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America's First Pipeline-Fed, Hydrogen Fueling Station Now Open In Los Angeles

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America’s first pipeline-fed, retail hydrogen fueling station opened in Torrance, California, within Los Angeles county on Tuesday. The station will provide hydrogen for fuel cell and hybrid vehicles in the area. It was built through a joint effort by Toyota, Air Products and Shell alternative energies, with funding from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The station’s first customer was the owner of a Honda FCX Clarity.

A handful of hydrogen fuel cell black cabs have already hit the streets in London. Hydrogen fuel cell forklifts are already widely available, and used in warehouse fleets from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods. Fuel cell cars — promised by manufacturers including Toyota, Daimler, GM, Honda, and Hyundai — are not slated for mass market availability until 2015, though. The dominant clean vehicle technology available in the U.S. remains the battery electric vehicle.

Fuel cells cars are said to* produce no greenhouse gas emissions. In actuality, they produce H2O (water vapor is a greenhouse gas) and CO2 depending on the source of the hydrogen used. Most industrial hydrogen is produced from the reformation of hydrocarbons. [Ed’s note: Before publishing this post, I was unable to verify from Shell, Toyota or Air Products what the exact source of hydrogen was for this L.A. station, or how carbon intensive its production process might be.]

They have a 130- to 430-mile range (according to Toyota’s statements about its own fuel cell vehicles). Battery electric vehicles, so far, offer a much shorter range, and can only go up to 200 miles before recharging, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. On the other hand, battery electric vehicles can be charged at home, while fuel cell vehicles require special fueling stations at this point.

Among others, Honda is working on a “home energy station” for to generate hydrogen at home for fuel cells. A bevy of electric vehicle chargers are already on the market, however, including from Coulomb, Aerovironment and ECOtality.

As noted on the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Fuel Cell Test and Evaluation Center (FCTec) website: Sir William Grove developed the first fuel cell in England in 1839, and in the 1950s, NASA and General Electric (GE) scientists developed the “Grubb-Niedrach fuel cell,” which became the first in the world to be used commercially.

Is the U.S. still leading the commercialization of fuel cells, globally? The executive director of the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA), Ruth F. Cox, put things in perspective:

“There are somewhere around 600 [highway legal] fuel cell electric vehicles on the road, today. There are probably fewer than 50 different vehicle models in very limited production, now. That’s worldwide. We have about 150 of these vehicles [driving around] in the U.S. We also have twenty some hydrogen fueling stations here, in California.

While the U.S. has led in terms of innovation, here, other countries have taken the lead in terms of building government and industry partnerships that bring together the oil and gas industry, alternative fueling companies, and the auto industry around an orchestrated plan for the deployment of infrastructure to support fuel cell vehicles.

Japan has made a commitment to deliver hundreds of refueling stations by 2015. Germany has committed to delivering thousands of stations by 2020.

As the technology matures, this will improve. Looking at battery electric vehicles, only thousands have been sold in the U.S. so far. It’s simply going to take some time.”

*The passage above was corrected and appended, May 11, 2011, 12:10 ET. A representative of the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association referred to fuel cell vehicles as zero emissions vehicles in an interview. That statement was not meant literally, but I repeated the phrase in an earlier edition of this post. I’ve added details to clarify and maintain accuracy at the suggestion of commenter @Ben Kellie.