Interview: Running the First US Retail Hydrogen Station Is An ‘Epic Effort’

In order for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to proliferate, infrastructure has to proliferate, and recently we spoke with one of the key people on the ground floor.

According to Michael Dray, technical operations manager for California State L.A. Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, progress has been made since Jan. 8 when the station became the nation’s first to start selling the gas by the kilogram, but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

“Challenging” is how he summarized the year thus far. Dray has been on site since May 2014, when the station first opened and began pumping initially only for automakers testing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs).

These include Audi, Honda, Hyundai, General Motors, Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen, but now its customers include private passenger cars.

The Difficulty Of Being First

“These stations are delicate” and “complicated,” said Dray. “Once in a while you’re going to get a hiccup, just like you get in your software on your personal computer.”

These “hiccups” have kept Dray – along with staff and students at Cal State – busy.

“At this station for the past year we’ve been debugging – fixing and reengineering. It’s labor-intensive,” he explained.

These problems aren’t exclusive to Dray’s location. Other hydrogen stations that have come online since the Cal State facility opened are working through similar scenarios.

Cal State L.A. Hydrogen Refueling Station. Source: Dr. David Blekhman California State University, Los Angeles.

The capabilities of the Cal State L.A. Hydrogen Refueling Station. Source: Dr. David Blekhman
California State University, Los Angeles.

“Sometimes folks get frustrated,” Dray said. “They go to one station and find it’s closed, they go to another one and it’s broke, too. You can spend a lot of time in L.A traffic going from one station to the other.”

While some of these issues might be able to be fixed remotely, Dray explained that many bugs need someone onsite to diagnose, and then to get the system back online. Until these issues are solved, the hands-on nature of hydrogen stations will prevent them from being open without supervision, like an after-hours gas station.

“I think everybody would like to see it getting faster, but at the same time, it’s challenging,” said Dray. “It’s really challenging. It’s an epic effort. We approach it that way, and we’ve got to just take it one day at a time.”

Making Forward Progress

In spite of the snags, Dray said headway has definitely been made at his hydrogen station. The process is still in the early stages, observed Dray, and drivers need to remember that.

“We’ve had probably 600 fuelings in the past year without fail,” Dray noted about the Cal State station.

Of that estimate, the station has collected zero revenue directly from customers. Even though it’s called a retail station, customers still aren’t pulling in to pay for a hydrogen fill-up. That’s because the lease-only FCVs currently available in California – the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell and Honda FCX Clarity include fuel with the lease, and the same will be true of the for-sale or lease Toyota Mirai in October.

Fueling events at the Cal State L.A. Hydrogen Refueling Facility. Source: Dr. David Blekhman California State University, Los Angeles.

Fueling events at the Cal State L.A. Hydrogen Refueling Facility. Source: Dr. David Blekhman
California State University, Los Angeles.

Transferring Knowledge To Other Stations

We asked Dray if his facility was sharing what it was learning with other stations around the country.

“Absolutely,” he replied. “We meet and discuss these issues. We’re still a relatively small community.”

SEE ALSO: Automakers Recommend Best Locations To Build Hydrogen Refueling Stations In California

Hydrogen refueling on a retail level is still such a new segment, that competition amongst stations isn’t a factor. Instead, according to Dray, government officials, station managers and other organizations are working together as a group to make the entire infrastructure successful.

One of the matters the group is working on is taking steps to duplicate the refueling process across retail stations. For example, Dray noted that there’s a “divergence” on how different stations will be accepting payments for fuel, with no standardized system in place.

What Lies Ahead

Several specific areas still need to be addressed to strengthen the retail station infrastructure, said Dray. One, of course, is that more FCVs need to be put on the roads.

“Right now most stations are underutilized. Our station, for example, is running at 15 percent capacity because there aren’t enough cars deployed yet,” he explained.

Troubleshooting problems will continue as station managers work to overcome reliability issues with the software and other components.

SEE ALSO: Surveys Say 77 Percent of Canadians Believe Hydrogen Has A Bright Future

And a solid workforce also needs to be built up. Dray listed a large range of personnel needed for the stations, beginning with engineers to design the facilities all the way through to trained managers to run them. Currently, Dray said there is even a shortage of contractors to get other retail facilities built.

But how long will it take before FCV owners know that every time they need fuel, they can fill up conveniently and reliably?

“That’s the big question,” answered Dray. “I can only answer it from my perspective on the ground. I think that there’s going to be forward progress. But I think it’s going to take longer than most folks would like to see.

“You’re talking about switching over automotive technology. It takes time. It takes money. It takes patience. Look how long it took to build the gas infrastructure.”

“I think [reliability] is going to be an issue for some time,” he said of what he described as a massive undertaking. “People need to understand now before they buy that this is cutting edge technology.”