In Southern California, Hyundai is already leasing its Tucson fuel cell–powered electric SUV, which can go at least 265 miles on a tank of hydrogen. Meanwhile, futuristic hydrogen-powered sedans from Honda and Toyota with 300-mile ranges are set to hit California showrooms next year.

Fuel cells use an electrochemical process in which compressed hydrogen gas is converted into electricity to power a motor that drives the car. Most battery-powered electric cars on the market can only go about 75 miles to 100 miles on a charge.

The big question: Where are you going to find a hydrogen fueling station?

Just nine commercial hydrogen stations are operating in California. The state has forked over nearly $50 million for the construction of 28 more stations by November 2015 (in addition to 17 already under development). But if hydrogen cars are to go mainstream and replace carbon-belching, fossil fuel–powered vehicles, drivers will want the convenience of filling up at a corner gas station.

They might be able to do just that, according to a new study from Sandia National Laboratories that finds it’s easier and cheaper to retrofit existing gas stations to also dispense hydrogen than build stations from scratch. A stand-alone hydrogen fueling station can cost about $1.5 million, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a coalition of automakers, technology companies, and government policy makers.

“In general, existing fueling stations have the advantage of providing existing infrastructure that is common to both gasoline,diesel, and hydrogen,” said Daniel Dedrick, Sandia’s manager of hydrogen and combustion technologies.

Dedrick and his colleagues found that thanks to more stringent building codes that have been implemented in recent years, 20 percent of the 70 existing gas stations in California they studied would comply with state law if they dispensed hydrogen, which is highly flammable and subject to strict regulations. Another 17 could add a hydrogen pump with some modifications.

In 2005, none would have qualified, according to the study.

Given fuel cell cars’ range of 300 miles or more, hydrogen stations don’t need to be as ubiquitous as gas stations to jump-start the market for fuel cell cars. A 2012 report from the California Fuel Cell Partnership found that just 68 hydrogen fueling stations would get the market going, while 100 stations would support 53,000 hydrogen-fueled cars.
That should encourage gas station owners to go green.

“If you can adequately get the vehicle market to grow, there is a business there,” Dedrick said. “Because hydrogen vehicles are so efficient, the pathway to commercial viability only requires the vehicles to be on the road and drivers to recommend them to their friends.”

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