Despite considerable praise and high expectations for this first major step, six years later the hydrogen station at Grjótháls remains relatively empty and underutilised. Iceland’s hydrogen economy roadmap is many months behind schedule and commercial hydrogen vehicles are still unavailable for purchase in the country.
On April 24, 2003, Iceland became the very first country in the world to open a public hydrogen filling station: the Shell Hydrogen Station at Grjótháls. At the time, it seemed to be a historically momentous breakthrough for the nation. Headlines like “Iceland launches an energy revolution!” and “Iceland: pioneering the hydrogen economy!” were trumpeted around the globe. The station was built from a conventional gasoline station in the outskirts of Reykjavík with construction costs of $3.07 million US dollars, according to its impact assessment. With one available pump provided by Norsk Hydro, the station supplies energy to fuel-cell vehicles from electrolysis produced by electrolyzing water. The initial purpose of the station was a two-year trial program to power three hydrogen-powered Strætó city buses manufactured by Daimler Chrysler. The hydrogen bus pilot program concluded in 2007.
“The test time came to a logical end,” said María Maack, Environmental Manager of Icelandic New Energy, the company that coordinates the country’s hydrogen projects. “Now, the learned lessons are being integrated into the next generation of buses. They should be on the market within 2 years. Then it is the role of bus operators or the city to introduce them in their fleets. Our role as a forerunning tester is over and we have moved on to the next step: the SMART – H2. But the project showed clearly that a hydrogen fuel-system is operable and can only become better.”
However, according to Eynar Kristjánsson, marketing director/head of planning and services at Strætó, the trial had its share of disadvantages. “The trial wasn’t profitable,” said Kristjánsson. “There were some other difficulties. The buses took 30 minutes to be filled and they had to be filled twice a day. We had to do maintenance in another place and that was really expensive; the filling station was out of route. Those were big minuses, but it was clean energy, that was a big plus.” Kristjánsson said the hydrogen buses used for the trial are now being used for spare parts and another is being taken to a museum.
Present day uses
Today, 13 vehicles currently use the Hydrogen station at Grjótháls. This figure includes 10 hydrogen Toyota Priuses that last year the US firm Quantum Technologies brought to the country to be used by local energy companies and rental-car provider Hertz. Hertz rents out three of these at a cost of $300 US dollars a day.
Despite the introduction of these new vehicles to the country, there still is the staggering task of getting the remaining drivers off of fossil fuels. According to Statistics Iceland, excluding hydrogen cars, as of 2007, there are 240,538 presumably gas-powered registered vehicles in country.
At this year’s Driving Sustainability conference, there were some signs that hydrogen, originally touted as the solution to the world’s energy woes, was now becoming seen by some of the participants as the black sheep of renewable energy. “The battery people are very critical of hydrogen due to little energy efficiency,” said Teitur Torkelsson, conference organiser and managing partner for FTO Sustainable Solutions
During the conference, Shell Hydrogen addressed questions about the future of the energy in the country. “After the program ended two years ago, many people were asking, why is the station still here?” said Steven Rouvroy, European Operations Manager for Shell Hydrogen. “Well, hydrogen is a reality in Iceland, and it is important we keep investing.”
When asked what the rate of growth the station has been over the years, Rouvroy explained that there still was a lot of work to do. “[Logically], we should have dismantled the station after the bus project was over,” said Rouvroy, adding the station was preserved when additional projects were introduced.
Chris Paine, director of Who Killed the Electric Car, asked Rouvroy when he expected Iceland’s general populace to be able to buy a hydrogen car. “We don’t expect a commercial vehicle to be available to the public until 2015 or 2020,” said Rouvroy.
The Future of Hydrogen
With advancements in electric-battery technology, commercial electric cars may beat hydrogen cars to the market in Iceland. At the conference, Iceland announced a new partnership with Mitsubishi Motors for supplying the country with a fleet of i-MiEV electric cars.
If Iceland New Energy has their way, though, Iceland will be a mixture of both alternative energies. “People tend to forget that the infrastructure for both making hydrogen and electric charge is already in place: the electric grid. Hydrogen plus batteries will be integrated in vehicles to fulfil all the service demands and convenience that we are currently used to,” said Maak. “Right now we are also cooperating with Scandinavian markets and together we can bargain for a better price for a hydrogen vehicles. The movements of the large markets is what steers the demand and our development relies on their speed as well.”
The Trouble With Hydrogen
Hydrogen skeptics like the former assistant secretary of the US Department of Energy, Joseph Romm, have shared reasons why hydrogen hasn’t caught on in other parts of the world.
• Inefficiency — In terms of alternative-fueled vehicles, an electric car can travel three to four times farther on a kilowatt-hour of renewable power than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle.
• Doubts from Car Manufacturers — According to the Wall Street Journal, top executives from General Motors Corp and Toyota Motor Corp have expressed doubts about the viability of hydrogen fuel cells for mass-market production in the near term and suggested their companies have instead begun investing in electric cars.
• Environmental negatives — Popular Mechanics estimates that more than 95% of hydrogen in the United States is made from natural gas; Romm says that as a result, running a car on hydrogen in the US will not reduce net carbon dioxide emissions.
• Unavailability — When asked by McClatchy-Tribune when he expected hydrogen cars to become broadly available to consumers, Romm answered, “Not in our lifetime, and very possibly never.”