Sigmund Gronich scoffed at me. I'd just told him that I write for AutoblogGreen and wanted to get his name right for the post about the presentation he and others had just given at the 2006 Fuel Cell Seminar in Honolulu. He chuckled to himself – and to the surrounding delegates from the fuel cell industry – and rolled his eyes. I asked him what he was worried about. He said, "Who knows what you guys write on your blogs." Well, Siggy – can I call you Siggy? – what I wanted to share the information that you and your co-presenters gave with a wider audience. Would that be all right with you? I hope so, because here it is.

Gronich is technology validation manager at the U.S. Department of Energy – Hydrogen, Fuel Cells & Infrastructure Technologies. He led a group of researchers – including Julie Perez, project engineer at Directed Technologies Incorporated, Paul Leiby, senior scientist-environmental sciences division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Margo Melendez, senior project Leader at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory – in a presentation called U.S. DOE Scenario Analyses of a Nascent National Hydrogen Transportation System. This presentation was a snapshot of what the DOE understands right now about how the upcoming hydrogen economy might be installed. The scenarios (described below) the teams are looking at are at the recommendation of the National Research Council, and Gronich's team will present their final report to the NRC in March 2007. As if this needs to be said considering the topic, but the hydrogen economy is a work in progress.

(read the rest after the jump)

Gronich gave the opening and closing remarks in Honolulu, but the bulk of the information came from Leiby, Melendez and Perez. If you want to know what the DOE is saying publicly about the upcoming hydrogen economy today, there the ones to break it down. The real short version of what they said is that, yes, the hydrogen transportation economy is nascent in all possible ways. We can expect clusters of hydrogen fueling stations to be installed and in use for the general public in the New York City and Los Angeles areas first, followed by broader dispersion along the West Coast and the Northeast. We're talking 2015 before anything resembling an infrastructure is even a possibility, and 2025 is a more likely date for these areas to be running a lot of hydrogen cars.

How many? This is obviously unknown. The DOE's analyses used three different scenarios of hydrogen acceptance in America suggested by the NRC to try and understand how best to implement the hydrogen economy. As explained by Gronich, the three scenarios for America are:
  1. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs) are introduced widely in 2015, with government support for hundreds or thousands of vehicles a year by 2012 and tens of thousands by 2018. This will result in 2 million HFCVs by 2025.
  2. The government supports thousands of HFCVs by 2012, tens of thousands by 2015 and hundreds of thousands by 2018. This gives 5 million HFCVs by 2025.
  3. Lastly, the government supports thousands a year by 2012 and millions a year by 2021, giving 10 million by 2025. The HFCVs come from multiple companies and in lots of model choices.

Since it is very likely that NYC and LA will get hydrogen first, they can be considered "lighthouses" for hydrogen, Gronich said. How the hydrogen for vehicles there will be produced is not yet decided. Gronich admitted it would be extremely difficult for electrolysis to cost-effectively compete with coal or natural gas hydrogen production, but the team looked at all these possibilities. Where to make the hydrogen is also a question. Do you make hydrogen at the fueling stations (forecourt production), clustered within 30 miles of the fueling stations, or further away and truck or pipe it in? Yes, building expensive hydrogen pipelines throughout Los Angeles is being considered in these scenarios. Pretty much everything is a possibility at this point. In fact, according to Julie Perez' presentation on the HyPro (hydrogen production) system, in order to figure out potential costs of a kilogram of hydrogen at the pump, the team looked at 116 different ways to maneuver hydrogen along the network. Different sources of hydrogen include coal gasification, biomass, the existing hydrogen supply, nuclear sources, and steam methane reforming. Transportation methods include pipelines and four types of delivery trucks: cold compressed gas truck, high-pressure gas truck, multi-stop liquid gas truck, and low-pressure gas truck (Perez made the assumptions that cold compressed gas trucks will be available in 2020, and that the pipeline through LA wouldn't be ready until 2025).

Figuring all of this together, it turns out that the cheapest path through the decision tree starts by making hydrogen using coal gasification and sequestering the CO2, then transporting the H2 through pipelines to fueling stations. Perez admitted that there are a lot of factors not yet in the data set (most important in my mind being the environmental and health effects, but also things like exactly where the CO2 would be sequestered). Changes in the capital cost of forecourt stations, the feasibility of building pipelines in the future, government CO2 policy (i.e., being required to sequester all CO2), and ethanol feedstock price can all affect the cost of hydrogen for consumers. Still, taking the information they have now, the HyPro model estimates the profited cost (what a consumer will pay) for a kilogram of hydrogen will range from a low of $2.50 to a high of $6, with the cost of most methods averaging between $3 and $4 starting in 2020 in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles and NYC are just the first places where hydrogen will likely be part of the transportation economy. The DOE's best guess at this point is that there will be 40 stations in the LA area by 2015, all in busy areas. The 2015, 40-station scenario for NYC has none in the city proper, but lots in Jersey and Long Island and other surrounding areas. Four years later (between 2016-19), San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, and Chicago would tap into the hydrogen scene. More cities would follow every about four years, with the connecting areas fleshed out to create hydrogen corridors.

Initially, hydrogen stations would be built in areas close to airports, near roads that get more than 200,000 vehicles a day, within two miles of a retail center, and in a census tract with more than 3,000 vehicle registrations (which is higher than average). While converting existing gasoline stations to hydrogen centers may sound like the most sensible idea it may not be possible, because Steam Methane Reformers take up space, there are storage and compression issues, and local ordinances for things like setbacks may prevent hydrogen installation. The logic of centering hydrogen stations around company or municipal fleets will be put into the data set later this year.

All right then, who will buy hydrogen vehicles? Marga Melendez thinks she knows. She said the most likely candidates are people or families who: have a higher than average income, a higher education level, at least two cars in the family, and live in an area where there are poor air quality, state incentives for HFCVs, or mandates for zero emission vehicles. Guess where a lot of people like this live? In Los Angeles and New York City.

Ok, so we've figured out where the stations will be, and who will buy the cars, but doesn't that leave out one major component? It certainly does, and Paul Leiby has been looking a some of the largest roadblocks in the way of the hydrogen economy: vehicle availability and hydrogen model diversity (there needs to be trucks and small cars and minivans so everyone can drive the type of vehicle that suits their needs). One of Leiby's slides read, "A sustainable transition to hydrogen powered light duty vehicles is possible by 2050 (or so) at reasonable cost." But, he said, this will require a major government and business transition policy through at least 2025 to overcome market barriers. Two factors will influence fuel cell success by 2050: first, meeting the DOE's 2010 goals for HFCVs, with "average progress for other technologies" also occurring. Second, a price of oil that sits at about $90 a barrel in 2030. If these two things happen, Leiby said, there may not be any need for government policies (like a motor fuel tax exemptions or $1,000 per vehicle subsidy for hydrogen vehicles) much after 2025.

Gronich told me that the data presented in Honolulu was very similar to what was explained at the 2010-2025 Scenario Analysis for Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles and Infrastructure Meeting in Washington, DC back in August. You can read more about that meeting and download some of the presentation PDFs here. There was also an earlier meeting, back in January.

As should be obvious from these PDFs and the links in the text above, a lot of the information delivered in Honolulu is available around the Internet. Still, digging through government websites is very few people's idea of fun and having the current state of thought in the DOE delivered in person allows us to better understand all of the uncertainty and possibility of the hydrogen economy that exists. As Gronich said in closing this a first glimpse of what might be, of what's possible. I trusted a lot of what was said, but I remain skeptical. I mean, the presentation was scheduled to run for four hours but only took two. Can we really trust these folks to look 45 years into the future?

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