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PHOTO CAPTION: Toyota Mirai FCV being assembled in Japan; technician moves fuel cell system under vehicles on assembly line.

Toyota Goal: Affordable Fuel Cell Car Within a Decade

The first Toyota Mirai fuel cell cars will go on sale in Hawaii in late 2016, but will they be affordable and where will the hydrogen gas come from to fuel them?

Published: 13-Mar-2015

There are no oil wells on Hawai'i. Every drop of gasoline, diesel fuel, Jet8, and kerosene has to be brought in by ship, so finding another way to power the cars, trucks, buses, boats, and aircraft that are the transportation network of the islands, would be a huge step forward in making the 50th state more energy resilient.

One option now being actively studied are hydrogen-powered cars, including Toyota's new Mira (Japanese for 'future') fuel cell sedan, which will be the first production FCEV to be available for sale in the consumer market. All other manufacturer models from Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz can only be leased.

The Mirai currently carries a sticker price of $57,900 before any state and federal incentives. When it goes on sale in California late in 2015, applicable tax credits and subsidies will slash as much as $13,000 off the cost of the car, making it competitive with BMW's i3; the big difference being range: the i3 is rated by the US EPA at 81 miles per charge or the gasoline equivalent of 124 mpg. In contrast and using Japan's JC08 test cycle, Toyota claims the Mirai will have a driving range of up to 650 km (402 mi). Expect the US EPA rating to be somewhat less, more likely in the 300 miles range, or comparable to many gasoline engine automobiles. Refueling time would also be similar: around 3 minutes, instead of 3 hours or more on the i3.

But $57,900US is still outside the financial comfort zone of most middle class Americans, where anything above $30K can be a budgetary burden. That's why Toyota executives are reportedly pressuring fuel cell program manager, Katsuhiko Hirose, into finding ways to dramatically cut the cost of the system. Hirose goal is to make fuel cells competitive in cost with diesel models, which typically carry a $3-5,000 price premium over gasoline models, which he thinks can be achieved inside of 15 years. The 'suits' however want him to do it in half that time.

Creating a more affordable fuel cell automobile won't necessarily help the folks in Hawai'i. Most hydrogen is currently made by steam 'reforming' natural gas (methane or CH4). The steam helps strip off the carbon from the hydrogen, but getting natural gas to the islands is even more problematic than importing gasoline and diesel fuel.

That's why, according to Pacific Business News the US federal government is studying the feasibility of funding the construction of a combination parking garage and hydrogen refueling station using solar energy from panels mounted on the garage roof. Writes PBN, the proposed project would be on a "1.4-acre site at Fort Armstrong on Ala Moana Boulevard, across from Restaurant Row, near Downtown Honolulu and near federal, state and city offices."

Presumably, the system would use electricity generated by photovoltaic panels on the rood, using electrolysis to 'crack' the oxygen-hydrogen bond of water and then compressing the gas. Another possible source could be local landfill methane that uses solar thermal energy from concentrating solar to steam reform the methane, like back in California.

Construction is slated to begin on the facility in the second quarter of 2016 and be operational by the fourth quarter of 2017.

General Motors has had a small number of its Equinox fuel cell SUVs operating on O'ahu for several years now as part of a long-term demonstration project.

Improving our energy resilience and cutting our carbon emissions is an important goal wherever you live, but getting there will take more than corporate cajoling and wishful thinking. The first Toyota Mirai hydrogen cars are slated to go on sale in Hawai'i in late 2016.

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