A third state-backed hydrogen H2 refuelling station will open in New Haven, Connecticut, as early as late next year, states Hartford Business Journal, the business information company.

Connecticut already has two commercial refuelling stations publicly available for H2 cars, including one at the newly constructed Pride Travel Centre on Jennings Road in Hartford and another in Wallingford on the campus o fH2 generator manufacturer Proton OnSite.

In an article published by the Hartford Business Journal, industry observers say it’s not a question of whether the cars will eventually proliferate on Connecticut roads, but at what pace.

Rob Klee, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), which recently awarded an $840,000 grant to New York-based Standard Hydrogen Corp., to develop the New Haven facility, said, ”This transition to zero-emission vehicles needs to have a diversity of options.”

DEEP has also incentivised H2-car purchases with the highest $5,000 rebate under its CHEAPR programme, which has been a key driver of electric-vehicle adoption in the state.

“I think we will see a very rapid ramp-up once the vehicles and the refuelling infrastructure is here,” said Joel Rinebold, Chairman of the Connecticut Hydrogen-Fuel Cell Coalition and Energy Director at the Connecticut Centre for Advanced Technology in East Hartford. 

Rinebold said he believes H2-car adoption will outpace that of electric cars in their earliest years. However, challenges still remain. Perhaps the biggest: No New England auto showrooms, including in Connecticut, currently sell H2 vehicles. That means H2-fuelling station developers are taking a ‘build it and they will come’ approach, which the Hartford Business Journal believes poses risk.

Another issue is that a handful of H2 stations, while helpful, may not be enough to spur greater consumer demand, as H2 cars typically get less mileage out of a fill-up than gasoline cars (the Mirai can go about 300 miles on a full tank). In addition, unlike electric cars, H2 vehicles can’t be refilled at home, which makes H2 fuelling stations all the more important.

Edmond Young, who works in H2 fuel infrastructure for Toyota, said the Japanese automaker is excited about Connecticut’s recent growth in facilities and would like to bring the Mirai to the state.

“We’d look to do so when there is an appropriate network of [fuelling] sites,” Young said.

That would include, he said, “At least” a second station in Hartford, as station clusters are important to H2-car users.

Rinebold said government or corporate purchases of H2-car fleets will likely be a key piece of the demand puzzle. An early wave of fleet sales could spur enough demand to attract more investment in building out stations, and also familiarise drivers with the vehicles.

Rinebold and CCAT are also mapping out manufacturing facilities that use a lot of H2 on-site and could therefore be a good location for placing a fuelling facility.

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Air Liquide’s Hartford station

The fill-up station/convenience store is the site of one of four newly completed H2 fuelling stations in the Northeast developed and operated by Tier One giant Air Liquide, which has a dozen planned.

Ole Hoefelmann, Americas Vice-President for the company’s advanced business and technologies unit, said the station, and others, are key to growing H2-car popularity in Connecticut.

“This is important for communities to give them choice, to help build the future on H2’s role in the energy transition,” said Hoefelmann, who works in California and drives a Mirai.

Though technically Air Liquide will be competing for business with Proton OnSite and the future New Haven facility, Hoefelmann is happy about the stations.

“In the early years, it’s about making sure you have enough stations, density and a reliable infrastructure for the market,” he said.

Air Liquide consulted with Toyota and other H2-vehicle automakers to determine the sites for its four Northeast facilities. While no H2 vehicles are being sold in the state yet, Hoefelmann seems comfortable with his company’s undisclosed long-term investment. He said the California experience has given him confidence that H2 vehicles can gain a broader mass appeal quicker than some may think.

“That puts positive pressure on the infrastructure builders,” he said. 

Steve Szymanski, Director of Business Development at Proton OnSite, which built it’s fuelling station in 2010 to test a small fleet of Toyota demonstration vehicles, said it’s still considerably rare that a H2 car comes through the station, which was upgraded to commercial standards last year with the help of a state grant.

He said he agrees that fleet purchases will be crucial to building demand, which is still very much in its infancy, even in California where the vast majority of cars exist.

“It’s one of the things that has been a little bit of a struggle for station operators in California,” he said. “The cars are getting to market but [sales have been] slower than everybody had hoped.”

If there aren’t enough cars, he added, fuelling station owners will struggle to make a return on their investments.

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Electric-car experience

Electric cars continue to proliferate on Connecticut roadways, ramping up since 2011, though there remains some doubt about whether Connecticut will hit a goal of getting 125,000 electric vehicles registered by 2025.

There were 7,973 electric-battery/hybrid vehicles registered in the state as of Sept. 2018, state records show. While the current adoption pace may not cut it, Klee noted that sales have accelerated over the past year. For example, a year ago there were under 5,600 electric cars in the state.

Auto dealers have largely embraced electric vehicles, though they’ve battled (successfully) in the legislature for the past four years with Tesla over the California clean-car maker’s attempt to sell its vehicles directly to consumers, which is currently outlawed.

James Fleming, President of the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association, said he believes H2 cars are the future. His dealership members want to sell fuel cell vehicles as soon as manufacturers are prepared to send them here. Even though Connecticut has just two fuelling facilities, it’s still more than most other states, he noted.

“So three, four or five [stations] might be enough to get manufacturers to introduce them,” Fleming said. “I’m very hopeful, because we have some infrastructure, and if we can add more, we’ll see these vehicles introduced.”