Could hydrogen work in Hawaii?


The search for alternatives to conventional combustion engines in the auto industry has for years included hydrogen, and according to a group of large multi-national companies the energy resource could supply almost a fifth of the world’s global energy by 2050.

Hydrogen, which is the most abundant element on earth, could become an important part of the world’s future energy mix and power everything from cars to factories, according to the Hydrogen Council, which includes companies such as Shell, Toyota, BMW and General Motors.

Bloomberg reported Monday that the council estimates that hydrogen, which can be extracted from water using renewable energy sources, could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 6 gigatons a year, which is more than the 5.5 gigatons released by the United States in 2016.

Hawaii-based car dealership Servco Pacific Inc. in August broke ground on the state’s first publicly publicly accessible hydrogen station. Once the station is complete, Japanese car manufacturer Toyota will offer its hydrogen fuel-cell model, the Toyota Mirai, for lease in the state. The only other U.S. state where residents will have this opportunity is California.

Once the station is complete, Japanese car manufacturer Toyota will offer its hydrogen fuel-cell model, the Toyota Mirai, for lease in the state. File Photo: This is a hydrogen fuel filler on a Toyota Mirai.
Mark Anderson | Sacramento Business Journal

Due to Hawaii’s push toward a renewable energy future, hydrogen has the potential of taking on a significant role in the equation. However, according to the report, most commercial hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas, which a fossil fuel. And as Hawaii Gas pointed out, producing hydrogen in a renewable manner is currently not cost-effective.

“To get to renewable sources of hydrogen today, the most common approach is electrolysis, breaking H2O into the hydrogen and the oxygen,” Joseph J. Boivin Jr, Hawaii Gas’ senior vice president of business and corporate affairs, told Pacific Business News. “That’s done using an electrolyser, which runs by fueling it with electricity – renewable electricity, and renewable electricity from the gird to do that is quite expensive, which means your hydrogen would be quite expensive.”

The state’s only regulated gas utility has been involved with hydrogen for almost a decade. In 2010, the company partnered with GM and had 16 fuel-cell vehicles on the island. It even dedicated part of its facility on Kamakee Street as a hydrogen fueling center. But the challenge has always been, “how does someone produce a low cost renewable source of hydrogen?” Boivin Jr. said.

In 2010, Hawaii Gas partnered with GM and had 16 fuel-cell vehicles on the island. File photo: Cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells refuel at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
Courtesy Mitch Ewan

Other challenges that have kept the technology from really catching on include questions regarding compression and storage, as well as building a hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

Despite those challenges, the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association expects hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to play an important role in Hawaii’s transportation future.

As renewable hydrogen costs decline, energy producers, such as Hawaiian Electric, will be able to convert excess energy – produced by renewable recourses such as wind and solar – into hydrogen. “Hydrogen is thus part of the renewable energy storage equation that allows excess renewable energy to create hydrogen that can be stored for later use,” Dave Rolf, executive director at HADA, told PBN in an email.

“With this said, however, a lot of infrastructure has to be built before a ubiquitous hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle scenario is the case in Hawaii. … For non-subsidized entrepreneurs, this creates the chicken and the egg question—trying to balance the costs of hydrogen infrastructure build out with the projected revenues from hydrogen usage.”

Dave Rolf, executive director of the Hawaii Automobile Dealers’ Association
Tina Yuen

The reason for the increased investment in hydrogen from fossil-fuel produces such as Shell and Total, which are part of the Hydrogen Council, has to do with ever tightening environmental regulations around the world, Bloomberg reported.

“I think we’ll see how hydrogen plays out, but that is the other form of gaseous energy that could be Hawaii Gas’ future one day,” Boivin Jr. said.

HJ Mai