GM Eyes Hawaii to Get Hydrogen Into Fuel Tanks

General Motors (s GM) and The Gas Company, a natural gas and propane provider in Hawaii, plan to work together on a project testing a new scheme for delivering hydrogen to fuel cell vehicles, the two companies announced on Tuesday.

As part of the project, the partners plan to deploy somewhere between five and 50 vehicles (including some of the 119 hydrogen-powered fuel cell Chevy Equinox models currently used in GM’s Project Driveway demo fleet), as well as 20-25 hydrogen fuel pumps on the island of Oahu. That’s hardly a blip on the radar compared to the ubiquity of gas stations, but it would represent a major uptick from the only 68 hydrogen fueling stations now operating throughout the U.S., according to the National Hydrogen Association.

TGC President and CEO Jeff Kissell said in a call with reporters today that the company expects installation of each hydrogen fuel pump at gas stations in this project to cost $300,000-$500,000, compared to “a couple million dollars” for hydrogen fueling pumps at gas stations on the continental U.S. in current projects.

Those lower costs will be possible, according to Kissell, because TGC plans to use its existing system for producing synthetic natural gas, and a proprietary process for separating out hydrogen — a byproduct of the SNG system. Hydrogen is already pumping through TGC’s pipelines at levels equivalent to 7,000 gallons per day, he said, and could be doubled without changing much of the infrastructure.

In Hawaii, GM and TGC said they won’t have to worry about vehicles driving out of state and not being able to refuel, given the boundary afforded by the ocean. “Most of us in Hawaii, about 80 percent, live on a place about 4-5 miles deep, 25 miles long,” said Kissell.

Charlie Freese, executive director of GM’s Global Fuel Cell Activities, said in today’s call that the automaker hopes to “find established fleet users as a start,” since they could rely more easily on centralized fueling infrastructure. Eventually, the companies hope to expand that user base. After the “early pilot stage,” Freese said TGC and GM will “make a call on how fast things will be ramped up.” The idea is for this pilot to pave the way to commercial deployment, he explained. “We’re not looking for it to end.”

Today’s announcement comes on the heels of Toyota (s TM) saying that it has cut the cost of building fuel-cell vehicles by 90 percent over the last several years, and with additional advances could sell its first hydrogen vehicle for $50,000 in 2015.

As Wired Autopia explained recently, price estimates for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have previously placed these cars in the range of six or seven figures. Freese declined to specify GM’s current price estimates for the vehicles, although he expects costs to drop over time as the automaker goes through learning cycles and ramps up volume.

Freese said fuel cell vehicle tech, “is now becoming commercially ready,” and is on track to be “commercialized in the 2015 timeframe….we can put them on the road.” By the second or third generation of commercial fuel cell vehicles, Freese believes they’ll cost about on par with other advanced vehicles.

High costs and lack of infrastructure have been among the stumbling blocks that seem to keep hydrogen fuel cell cars persistently a decade or more away from commercial viability. With this new partnership, GM and TGC see Hawaii’s controlled environment as a “safe place to perfect” a business model for their technology.

Image courtesy of General Motors

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