Fuel Cell car owners stuck in SF Bay Area after hydrogen explosion shutters refueling infrastructure

Over the weekend an explosion at the Air Products facility in Santa Clara CA damaged several trucks used for hydrogen delivery. Nobody was injured by the explosion and fire. But subsequently, hydrogen delivery has been suspended at all Fuel Cell EV refueling stations because Air Products has pulled all its hydrogen delivery vehicles off the street to ensure they’re safe.

According to a report by local TV station (KGO) some fuel cell car owners are reporting being inconvenienced. As a result they’re back to driving gasoline powered vehicles while waiting for the hydrogen infrastructure to be fixed.

The KGO article includes some misinformation – so what I want to do is step back and look at the situation.

The major problem is that hydrogen delivery to hydrogen fueling stations is highly centralized. I was not aware of this, but the situation demonstrates there is a single hydrogen source supplying hydrogen to all FCEV refueling stations in the SF Bay Area. That single source for hydrogen is therefore a point of vulnerability, because if that one production facility goes out of commission it affects the whole region.

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With other fuel types we do not have that single point of failure.

With electric cars that refuel through a charging station, electricity is ubiquitous and the electricity companies are required to maintain a highly reliable infrastructure. Yes there are electricity outages in certain circumstances, but those are usually brief and usually affect only a neighborhood at a time.

With gasoline or diesel cars, there are multiple oil refineries in the SF Bay Area and therefore if one is knocked out the others will be able to keep supplying that dirty stinky fuel. At the times an oil refinery goes down, there is a local price spike of course, but that will be short lived and the refinery usually comes back on line quickly.

With fuel cell vehicles this situation demonstrates that hydrogen production is (at this time) extremely limited, leaving fuel cell vehicle owners vulnerable to a region-wide outage.

Countering electric car misinformation

As I said the KGO article included some misinformation.

An SF Bay Area fuel cell vehicle owner is quoted saying: “Clearly, we could have a problem with filling it up I guess, but this is the first time I’ve encountered that and unlike with the electric cars, it doesn’t take you 10 hours or 3 hours, it takes you five, ten minutes.”

This woman is repeating propaganda that comes from the car companies selling fuel cell vehicles.

What is the refueling time for an electric vehicle? It depends on the charging rate. There is such a thing as a fast charger that refuels an electric vehicle in a half hour or so, and 5-10 minute recharging times is on the horizon. The longer recharge times, 10 hours (or more), means that someone is using a lower charging rate. Typically a low charging rate station is used only when you’re doing something else … e.g. at home you’ll be inside the house having family time, while the car is recharging overnight.

The key question about charging time is the impact on your time. Consider your cell phone – how long does it take to fully recharge the cell phone? Do you even know or care how long that takes? Usually you plug it in and walk away and a couple hours later you return to a fully charged phone.

It’s the same for the electric car. You arrive home, plug in, and it takes less than a minute of your time, and the next morning you’ll have a fully charged car without it having taken up 10 hours of your time.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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