Hondas and Hydrogen

New York’s Republican governor, George Pataki, is really tall, and he towered over the compact Honda FCX fuel-cell car he was admiring. While the busy Pataki passed up the chance to take a ride in one of the two cars that had just been presented to the state, I didn"t.

© Honda

In my first chance ever to drive a hydrogen-powered car on the highway, I piloted the experimental Honda model from Albany to the headquarters of fuel-cell maker Plug Power in nearby Latham. It went like hell, zooming forward with only a mild mechanical whirr from the electric motor and compressor. Honda’s latest generation fuel-cell vehicle (based on the EVPlus battery car) uses the company’s own stack design, with a range of 190 miles and a top speed of 93 miles an hour. I swear I didn’t go any faster than 70. Can you imagine if I wrecked a kazillion-dollar experimental car because I was speeding?

California already has approximately 10 Honda fuel-cell cars, but this delivery (the state is leasing the vehicles at $500 a month for two years) was still a milestone. As a "very excited" Pataki put it, "This is the first cold-weather fuel-cell car used by a state. It is fueled by hydrogen, and the only emission is water. We’re taking two cars now, but soon all our vehicles will be zero emission and run on alternate fuels."

The choice of New York as fuel-cell pioneer is not coincidental. Pataki has been very environmentally friendly (especially for a Republican!) and 80 to 90 percent of New York’s own state vehicle purchases are alternate fuel (mostly natural gas). Honda works closely with Plug Power, and it wants to conduct cold-weather testing of its fuel cells (which are compromised by freezing water). These new cars will reportedly start in temperatures of four degrees Fahrenheit below zero, so they should be able to cope with New York winters.

And then there’s the little matter of refueling. Ben Knight, vice president of Honda R&D America, said in Latham that fuel cells suffer from the chicken-and-egg problem: "There’s no demand for cars and trucks with limited fueling options, and no one wants to create a fueling infrastructure unless there are fleets of vehicles." So a highlight of the day’s activities was the opening of a joint Honda/Plug Power Home Energy Station (HES II) at Plug’s 50,000-square-foot Latham headquarters. One of the FCX cars was refueled to great fanfare. (First the car was grounded, then a hose attached and locked in place. Actual refueling took about five minutes. Waste heat from the fuel cell helps warm Plug’s headquarters.)

© Honda

As it happens, Deborah Moss, who’s married to E’s publisher, Doug Moss, runs an early-stage company called Avalence (based in Milford, Connecticut) that’s in the running to produce a practical home-based hydrogen filler for fuel-cell cars. If you want to get technical about it, Avalence products are based on the electrolysis process, using a simple fluid electrolyte to produce hydrogen from water. Their selling point is that they can generate high-pressure hydrogen (up to 10,000 pounds per square inch) without a separate compressor.

Deb and Doug were on the visit to Albany with me. Deb was impressed that this second generation of Plug Power’s filler had half the "footprint" of the earlier model. She believes that the hydrogen infrastructure will grow through a "lighthouse" approach, with early adopters sending out a signal others will follow. She expects that applications built around depot-style refueling (i.e., car and truck fleets) will happen first, with the fully connected grid following afterwards. "It’s already starting to take hold," she says.

Doug was just impressed that fuel-cell cars are actually on the road. "Driving the Honda FCX was like taking the wheel of any other compact car, except there is no engine noise when I first started it," he said. "It would make a great companion to my Prius!"

Plug Power had originally sought to help create a market for $10,000 home-based fuel cells that could take customers off the grid, and it has partnered with General Electric in that endeavor. But because home fuel cells still generate electricity that costs more than grid power, President Roger Saillant said the company is currently concentrating on remote applications, providing back-up power for cell towers and backwoods homeowners.

I drove a Honda FCX in Japan when it was a very tentative prototype. "We were very excited because it was our first car," says Shiro Matsuo, a California-based Honda fuel-cell engineer. I drove that one about 500 yards, but Honda is so confident about the latest car it let me have the wheel for 20 miles. And I was very impressed. Infrastructure, range (we need 300 miles) and cost are still major problems, but the car itself is ready for prime time.