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You can fill 'er up with hydrogen

A West L.A. station becomes the first in the state to be able to dispense the fuel in addition to gasoline.

June 25, 2008|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer

The Shell station looks typical, with recognizable yellow and red signs plastered on the islands and gasoline pumps.

But one pump sticks out. It sports a bright blue "Hydrogen" label above a video screen. On its side is a metal lockbox and a new kind of dispenser -- new at least to the everyday gas station visitor.

On Thursday, Shell Hydrogen will unveil California's first retail station to sell both gasoline and hydrogen, and only the second in the country after one in Washington, also operated by Shell. An existing station on Santa Monica Boulevard near Federal Avenue in West Los Angeles was beefed up to make hydrogen fuel more mainstream and to accustom the typical gas-addicted customer to a more eco-friendly fuel.

With that in mind, the station features a large information center -- which Shell executives say will bring in visiting school kids, among others -- next to an expanded food mart.

"We think it's very important in Shell to show we can supply hydrogen to the public environmentally, safely, reliably, regularly and all the time," said Duncan Macleod, vice president of Shell Hydrogen, a unit of energy giant Royal Dutch Shell.

Most hydrogen fuel stations are fenced off or not easily accessible to the public. They often are designed to service companies' hydrogen fuel-cell fleets. As a result, the regular gas station customer rarely sets eyes on hydrogen pumps or refueling stations.

The opening comes weeks before the California Air Resources Board is expected to announce the allocation of $7.7 million to help fund the opening of three hydrogen fueling stations as part of the "Hydrogen Highway," a statewide effort to increase the number of hydrogen fueling stations near urban areas. The stations will aim to provide a similar retail experience, said Gerhard Achtelik, a manager of the zero-emissions vehicle infrastructure section for the California Air Resources Board.

"For the future of alternative fuels to be successful -- not just for hydrogen but for any -- they have to provide the customer with the same experience as the gasoline experience," Achtelik said. "Obviously, we still need more fuel-cell vehicles and stations, but this is important."

Automobile manufacturers such as General Motors and Honda have joined in partnerships with Shell and other companies to increase the number of stations in tandem with advancing technology and commercialization of fuel-cell cars in the next five to 10 years.

The GM program, referred to as Project Driveway, began in 2007 and will deploy 100 hydrogen fuel-cell-powered Chevy Equinoxes into what the company identified as key urban markets over the next few years. In return for feedback, the company provides drivers a loaned-out Equinox and fuel.

Honda will begin to offer about 200 FCX Clarity hydrogen-powered sedans on three-year leases for $600 a month. In California, an estimated 200 hydrogen vehicles are on the road, most in the Los Angeles region, said Roy Kim, a spokesman with the California Fuel Cell Partnership. The new Shell set-up will be the 20th hydrogen fuel station in Southern California and the 26th in the state, Kim said.

Hydrogen vehicles generate no tailpipe emissions aside from water vapor. But critics say emissions are produced during the production of the fuel, and more energy can be expended making the hydrogen than it generates. Although hydrogen can be produced from renewable energy sources, most is made using natural gas.

At the West L.A. station, Shell is participating in a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power program that subsidizes renewable energy. To make the hydrogen gas, the station's electricity is routed to a canopy where water is electrolyzed.

The gas is then compressed into high-pressure tanks that feed the pump.

A kilogram of hydrogen will be priced competitively with a gallon of premium gasoline, according to Shell. That means filling up could cost about $10 a kilogram, or about $40 a tank, if not more, at current gas prices.

The hydrogen highway has its potholes. The fuel is difficult to store and often kept in expensive steel tanks. The fuel cells usually are made of precious metals such as platinum and palladium. Stations can take a long time to permit and build because codes and standards are being adjusted and created to suit the new technology, Macleod said.

In addition, there aren't enough hydrogen fueling stations to allow a car to be driven from Los Angeles to San Francisco. And the cars are estimated to cost hundreds of thousand of dollars, said Spencer Quong, a senior vehicles engineer with the Union of Concern Scientists.

"Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are sort of a long-term technology," Quong said, "and we really need to focus on improving the fuel economy of gasoline vehicles today, and getting more hybrids, plug-ins, near-term technology, while we spend time working on these long-term technologies."

But City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes the West L.A. station, was ebullient about the new fuel: "This is a huge step in the right direction."

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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