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The Green Highway

Fuelling the winds of change for hydrogen-powered cars Add to ...

The New York City area now has a hydrogen production and fuelling station powered by a wind turbine.

It’s out on Long Island just down the road from where the New York Islanders play hockey in a half-filled arena. Hydrogen fuel cell cars have a brighter future than the hockey team, so maybe this is a step in the right direction.

Yes, they’re decades later than expected, but hydrogen fuel cell cars are coming.

A number of major auto makers expect to commercialize the technology in their vehicles by 2015. I’ve driven some and they’re great. What’s missing is an inexpensive and carbon-neutral way to produce abundant hydrogen.

That’s where the 100 kW wind turbine being constructed in Hempstead, N.Y., comes in. The turbine can generate up to 180 megawatts of electricity per year, which will be used to produce hydrogen through the electrolysis of water. Think of hydrogen as a way to store electricity in a far more efficient way than using batteries.

We all know there are serious limitations to the driving range you can ever expect from batteries, and that’s in light-weight automobiles. In heavy trucks and inter-city buses, the range limitations are crippling. Hydrogen fuel cells provide zero-emission driving over long distances with short refuelling times.

The German government is subsidizing the construction of 20 hydrogen filling stations strategically placed across the country. Given that the range of fuel cell cars on a three-minute hydrogen fill up is nearly 400 kilometres, this will enable “emission-free” driving anywhere in the country. They want 1,000 hydrogen stations in 10 years.

Last year, I drove a Mercedes Hydrogen Fuel Cell car about 800 km across Northern China as part of the company’s Around the World F Cell demo. Hyundai just completed a drive from San Francisco to New York in a Tucson Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle. In each case, the car company had to transport its own hydrogen the whole length of the trip. That’s why it’s good to see communities like Hempstead trying to get ahead of the curve in recognizing the need for a hydrogen fuelling infrastructure.

It’s an expensive undertaking. The wind turbine cost $615,000 (U.S.), paid for by a U.S. Department of Energy grant. The hydrogen and natural gas fuelling station that it stands beside cost $2.2 million to construct. There have also been a small number of solar-powered hydrogen fuelling stations built in the United States over the past couple years, but they’ve been severely hindered by high costs and low demand.

Will wind power work as a primary energy source for producing hydrogen? Germany is serious about finding out and is scheduled to begin constructing test facilities soon.

I’ve always wondered why the big nuclear plants at Pickering and Darlington don’t use the excess power generated at night for electrolysis and produce enough hydrogen to run the GO trains that park nearby. Yes, I know it would be a big gamble and we’d have to develop new technology.

But if Hempstead, N.Y., can innovate, why can’t we?

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