North Bay hydrogen-fuel-cell cars await more filling stations

Dick and Nancy Lammerding, Santa Rosa residents who purchased a Toyota Mirai hydrogen-car in 2016, drive to Mill Valley to fill up their hydrogen tanks on May 30, 2017. (JAMES DUNN / NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL)

JAMES DUNN,

As a fuel, hydrogen rides high. Rockets burn liquid hydrogen to boost themselves into orbit. The sun burns hydrogen in nuclear fusion, forming helium. Hydrogen fusion creates thermonuclear weapons, the most potent ever devised, with blast force about 1,000 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Now hydrogen fuel has hit the automotive market in southern California and the North Bay.

Almost a year ago, retired United Airlines pilot Dick Lammerding, who lives in Santa Rosa, bought a Toyota Mirai hydrogen-fuel-cell car from a dealer in San Francisco. An automotive-technology early adopter, Lammerding knows no one else who has one. “I absolutely love it,” Lammerding said.

Toyota has a couple of competitors. Honda sells a hydrogen-fueled Clarity. Lammerding met a Clarity owner who also lives in Santa Rosa and uses it to commute to San Francisco. Hyundai markets a hydrogen-powered Tucson compact SUV.

EMIT ONLY WATER VAPOR

Hydrogen fuel cells don’t pollute. They produce electricity along with water vapor and heat. Fuel cells in a stack create electricity that propels the car. They don’t burn the hydrogen.

Compared to an electric car, a hydrogen car has huge advantages in fueling time. A Nissan Leaf takes eight hours to charge at 240 volts, and half an hour at 440 volts, which shortens battery life if charged fully. A Tesla S needs an hour even on a supercharger. A hydrogen-fuel-cell car takes less than five minutes to refuel, comparable to filling a gasoline tank.

Range is another hydrogen advantage. The electric Nissan Leaf has a range of only 107 miles. Tesla S with a regular 60-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery gets about 208. The hydrogen Mirai has a range of nearly 300 miles. Honda’s Clarity claims a range of 366 miles.

Until more fueling stations carry hydrogen in the North Bay, the car poses challenges for Sonoma County customers unless it is used to commute to San Francisco.

Marin County supports hydrogen-car ownership with a fueling kiosk at the Valero station in Mill Valley — the only one in the North Bay. South San Francisco has one near the airport. Hayward, Sacramento and Truckee each have one.

HYDROGEN STATIONS PROPOSED

Several Bay Area cities have hydrogen-fueling stations proposed, including Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland and Pleasant Hill. Southern California has numerous stations, especially in Los Angeles, with more than a dozen. So far, more than 95 percent of the nation’s hydrogen-filling stations are located in California.

Most hydrogen filling stations offer two pump options, 35 or 70 megapascals, a metric pressure unit that translates to about 5,000 or 10,000 pounds per square inch. “The 70 gives you a full tank,” Lammerding said. For comparison, a typical full propane tank has roughly 1 megapascal of pressure at 84 degrees F. The hydrogen tank handles nearly 70 times that pressure.

A kilogram of hydrogen sells for about $16.

NO LOCAL FUEL-CELL CAR DEALERS YET

No dealerships in the North Bay have the Honda Clarity yet.

That model can only be leased, according to Jason Faraji, a manager at the Oakland Honda dealership. “There’s a long waiting list,” Faraji said, with more than a year’s delay. “We get a handful of vehicles every month.”

Built in Japan, Clarity cars are imported through San Diego’s port. A 60,000-mile fuel voucher is part of a three-year lease for $369 a month.

Though the Mirai lists for $57,500, Toyota discounted it to $50,000 when Lammerding bought his. The company sent a further $5,000 rebate. A state energy rebate trimmed another $5,000. He estimates the value of three years’ worth of free fuel at $15,000. On federal income taxes, Lammerding benefited from an $8,000 credit.

In sum, he got the car for about $20,000.

‘NOT ENOUGH FUELING STATIONS’

Lammerding clamors for more filling stations in the North Bay.

A station was supposed to go into Rohnert Park by the end of 2015 but didn’t, he said. Meanwhile, he drives 92 miles round trip to Mill Valley to fill up the Mirai about twice a month, using nearly a third of his range for the refueling round trip.

“I have taken it to Reno and Paso Robles (260 miles),” he said. “There are not enough fueling stations. They could sell three to four times as many” if there were more stations.

So far he has not run out of fuel. The car has an emergency button for such emergencies, and Toyota will send a rescue vehicle with mobile hydrogen refueling.

“I filled up in Mill Valley,” Lammerding said of his trek to Reno. He then drove home before starting the trip. By the time he got to the Truckee station after climbing into the mountains, “I was down to 40 miles” of remaining range, Lammerding said. “At least I had enough fuel to get there.”

He could have stopped to fill up in Sacramento but didn’t.

Carlos Ruiz works at the Mill Valley Valero station, which has sold hydrogen for about two years. Typically about one hydrogen customer comes per hour, said Ruiz. “Sometimes, everybody comes,” with half a dozen in an hour, Ruiz said.

Until hydrogen becomes available at more filling stations, it helps to think like a pilot, Lammerding said.

“It’s very much like flying,” he said. “You have to plan your fuel load to get where you’re going.”

Lammerding flew for United Airlines for 35 years and before that in the Marine Corps.

END OF HYBRIDS?

“People are mesmerized by the technology,” Faraji said of hydrogen-based cars. “The hybrid is going to be phased out,” eclipsed by hydrogen and electric vehicles. “Honda and Toyota are testing the market.”

The Clarity looks and drives like a high-end Acura, Faraji said.

But Lammerding had problems connecting his Apple iPhone to the Mirai. He has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and an MBA. For 15 years after he retired from flying, he owned a commercial vineyard with nine acres planted in Cloverdale.

And the fuel-economy gauge, which shows miles-per-gallon equivalents that usually display between 55 and 75 mpg, “is totally useless,” he said. He’d rather have a gauge that shows miles per kilogram, the units of hydrogen sold.

“Those are the only two gripes I have about the car,” Lammerding said. “I like the way it drives, the quietness inside, the air-conditioning. There is virtually nothing to find fault with. The car is solid, like a Lexus.”

He also owns a Prius.

“There is no comparison,” he said. The Mirai “is much more like a Mercedes.”

He had service done on the Mirai after the first six months at a Toyota dealership in San Francisco.

FUEL-CELL CYNICS

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars have critics.

“If you’re going to pick an energy-storage mechanism, hydrogen is an incredibly dumb one,” said Tesla CEO Elon Musk in 2015.

Tesla, based in Palo Alto, makes electric cars but none that runs on hydrogen. Using solar power to directly charge car batteries is about twice as efficient as using the energy for electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen then compress the hydrogen for use in a car.

But scientists are working to solve that objection. In February 2016, University of California, Berkeley, chemical engineer Peidong Yang published a study of solar fuel cells that split water into oxygen and hydrogen gas. The technology uses titanium oxide wire, which works well in electrolysis, and treats it with bismuth vanadate, a bright yellow metal oxide used in pigments that absorbs sunlight efficiently.

If the technology works, the special solar panels would derive hydrogen fuel from water.

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257