Hydrogen stations increase: Will it make a difference?

Hydrogen stations being built for cars like Toyota Mirai

Fuel cell vehicles becoming a viable option

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are beginning to trickle onto California’s roads. True Zero wants to help automakers prepare for a more steady stream.

True Zero, of Irvine, Calif., is the consumer-facing brand of hydrogen filling stations owned by FirstElement Fuel, a startup headed by former GM and Hyundai marketing guru Joel Ewanick. And it’s at the center of an effort by automakers and regulators to develop the infrastructure to support the growing number of fuel cell vehicles on the market.

Eighteen months ago, FirstElement announced plans to build 19 stations in California in 2015. Hurdles such as permitting and equipment issues have slowed that timeline, but not Ewanick’s enthusiasm.

“These issues happen,” Ewanick told Automotive News. “If we were opening a Starbucks we’d still have issues.”

FirstElement has 13 True Zero stations in operation now, mostly clustered in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas. Ewanick hopes to have the rest of the 19 done by early next year. That would give True Zero a dominant share of the market in California; there are just six other retail hydrogen stations not owned by the company.

The timing is important because the vehicles are already here. Toyota has sold 210 Mirai sedans in California and Hyundai has about 100 fuel cell Tucsons leased to customers. Honda’s second-generation Clarity FCV goes on sale this year.

While those numbers barely register on the green-car scales, automakers such as Honda and Toyota are keen to do what they can to ease their customers’ experience with hydrogen — just as Tesla did with its network of Supercharger stations.

“For automakers, what they get is a reliable consumer experience,” Ewanick said. “The last thing they want to do is put these cars on the road and have an experience that reflects poorly on the brand.”

Honda and Toyota have provided $13.8 million in loans to spur construction of True Zero stations. FirstElement has also received $27.6 million in grants from the California Energy Commission and another $2 million in grants from regional air-quality management districts.

Ewanick doesn’t want to stop there. He plans to raise more capital in the next 12 months, likely through an equity sale.

The True Zero stations, with sleek design, are installed in existing filling stations. That’s cheaper than developing sites from scratch, easier from a permitting perspective and more amenable to new hydrogen customers.

FirstElement “really focused on the retail experience,” Tyson Eckerle, deputy director of zero-emission vehicle infrastructure in California’s Office of Business and Economic Development, told Automotive News. “Their attention to detail and what it’s like to be a customer has been absolutely transformative and their network really changes the whole value proposition.”

“Here come the hydrogen stations” originally appeared at Automotive News on 5/30/16.

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