Another fuel-cell outage hampers Bay Area fuel-cell drivers

Yet another hydrogen shortage has befallen Bay Area drivers of fuel-cell vehicles—and this one has been attributed to a hurricane.

Yes, we know hurricane season is over, and hurricanes don’t reach California. This only serves to underscore the absurd state of the hydrogen distribution network, which is dependent on trucking liquid hydrogen across the country so that drivers there can run their vehicles without tailpipe emissions. 

Outlets in California appear to be buying the hydrogen from Air Products, which produces it in Louisiana and Texas, primarily for use by petroleum refineries. According to Air Products, Hurricane Zeta damaged the electrical supply to an important liquid hydrogen supply facility back when it made landfall October 28.

True Zero hydrogen fueling station

True Zero hydrogen fueling station

The California supply disruption last year, which stretched from June to September, was also related to an Air Products issue—that time, an explosion on a hydrogen distribution trailer in a private facility.

Air Products must have had enough of a buffer built up, because it didn’t put out an alert about the damage until November 18. On December 2—about the time reports of an outage first reached Green Car Reports’ desk—the company said that “the temporary impacts of this event may be more noticeable in Northern California,” anticipating the facility to be back “onstream” by December 7.

As of December 17, that facility was finally back producing hydrogen. “We anticipate gradually increasing supply levels at most Northern California fueling stations over the next few days and expect supply levels to resume to normal by December 23,” said Air Products, in a statement. “Until then, we continue to recommend that drivers check on the status of their selected fueling station prior to departing to fuel.”

True Zero hydrogen fueling pump, run by First Element Fuels, opened in Thousand Oaks, CA, Mar 2018

True Zero hydrogen fueling pump, run by First Element Fuels, opened in Thousand Oaks, CA, Mar 2018

The Air Products interruption has again affected a number of First Element stations (branded True Zero) in the Bay Area. Some Shell hydrogen stations remained out of supply, too, and it’s unclear whether the outages are related. 

American Honda’s Chris Martin told Green Car Reports that some owners have used the rental vehicle days that are included with their Clarity Fuel Cell leases, although COVID lockdowns have reduced the impact of this outage. 

“Others have found alternative stations that are not affected by the shortage,” he explained.

2020 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

2020 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

In the previous outage both Toyota and Hyundai were also offering consumer remedies including rentals and in some cases early lease termination.

California Fuel Cell Partnership spokesperson Keith Malone reminded Green Car Reports that the newer stations that are opening have at least six times the hydrogen capacity of stations that opened in the 2014-2016 period. 

“Not only are they larger, but the price has dropped about 25%,” he said. “As such, these kinds of supply and distribution issues will fade into the background over time.”

With hydrogen from a proposed plant in Lancaster, California, aiming to produce cost-competitive green hydrogen from renewable energy by 2023, the days of hurricanes affecting hydrogen supply might soon be over, but trucking it around looks like a continued part of the plan. 

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