Then they can do hydrogen for cars and hydrogen to burn in power plants when the wind isn’t blowing as much.

          • jeffhre

            Seems reasonable, though they could conceivably ramp up demand (when EV’s are prevalent) and fill up batteries without the huge conversion losses of hydrogen based generation. I’m curious though, how often do they see negative pricing on the spot markets?

          • No way

            It’s just a few days a year they see negative pricing, the record being $-0,15/kWh for Denmark (and the record in Germany is $-0,73/kWh). But even when the prices are not negative but just low it would be economical to store energy inefficient than basically give it away and then buying it back when needed at a premium.

            EV’s only adds 10-25% of a countries electricity demand so even if everyone had an EV it would still be a marginal change compared to the great fluctuations of wind power.

          • jeffhre

            May add 15 -20% of overall demand though it could be a relatively large portion of demand management capability.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “would have had to stop the wind power from producing any electricity which would have been more expensive and harder.”


            All that needs be done is to rotate the blades so that they are parallel to the wind flow and set the brakes.

          • No way

            You’re right. I just looked it up and the reason was that the wind power producers had a guaranteed feed-in tarif which made it still profitable for the producers even though they had to pay to get rid of the electricity.
            My mistake.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Yeah. That’s the reason that wind can drive the cost of offpeak power to zero or less than zero in the US. They can sell for nothing and still get the PTC which more than covers variable O&M.

          • jeffhre

            Seems like when so much “excess wind power” is reached continent wide, that would represent a fundamental shift in the structure of the grid. Today the excess is simply sold across borders.

            If selling to other markets was not available due to continent wide wind generated excess, that’s a huge shift. If it were to reach that point then smarter grids which may view redundant excess energy as a form of reserve would become possible.

            With powerful operating algorithms, and big data, some smaller percentages of this could conceivably be what we consider today to be dispatchable. Over certain predictable time windows.

            This would allow further reductions in the need for fossil fuel reserves, which may particularly affect grid costs of the more expensive spinning reserves.

          • jeffhre

            Yes, and it means that not only are the stations more expensive, but many more of them are required since there will not be an order of magnitude more of them in residences, as opposed remotely sited long distance routes. That is a material difference.

    • Steve Grinwis

      I was going to sit down and do this math, but you beat me to it.

      Ugh. What a waste of money.

    • Matt

      Sorry to call you on this Bob.But I think your 1:6 rate is unfair. You only consider the to build cost, but since using fill rate to adjust down, you should have added fuel and environment impact cost to adjust up. 😉 Just saying

      • Bob_Wallace

        I agree. There are costs well above that of the fuel stations. We’d need, for example, more than two times as many solar panels and wind turbines to generate the power to crack the water and compress the hydrogen.

  • Black & Veatch probably didn’t just sign on to design then build. They probably were involved in upfront promotion and development of the project. And may have an ownership stake. Maybe B&V even wrote the contract upon which all parties signed. It appears that this is a public/private partnership deal. The $27.6 million in taxpayer money will go to seed a public/private project that benefits a few. At least Tesla is building its own powering stations. Engineering and construction firms will build anything, if the terms and conditions are acceptable and regardless of folly.

    • jrochaus
      • That was probably the world least intelligent comment/reply ever made. I will forgive you since you seem young and inexperienced in the world.

        Engineering firms make money coming and going. For example, a competitor of BV is URS. URS has one division doing tar sands in situ extraction services and one doing climate change preparedness plans in New York City on the other. There are many examples of this. I didn’t raise any issue about BV except the public/private partnership. Especially a public/private partnership on an endeavour that has a very specific market. California is using public money for people who can afford very expensive cars run on hydrogen derived from natural gas, from a power source in the early phases of commercialization. And a power source that doesn’t really gain much advantage over EVs. California is also running out of water. They will be asking for federal assistance more and more as time goes on.

        I simply focussed on California public funds going to this. That is a good thing to focus on given California’s financial issues, like many states right now.

        The only thing discussed about your link was the fact that BV is working with Tesla on EV stations. And most importantly, it doesn’t look like there’s too much state and federal money being outlayed. Whether its true or not it’s hard to tell. Your article didn’t seem to say so. And your rather insipid comments surely didn’t say anything of any import.

