The oil giant is one of the major players in hydrogen worldwide, but even it cannot make its operations work here.
Shell Hydrogen will immediately permanently close all seven pumping stations in California, the company confirmed this week. It will no longer operate light-duty hydrogen stations in the US, dealing another blow to the struggling hydrogen car market in the only state where the fuel is widely available at all.
The outlet Hydrogen insight the news first reported on Thursday. Until recently, Shell operated seven of the total 55 hydrogen fueling stations in California, according to the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership (H2FCP). That makes this a blow, but not apocalyptic news for the (small) hydrogen community.
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Automakers and gas giants alike have long promoted hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as an alternative to battery-electric vehicles. The technology shows promise for commercial trucking and heavy-duty applications, but the light-duty truck market has failed to materialize in the United States.
Unfortunately, the reason why Shell is closing up shop should give Toyota Mirai, Hyundai Nexo and Honda Clarity Fuel Cell owners – God bless them – even more cause for concern. In the letter announcing the closure, Andrew Beard, vice president of Shell Hydrogen, said they were closing it “due to hydrogen supply complications and other external market factors.” It’s not hard to see what Beard is referring to here.
The second-generation Mirai looks great. But unless you live in Southern California or the Bay Area, you can’t buy fuel for it.
A quick scan of H2FCP’s fantastic station map shows that a majority of Southern California’s hydrogen stations are offline or operating with limited hours. Hydrogen Insight reports that this shortage has been disrupting stations since August 13. During my one experience in a Mirai, the Uber driver behind the wheel noted that finding fuel had become even more of a nightmare, and that the situation has since worsened. . Each station has a slightly different message on H2FCP’s map, but this message from a hydrogen filling station in Iwatani captures the spirit of them all:
“Our main hydrogen supplier has experienced a disruption that will impact our access to hydrogen for the Hawaiian Gardens station. We currently do not have an ETA to return to normal service levels and will provide updates as we have more information. We We greatly appreciate your patience for the additional downtime this will cause.”
Some are also not available for repair, as many hydrogen stations suffer from serious reliability issues. Iwatani, a Japanese gas company that is one of the two biggest names in American hydrogen fueling stations, is currently suing the company that provided the core technology for its stations. In a lawsuit seen by Hydrogen Insight, Iwatini claims the supplier failed to test its equipment in a realistic commercial scenario, concealed defects and misled the company. In short: it’s a big mess.
The Honda FCX Clarity was the first production hydrogen fuel cell vehicle to reach the US, way back in 2008. A decade and a half later, most Americans are still unfamiliar with hydrogen cars.
All of this makes the future of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the United States even more uncertain. The technology is struggling to catch on because the stations and their fuel remain expensive. Although hydrogen car manufacturers usually include a large amount of free fuel with the purchase of a vehicle, once that runs out, consumers are left with eye-watering prices at gas stations that are often broken, out of fuel or filled with long lines. That’s why used hydrogen cars are so cheap, and why they’re still not a good deal.
However, few companies can argue this better than Shell, as the cheapest way to produce hydrogen involves a lot of natural gas. The proximity to the fossil fuel industry was supposed to make it cheaper and provide an incentive for a robust fuel infrastructure. However, that did not work out and one of the largest oil giants threw in the towel. If even a fossil giant like Shell can’t justify investing in the future of light hydrogen infrastructure, we’re not sure who can.