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

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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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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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