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Sunita Satyapal (DOE): “The challenge hydrogen stations face is to transition hydrogen to a retail fuel”

Sunita Satyapal is the Director of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) at the U.S. Department of Energy where she has been working for 14 years. She started working at United Technologies Corporation (UTC) in the mid-1990s and was attracted by the high efficiencies and zero pollution made possible by using fuel cells, as well as the fact that hydrogen can be produced by diverse domestic resources.

Sunita Satyapal, Director of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) at the U.S. Department of Energy

Can you tell us about the H2@scale initiative?

The “H2@Scale” concept, developed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Laboratories, lays a framework for the potential wide-scale production and utilization of hydrogen. It addresses key issues such as enabling grid resiliency, energy security, and cross-sectoral efficiency improvements, as well as emissions reductions.

Due to the increasing utilization of wind and solar power, known to be intermittent, the electricity grid is faced with growing security and balancing needs. Water splitting technologies can be used to generate hydrogen as an energy carrier while supporting grid needs. That hydrogen can then be distributed and used as a feedstock or fuel in transportation, industrial and even stationary power sectors. This integrates these sectors more closely with the electricity grid, and reduces reliance on conventional fuels in end use applications across multiple markets.

“Because a fuel cell is more than twice as efficient as an internal combustion engine, a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) travels farther on a tank of hydrogen than a traditional car would on a tank of gasoline”

Basically, hydrogen allows you to couple and decouple the above sectors from power generation in unique ways and serves as an enabler of multiple technologies, including, for instance, carbon to liquid fuels.

cH2ange readers sometimes ask why should we focus on fuel cell development when we have electric batteries. What is your answer?

A diverse portfolio of technologies will be required to meet the full range of vehicle types, driving and duty cycles in the vehicle fleet. Fuel cells can play a central role, enabling longer driving ranges and heavier duty cycles for larger vehicles for example, where the weight and cost of batteries alone are prohibitive.

“It’s not a question of one or the other - both FCEVs and pure battery electric vehicles are essential”

Because a fuel cell is more than twice as efficient as an internal combustion engine, a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) travels farther on a tank of hydrogen than a traditional car would on a tank of gasoline. This means you only need about half the amount of hydrogen, with double the fuel economy. In addition, FCEVs can be refueled in minutes, similar to gasoline vehicles and do not need to be plugged in.

However, it’s not a question of one or the other - both FCEVs and pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are essential. In addition, advanced combustion using liquid fuels, plug-in hybrids, and vehicle lightweighting, are all examples within the portfolio of technologies to enable energy security.

“Hydrogen and fuel cells can provide benefits and address challenges in virtually all energy sectors and in a broad range of applications”

Besides fuel cell individual vehicles, what do you think are the best uses for the fuel cell technology?

Hydrogen and fuel cells can provide benefits and address challenges in virtually all energy sectors — commercial, residential, industrial, and transportation — and in a broad range of applications. These include distributed energy and combined-heat-and power systems; emergency and backup power systems; portable electronic devices; vehicles such as forklifts and airport ground support equipment; and auxiliary power or even primary power in recent demonstrations for trucks, aircraft, rail, and ships.

“I was raised in New York City and always tell the story about the blackout when the only building that had power was the police station near Central Park because it had a fuel cell prototype”

Because fuel cells can be grid-independent and offer high reliability, they are an attractive option for critical load applications such as data centers, telecommunications towers, hospitals, emergency response systems, and national defense and homeland security applications.

I was raised in New York City and always tell the story about the blackout when the only building that had power was the police station near Central Park because it had a fuel cell prototype. The new World Trade Center will also have fuel cells for reliable power. If cost can be reduced, fuel cells can be used in numerous applications.

Last year at the Fuel Choices Summit, you underlined the consistent 30% annual growth of fuel cell systems since 2010. How do you think this figure will evolve in the coming years?

It’s challenging to predict market growth but the fact that the number of fuel cell systems shipped worldwide has grown consistently by roughly 30% since 2010, demonstrates that both manufacturers and customers are committed to change. Early adopters and niche markets can often pave the way in establishing new technologies. For example, our Office cost-shared the demonstration of early fuel cell forklifts and backup power units with the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and we are now tracking over 20,000 systems deployed or on order for these applications, without any additional DOE funding.

“This is a pivotal time for hydrogen and fuel cells”

The DOE-funded early stage R&D ultimately enabled the commercialization of fuel cell systems by the industry. This is a pivotal time for hydrogen and fuel cells. Though commercial FCEVs were just introduced, we’ve seen exponential growth with two thousand sold or leased through May 2017. Based on state surveys of automakers’ plans, there will be more than 14,000 fuel cell cars by 2019 and nearly 44,000 by 2022.

