Ithaca, N.Y. — Ithaca may see its first hydrogen fuel station by the end of this year as demand grows across the country for vehicles that run on the alternative energy source.
The Standard Hydrogen Corporation, founded by Ithaca resident Paul Mutolo, is currently working on getting state support to fund a hydrogen station next to the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit facilities on Willow Street.
Demand for filling stations, Mutolo says, is likely to grow with the release of Toyota’s first commercially available fuel cell vehicle in the third quarter of 2015.
“Ithaca is a great place to start something like this because the community already gets it,” Mutolo said. “The community already sees a need for transportation beyond gasoline.”
The Standard Hydrogen Corporation hopes to tap into Ithaca residents’ interest in alternative energy sources, as well as provide fuel for the hydrogen-powered bus that TCAT is slated to add to its fleet in November as a result of a federal grant.
While the presence of hydrogen stations is on the rise in California, if built, the Standard Hydrogen station in Ithaca would be one of only a few across New York State.
How do these vehicles work?
Hydrogen-powered vehicles rely on a chemical reaction from mixing hydrogen gas and air drawn in from the vehicle’s front intake grill to generate electricity, which then powers the car. The only byproduct of this process is water, which leaves the car through the tailpipe clean and unpolluted.
Hydrogen, which is the most abundant chemical substance in the universe, can be obtained from substances it is present in, such as methane and water. Obtaining hydrogen from fossil fuels creates a high amount of carbon dioxide emissions.
Mutolo said his company plans to obtain its supply of hydrogen from water in a process called electrolysis, which can use freshwater or saltwater and even wastewater. Standard Hydrogen will use renewable energy sources to power the electrolysis process, Mutolo said.
A hydrogen powered car can travel about 300 miles on one tank of hydrogen before needing a refill, which takes a few minutes. Currently, Mutolo said, competing with cheap fossil fuels is difficult, and he would expect one refill to cost about $60.
Are there drawbacks?
In 2010, two hydrogen tanks at the Monroe County Green Fuel Station in Rochester exploded, resulting in two injuries. The incident prompted the Rochester Airport to temporarily shut down.
Mutolo said that, like any fuel, it needs to be handled and stored carefully. However, he said unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen gas is not toxic and wouldn’t cause environmental damage in the event of a gas leak.
He said accidents involving prototypes by General Motors, Toyota and others have not produced any vehicle fires, and the equipment in the cars that holds the gas is very secure.
The technology needed to produce and store the fuel is very expensive, according to Consumer Reports. The gas needs to be stored under high-pressure and is expensive to transport. The lack of infrastructure makes the process more difficult, but Mutolo is hoping to create more infrastructure, starting with the station in Ithaca.
The story of Standard Hydrogen
Standard Hydrogen has been working since 2012 to make an Ithaca station possible.
Mutolo said rather than just building a station and waiting for cars to come fuel up, his company is working collaboratively with organizations and individuals to bring more hydrogen powered cars to Ithaca to better establish a market for the fuel.
The City, Cornell University and Ithaca Carshare are some organizations who have expressed interest in adding hydrogen vehicles to their fleets, he said.
The biggest roadblock in the way of creating the station, Mutolo said, is obtaining support for the project. He said private investors are reluctant to offer funding until the state has committed to helping, and so far the state has not been forthcoming.
“There’s been a number of years of overhype in the fuel cell industry generally,” Mutolo said.
“We sort of let the hype get out of control a little bit, set expectations way too high, a lot of investment went into these companies from agencies like New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and without anything to show for yet, and this is 10 or 15 years down the line now. So it’s understandable that there’s some gun-shyness there.”
‘We are following their lead’
However, now that automobile companies have overcome technical obstacles around vehicle models and are deploying them, Mutolo said now is the time to start building out the necessary infrastructure to support these vehicles.
“Toyota is very bullish on this technology — they really see the future in hydrogen, and not in batteries anymore,” Mutolo said. “We are following their lead.”
He said hydrogen cars, with a longer range than electric battery vehicles, allowing Americans to drive cleaner without changing their habits.
If the Standard Hydrogen Corporation doesn’t gain support by early June, Mutolo said the hydrogen fuel cell bus may not be given to TCAT. This will be the company’s last shot at making it happen, he said.
On April 29, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new Initiative, called “76 West,” that will dedicate $20 million to encourage the development of clean energy businesses and jobs in the Southern Tier.
Tom Schryver, executive director for the Center for Regional Economic Advancement at Cornell, said Standard Hydrogen could be part of a new vanguard for clean energy tech in the region, bringing in development and employment.
“Paul is an example of somebody who was educated here and left … but has come back to Ithaca to be part of this start-up ecosystem,” Schryver said.
Standard Hydrogen is a member company of Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, a partnership between Cornell, Ithaca College, and TC3 administered by the Center for Regional Economic Advancement at Cornell. (Full disclosure: Ithaca Voice is also a Rev member company.)
Mutolo said his company’s name comes from John D.Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. While Standard Oil represents the age of oil, Mutolo said Standard Hydrogen will represent a new age of clean fuel and the future of the automobile.
“The Standard Hydrogen Corporation is founded to help advance transportation to what we like to think of as round two,” Mutolo said.