Experts have long believed that, at least for the foreseeable future, the ideal early market for hydrogen fuel-cell cars is a small, self-contained place, one facing exorbitant fossil fuel prices and with an abundant supply of renewable energy on tap.
That would be Iceland. At one time, before the financial crisis essentially bankrupted the country, Iceland had said it planned to be the world's first hydrogen economy. Times have changed. Aside from needing to focus on bailing out its bankrupt banks, Iceland also found itself face to face with another big challenge: access to fuel-cell cars. There are only a handful of them and one in mass production. Daimler AG, for instance, has produced only about 200 in more than a decade.
This brings us to the Hawaiian Island of Oahu, with a population of one million, which is more than three times the size of Iceland. Late last year, General Motors announced the Hawaii Hydrogen Initiative (or H2I in marketing speak) in Honolulu. This new partnership includes Aloha Petroleum (which operates filling stations), The Gas Company (which produces large amounts of hydrogen as a byproduct of making the synthetic natural gas it sells), the U.S. Energy Department (which is more bullish on hydrogen than it used to be), the Hawaiian Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, and various branches of the American military.
The partners envision a hydrogen renewable energy future for Hawaii. The goal is to have 20 to 25 hydrogen stations operating on Oahu by 2015, the year that commercial fuel-cell vehicle production is expected to start in very limited quantities.
GM predicts that the small network of H2 stations on Oahu could power 10,000 cars and service every driver without fear of running out of H2.
Meanwhile, GM has built more than 100 hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Equinoxes, almost all of them in Oshawa, Ont. But they're expensive. GM is mum on vehicle pricing, but Toyota told just-auto.com that at current costs, the hydrogen car it planned to deliver by 2015 or earlier would take about $120,000 (U.S.) to build. Even at that price, some believe fuel cell-powered vehicles are closer to production than you might think - although in very small numbers.
GM, Daimler, Toyota and Honda all believe fuel cells have a future, and they are not alone. The biggest barrier to adoption of hydrogen as the automotive fuel of the future is not the vehicle technology, but the lack of a network of hydrogen filling stations. Oahu is a test case for what's possible.