First Hydrogen Fueling Station Network in U.S. Now Stretches Across California

First Hydrogen Fueling Station Network in U.S. Now Stretches Across California

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Black & Veatch helped engineer, permit and construct the largest retail hydrogen fueling network in the world
Thursday, June 30, 2016 - 4:30pm

CAMPAIGN: Smart City/Smart Utility

CONTENT: Article

It’s the classic chicken-or-the-egg question. If attempting to revolutionize the auto industry, do you introduce the car or the supporting infrastructure first? For Joel Ewanick, the answer was obvious – get the infrastructure in place.

Ewanick, CEO of FirstElement Fuel Inc., is bringing hydrogen fueling stations to California under the consumer-facing brand True Zero to encourage mass adoption of the zero emission vehicle option. FirstElement Fuel selected Black & Veatch to engineer, permit and construct 19 hydrogen fueling stations across California. With 15 stations completed and 13 of those open for consumers, the project represents the largest retail hydrogen network in the world. It’s backed by grants from the California Energy Commission and by loans from Toyota and Honda.

“Since the early 1960s, hydrogen has been one of the ‘Holy Grails’ of the automotive industry,” Ewanick said. Now, he noted, major car manufactures are in the beginning stages of introducing the world’s next generation of vehicles powered by fuel cells.

“They came out and said this is a viable option for the future for the propulsion of cars, so what’s left? The infrastructure,” Ewanick said. “That’s where we came in.”

The brand name True Zero speaks to the benefit that fuel cell vehicles will achieve.

“True Zero symbolizes the ultimate goal – a vehicle fuel with zero pollution, zero use of fossil fuels and zero greenhouse gases in both its production and use,” explained Ewanick. “It’s about the drive toward zero emissions from well to wheels – toward zero impact on the environment from a motor vehicle.”

The True Zero stations are located at existing gas stations across Northern and Southern California. The stations represent a critical step in supporting greater adoption of hydrogen fuel cell technology for transportation purposes. Fuel cell cars use an electrochemical process with hydrogen to generate electricity and power an electric motor. When consumed in a fuel cell vehicle, the only byproduct is water vapor with zero harmful emissions.

“We’re creating a network that demonstrates the utility of these vehicles, that actually shows they can go 300 miles between fill-ups,” Ewanick said. “If you have a chain of these stations, you can drive from one end of California and back without any ‘range anxiety.’”

Putting Network Experience to Work

When it came to finding a partner to engineer and construct the network, it was not as simple as a Google search for “hydrogen fuel station builders.”

“Since no one had ever done this before,” Ewanick said, “we were looking for experts who had built analogous networks, whether it be telecommunications, cell towers or super charger networks for electric vehicles. It had to be somebody who understood this kind of construction and these types of applications that we were going to use. That’s where Black & Veatch came in.”

Black & Veatch adapted time-tested distributed infrastructure methodologies from its telecommunications deployment to support the project. Construction was managed by Overland Contracting Inc. (OCI), a wholly owned subsidiary of Black & Veatch. The team focused on development of processes and templates that maximized repeatable design and deployment, thereby allowing for rapid implementation across the state.

Maryline Daviaud Lewett, Business Development Manager for Black & Veatch’s Smart Integrated Infrastructure business, said the company’s background in coordinating multiple projects simultaneously made it a natural fit for taking on such a project.

“It’s somewhat like factory production,” Daviaud Lewett said. “We have design templates and processes that can take advantage of the similarities, yet at the same time, we design to the specific site locations.”

The process leads to uniformity of design from an operation perspective and results in lower overall costs. The company’s continual dealings in new technology made the hydrogen equipment a comfortable match.

“New technology is notorious for changes in design, so being able to understand that process, we’re able to manage the changes through the life cycle of the project,” she said.

Ewanick acknowledged that it takes passion to accept the challenges of pioneering such an extensive network of stations.

“There’s a lot of pride that comes from doing something that we believe will change the world,” he said.