Fuels Forward: Mapping Out a Hydrogen Future

How to develop an infrastructure for a customer that does not exist yet

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

hydrogen gas station

OAKBROOK TERRACE, Ill. -- Hydrogen seems to be the perfect fuel. It's the most common, lightest element in the universe, and has the highest energy content per unit weight of all fuels--three times that of gasoline, according to the fuel-cell technology site Fuel Cells 2000.

It's combined with oxygen in a hydrogen fuel cell to produce electricity, which can then power a battery to run a vehicle. The only byproducts? Water and heat, with power produced quietly and efficiently. You can't get much cleaner and simpler than that.

But of all the alternative fuels out there, hydrogen is the least accessible. There are only nine fueling sites, all in California, and no hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered vehicles currently available for sale to the public. This is despite President George W. Bush's $1.2 billion investment in the technology back in 2003. Yet hydrogen might soon finally have its time--pardon the pun--in the sun.

The state of California has set an ambitious goal to open 68 hydrogen fueling sites by 2016. And, just announced recently, Kalibrate Technologies Data Solutions--the folks formerly known as KSS Fuels--has just been tapped by the federal government to determine potential locations for hydrogen fueling locations in California.

As Debbie Miggins, vice president of business development at Kalibrate shared with me recently, the company's involvement began when the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) asked for feedback on analyses that universities had done on how to site hydrogen fueling infrastructure in California. Did Kalibrate agree with the approach? Would they tackle the problem the same way?

Kalibrate, which specializes in petroleum fuels pricing and location analysis, has 20 years' experience building fuel network planning models, and had already surveyed most of the 8,500 gas stations in the state of California on some 80 different data points--number of fueling positions, lot size, store size, fuel volumes, sales and more. So it brought a lot of real-world knowledge about the existing fueling infrastructure as well as what factors fed into creating a high-volume location.

But how do you forecast a site for a fuel that has not even gotten out of the gate, and for consumers who are not yet even on the road?

"With hydrogen there are too many unknowns to build a predictive model like we have for conventional fuels," said Miggins. "We need about 20 or more hydrogen stations to be open for business and to understand their sales before we can build hydrogen volume forecasting into our conventional predictive model." So instead, Kalibrate will be using a combination of an analog ranking model to prioritize locations in the state and GIS segmentation to segment the market into hydrogen station trade areas.

Kalibrate will be tapping into its survey data of gas stations in California, while factoring in information from NREL about hydrogen fuel cell technology and the consumer most likely to adopt it. The hydrogen fueling sites will likely be a combination of add-ons to existing gas stations and new standalone facilities.

It's highly encouraging that NREL approached Kalibrate in this effort. Seems to me that the petroleum fuels industry often gets left out of the conversation when the government wants to develop the infrastructure for fuel alternatives, and yet there is so much real-world experience and wisdom that it can tap. As Miggins put it to me, "It's different when you go from academia to someone who has to do something on the street." It will be fascinating to watch the site planning process develop over the next 12 months, and this fuel alternative become a reality.