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Can SunHydro's Network of Hydrogen Fueling Stations Succeed?


Fuel cell technology is the perpetual underdog to electric vehicle tech—almost every major automaker has an EV planned for the next few years, but fuel cell vehicles are largely being kept on the back burner just in case public interest suddenly heats up. SunHydro is betting that it will. The gutsy startup is building the first privately funded network of hydrogen fueling stations, starting with a nearly $2 million station in Wallingford, Connecticut this summer. SunHydro plans to capture excess hydrogen for use at the station from nearby Proton Energy Systems.

The station will largely be used by the city of Hartford, which runs a few fuel cell-powered buses. "Initially there won't be a line down the street," explained Tom Sullivan, CEO of SunHydro. "The point is to get more exposure for hydrogen, and say that it's practical."

But is it practical? Both EVs and fuel cell vehicles can be powered by dirty and clean sources of power, depending on what method is used to produce electricity and hydrogen. But carmakers won't have fuel cell vehicles on the road until 2015, while plug-in hybrids and electric cars have already been released. Much-heralded companies like Coulomb Technologies and Better Place are hard at work on building out an EV charging infrastructure, and Volkswagen recently went so far as to hire a Chief Officer for Electric Traction just to make sure the transition to hybrids and EVs is going smoothly. Nevertheless, Sullivan is confident that hydrogen power will win out.

"Hydrogen gives you more performance, and you can pull up [to a hydrogen fueling station] and be gone in 3 minutes," Sullivan said. It's true that hydrogen fueling stations offer an experience comparable to regular gas stations, but there have to be enough hydrogen stations to make an infrastructure. Not a problem, says Michael Grey, the president of SunHydro. "Most of the development for hydrogen is happening in California, but SunHydro has taken the initiative to start development on the East Coast. [Automakers] have so many of these vehicles in production now but have no place to put them here," he said.

Eventually, SunHydro envisions a network of fueling stations where customers can swipe a credit card, pay $3.50 to $4.00 per kilogram, load up with hydrogen on the quick, and speed away. It's an ambitious goal. SunHydro has nine stations planned for the next two years, and the company hopes to have many more built soon after that. "People in the EV world want to demonize this," Sullivan said. "But it's not as complicated as they say."

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