FCEVs work today. What keeps customers from using them in larger volumes?

Fuel cell and hydrogen tanks costs are still high, and the manufacturing and supply chain is very limited. In addition, a robust, cost-competitive hydrogen refueling infrastructure must be developed, based on technologies to safely and efficiently produce, deliver, and store hydrogen at a competitive cost and at volume (compressors, liquefiers, pipeline materials…). Success will also depend on factors such as user confidence and societal awareness, ease of financing and station rollout, codes and standards such as those to reduce the footprint of stations and improve siting options, and education of stakeholders such as those involved in issues like the use of FCEVs in tunnels.

“Demand will help drive the development of larger stations, enable the infrastructure and reduce the cost for FCEV uses”

If we can increase demand for hydrogen through higher volume applications such as buses, trucks and H2@Scale related applications, that demand will help drive the development of larger stations, enable the infrastructure and reduce the cost for FCEV uses.

The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell. Credits: Honda.

What lessons can we learn from California’s commitment to accommodate FCEVs?

California serves as one of the world’s leading demonstration sites for hydrogen infrastructure rollout, based on state and industry cost-shared funding. With 30 public retail stations and plans for 100, California offers numerous lessons learned and best practices. Examples include siting, permitting, commissioning as well as information about technology performance. From the DOE perspective, we have thousands of data points on technology performance — whether it’s the stations or vehicles — which helps feed back into our early stage R&D.

How important is the development of infrastructure in enabling a massive adoption of this technology by the customers?

I certainly agree that infrastructure is a key challenge. Government-funded programs worldwide, including those through the DOE, ramped up their efforts in the past decade, injecting vital funds and encouraging initiatives to accelerate commercialization and bridge the gaps in research and development.

While the DOE does not financially support the development of individual hydrogen stations, we are focused on funding R&D of hydrogen infrastructure components and the supply chain to enable market success.

“This technology can use diverse domestic resources and enable energy security and resiliency across multiple sectors”

For example, the Program is pursuing R&D and leveraging public-private collaborations to address technical challenges; develop safety resources and tools to aid in station planning, siting, and commissioning; achieve cost-reductions through manufacturing economies of scale; grow and develop the supply-chain for manufacturing components and systems; and improve institutional processes and the communication of best practices and lessons learned.

An Air Liquide hydrogen station in Anaheim, California.

What do you think are the biggest challenges ahead in developing these infrastructures?

The challenge hydrogen stations face is to be able to transition hydrogen to a retail fuel.

“This is an exciting time in the history of hydrogen and fuel cells”

While the industrial sector is already familiar with hydrogen it is a new commodity for retail markets. Key challenges are cost and reliability of the technologies as well as having a competitive supply chain. We still need to reduce the cost of hydrogen production, delivery, storage and dispensing. Industry will also need to enable codes and standards and facilitate issues such as permitting, siting and expedited station rollout.

Can some of the existing pipelines realistically be used to transport hydrogen?

Transmission by pipeline is a low cost way to deliver large amounts of low pressurized hydrogen gas. Several lines have been built in the U.S., specifically near large petroleum refineries and chemical plants in Illinois, California, and along the Gulf Coast. However, in comparison with the more than 300,000 miles of natural gas pipelines, the current hydrogen pipeline infrastructure in the U.S. is very small, at roughly 1,600 miles. One would have to look at the existing pipeline material to determine whether it can be used and ensure there are no embrittlement issues.

How important is the location of hydrogen production?

The location and method of hydrogen production affects the cost of delivery. Distributed production at the point of use, such as directly at refueling stations or stationary power sites, eliminates the transportation costs for the delivery. On the other hand, production in large central plants requires long-distance transport that increases delivery costs. However, central production also results in lower costs due to greater economies of scale. Also, high pressure production methods can reduce the costs associated with compression but may increase costs. Due to these tradeoffs it is important that production and delivery pathways are analyzed together.

In conclusion, how do you feel about the future of hydrogen?

This is an exciting time in the history of hydrogen and fuel cells. The entire DOE fuel cell program started in the mid-1970s during the first oil embargo when stakeholders met at Los Alamos National Lab.

“Now, forty years later we have the world’s first commercial fuel cell cars on the roads”

General Motors relocated their fuel cell group to Los Alamos and eventually national lab researchers made breakthroughs in fuel cell electrodes. Now, forty years later we have the world’s first commercial fuel cell cars on the roads. This technology can use diverse domestic resources and enable energy security and resiliency across multiple sectors.