Hy­dro­gen holdup hin­ders Toy­ota

Fuel cell-pow­ered Mi­rai lacks fill-up spots on East Coast

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM -


Toy­ota, off to a slow start sell­ing its car of the fu­ture on one U.S. coast, is strug­gling even to get started on the other.

Hang-ups get­ting enough hy­dro­gen fu­el­ing sta­tions opened in Cal­i­for­nia have un­der­cut early sales of Toy­ota’s fuel cell ve­hi­cle called Mi­rai, the Ja­panese word for “fu­ture.” But states on the East Coast, in­clud­ing New York, Con­necti­cut and Mas­sachusetts, are still wait­ing for their first sta­tions to open at all.

The au­tomaker and part­ner Air Liq­uide had hoped to have a dozen ready on the East Coast this sum­mer. Now, they’re aim­ing for just three or four to be fin­ished by year’s end.

The time­line “changes all the time,” said Bob Oester­re­ich, di­rec­tor of the U.S. hy­dro­gen-en­ergy busi­ness at Air Liq­uide, which Toy­ota re­cruited to help build the sta­tions that need to be in place be­fore it can start sell­ing Mi­rai. “We’re deal­ing with govern­ment of­fi­cials and plan­ning boards and ev­ery­one’s got their own pri­or­i­ties, and some­times hy­dro­gen re­fu­el­ing sta­tions aren’t at the top of their list.”

The de­lays get­ting hy­dro­gen sta­tions opened are trou­bling for Toy­ota’s wa­ger on fuel cell ve­hi­cles over bat­tery­pow­ered cars. While sales of all zero-emis­sion au­tos are still in their in­fancy, Tesla, Gen­eral Mo­tors and Nis­san are mak­ing much faster head­way get­ting plug-ins into con­sumers’ garages. Public charg­ing points to re­plen­ish their bat­ter­ies also have taken off far more quickly.

Toy­ota sold 708 Mi­rai fuel cell sedans in the first half of the year in the U.S., with de­liv­er­ies lim­ited to select Cal­i­for­nia deal­er­ships. GM and Nis­san each sold 10 times as many Chevro­let Bolts and Nis­san Leafs, re­spec­tively. Tesla, which doesn’t re­port monthly sales, prob­a­bly de­liv­ered about 23,550 of its elec­tric ve­hi­cles in the U.S. in that same pe­riod, ac­cord­ing to an es­ti­mate by re­searcher Au­to­data Corp.

The leisurely pace of sales for Toy­ota is in part ex­plained

by the fact that only 28 re­tail fu­el­ing sta­tions op­er­ate in the lone state where Mi­rai is be­ing sold, ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Fuel Cell Part­ner­ship. The state’s pow­er­ful en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tor, the Cal­i­for­nia Air Re­sources Board, orig­i­nally es­ti­mated back in 2015 that 44 sta­tions would be open by the end of that year.

In­fra­struc­ture ef­forts in Cal­i­for­nia have been be­hind sched­ule de­spite the full back­ing of Gov. Jerry Brown and Air Re­sources Board Chair­man Mary Ni­chols, who bought one of the first Mi­rai sedans in late 2015. In ad­di­tion to help­ing co­or­di­nate hy­dro­gen ef­forts, the state has doled out grants to sup­port com­pa­nies spend­ing on fu­el­ing sta­tions.

Ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween sta­tion de­vel­op­ers and city plan­ners, plus co­or­di­na­tion with lo­cal util­i­ties and per­mit­ting is­sues, have be­dev­iled com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Air Liq­uide.

“The ex­pe­ri­ence on the West Coast so far makes it abun­dantly clear that in­fra­struc­ture is go­ing to be per­haps the largest hur­dle to hy­dro­gen,” said Eric Noble, pres­i­dent of The CarLab, an au­to­mo­tive con­sult­ing firm.

The East Coast is prov­ing even more chal­leng­ing, with hy­dro­gen back­ers hav­ing to jump through the same hoops with­out as much help from state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

“If you look at it com­pared to Cal­i­for­nia, the North­east is re­ally a leap of faith,” said An­drew Tem­ple, di­rec­tor of govern­ment af­fairs at Air Liq­uide’s U.S. unit. “If this doesn’t come to­gether all at the same time, we’re go­ing to take a pretty big hit.”

In June, a team of Washington lob­by­ists and of­fi­cials from Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Brown’s of­fice de­scended on state cap­i­tals across the North­east in the hopes of break­ing through log­jams and bu­reau­cratic de­lays, Oester­re­ich said.

A hur­dle is up­dat­ing fire codes to ac­com­mo­date hy­dro­gen gas that dis­si­pates in the air, rather than liq­uid gaso­line that would pool on the ground if a noz­zle leaked while a driver was fill­ing his or her tank.

Sta­tions in two cities — Prov­i­dence, R.I., and Hart­ford, Conn. — are un­der con­struc­tion, and the French in­dus­trial-gas giant still ex­pects a dozen to be built by next year, Oester­re­ich said.

Toy­ota has re­mained stead­fast in its fuel cell ve­hi­cle bet be­cause hy­dro­gen­pow­ered cars like Mi­rai have su­pe­rior driv­ing ranges and can be tanked up in three min­utes, rather than the hours it takes to charge bat­tery-elec­tric au­tos. The au­tomaker is plan­ning a 10-fold in­crease in global fuel cell sales to 30,000 a year in or shortly af­ter 2020. That’s the year the Ja­panese govern­ment, with Toy­ota’s help, plans to turn the Tokyo Olympics into a global show­case for fuel cell ve­hi­cles and the coun­try’s hy­dro­gen re­fu­el­ing sta­tions.

“This is the tran­si­tion tech­nol­ogy from gaso­line,” said Craig Scott, di­rec­tor of Toy­ota’s ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies group in the U.S. While fu­el­ing up at a hy­dro­gen sta­tion will feel a lot like your gas-sta­tion ex­pe­ri­ence to­day, he said it’ll take time. “You don’t get ev­ery­body on the first wave, es­pe­cially if you have some­thing out­side-ofthe-box. It lit­er­ally takes decades to move peo­ple.”

Bloomberg News

As­sem­bly line work­ers in­stall hy­dro­gen tanks in a Mi­rai fuel cell ve­hi­cle at the Toy­ota Mo­tomachi plant in Toy­ota City, Ja­pan, in this 2016 file photo.

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