        This is from the business wire Tina linked:

        “This came just one week after the California Energy Commission gave final approval for a $27.6 Million grant to FirstElement to help develop the first phase of a California hydrogen network that will support zero-emission fuel cell vehicles in the state. In addition to the California Grants, FirstElement is receiving financial support from Toyota who will begin selling fuel cell vehicles next year.”

        And Hydrogen:

        ““The electrification of the automobile made great strides at the end of July,” said Joel Ewanick, CEO of FirstElement Fuel. “With the stroke of a pen the Energy Commission took the hydrogen infrastructure argument off the table with their final approval of our $27.6 Million grant. The very next week we completed our first order of business by signing Black & Veatch as our primary engineering and construction provider for the 19 hydrogen charging locations in our network.””

        So as a see it, this was a joint venture between FirstElement with funding from California and Toyota. What type of contract is BV signing here. Let’s see.

        From Fleets and Fuels:


        “Shane Stephens of FirstElement Fuel noted that his firm, which is taking a “network approach” to the establishment of a hydrogen fueling infrastructure – FirstElement has the lion’s share of the CEC funding: $2.9 million for two 100% renewable-based hydrogen stations in Los Angeles, and $24.7 million for 17 others – has teamed with Black & Veatch to build the stations.

        A release issued Tuesday states that Black & Veatch will handle permitting, engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) services for all 19 FirstElement station, and that all will be completed next year.”

        It looks like everything I wrote is correct. First Element is teaming with B&V. That means they are partnering. That means it is a design/build endeavour with seed money for engineering and construction. Teaming using means a partnership, which usually means the engineering and construction manager is taking an equity stake.

        So everything I said is correct. You owe me an apology. Or you could have Zack apologize for you, if you are too shy.

        • This is getting interesting. BV seems to be into natural gas and LNG.


          “Black & Veatch will combine its licensed PRICO LNG technology and its global engineering, procurement and construction capabilities with the services of Keppel Shipyard Limited (Keppel Shipyard) to convert a Golar LNG carrier to a Floating Liquefied Natural Gas Vessel (FLNGV).”

          So basically this whole fuel cell station is to sell more natural gas.


          This would be a gas line to bring Prudhoe Bay gas to the lower 48. California maybe.

          • And it gets even more interesting. There’s still a groundwater remediation division. That could find work in California to clean up aquifers above tight sands and shale fracking. The old tear it down and build it back up business plan. It’s truly amazing, this world we live in. And I was just concerned about the public/private partnership. Chiefly because BV is working with Chicago’s metropolitan water reclamation district on a sludge (biosolids) nutrient recovery project. Fine and dandy. But many to all Chicago’s public/private deals go south and screw over tax and ratepayers more than benefit us.

        • jrochaus

          “At least Tesla is building its own powering stations.” I am just replying to your comment. That is all. Here, in case you wanted to find out more…


          You can try to berate by circumnavigation, where as I am just tell you that I can’t trust what you are saying because the comment you made doesn’t seem true and I pointed out your error. I do not owe you an apology, you owe me one, for having to read your re-reply chalked full of nonsense. 🙂

          • You’re not at all up-to-speed and it’s my fault for thinking you were. Tesla is the owner. The owner secures financing. BV is contracted to Tesla to provide engineering and construction management on Tesla’s EV stations. Tesla, in terms of project management, as the owner, is building the EV stations. Similarly, the Trump tower in Chicago was built by Donald Trump. Now the Donald didn’t pour concrete and place the glass facade himself. The Donald, through his development corporations secured financing to form a construction venture. That venture hired an architect and a construction manager. That is pretty much how the EV stations are being built. By Tesla. Comment less and read more, especially since you seem young.

    • Bob Dole

      Tesla’s charging infrastructure is also being built by B&V:

      • Irrelevant to the original comment. See my reply to the young kid’s comment above.

        • jrochaus

          It is irrelevant because Michael said so!

  • one.second

    I think the efficiency problem should be mentioned in every fuel cell article.

    • mambero

      I think the problem of inefficiency of battery storage systems should be mentioned in every EV article. Not to mention the toxic cocktails by which they function, disposal, fossile sources, etc.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Thank you for your concern…

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