SF Port may locate hydrogen fueling station at Pier 54

A hydrogen fueling station may operate on a Port of San Francisco pier as part of an effort to bring a zero-emissions ferry service to the San Francisco Bay.

The station would be the first of its kind in the world in that it would serve both boats and private automobiles. Port officials have identified Pier 54 as the most feasible site for the hydrogen filling station, which would cost up to $5 million to build.

The idea comes as auto makers are producing an increasing number of zero emission vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells — in fact, every major car company is expected to have a hydrogen fuel cell model within the next five years. With state and industry backing, more and more hydrogen filling stations are cropping up, only none have yet to open in San Francisco.

The Port wouldn’t build the hydrogen filling station, only act as the landlord. But Elaine Forbes, interim executive director of the Port, has provided a letter of support of the pier project for those interested in applying to receive a portion of the $33 million in grant funding provided by the California of Energy Commission to pay for more hydrogen filling stations throughout the state.

Applications are due Aug. 19 and Port officials identified Steven Brooks of Retail Energy Now and Jonathan Avila of StratosFuel as two potential applicants.

“The Port of San Francisco enthusiastically supports the creation of an intermodal hydrogen fueling station on Port property,” Forbes wrote in the letter. “The proximity of Port property to the high population density of San Francisco would make a Port-based hydrogen station valuable in many respects.”

Hydrogen fuel cells power vehicles when a fuel cell generates electricity through an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The only byproduct is heat and water.

The Port’s interest in hydrogen fuel cells began with Red and White Fleet President Tom Escher, who operates a passenger ferry service on Port property. About four years ago Escher began to research alternatives to his diesel fleet and came upon maritime hydrogen fuel cell research being done by Livermore-based Sandia National Laboratories.

He then shared his idea of a fuel cell ferry. The lab’s scientists reacted at first with skepticism and advised Escher to instead set his sights on the cleaner energy from liquefied natural gas, but were later won over with some preliminary calculations.

That led the lab to secure a $500,000 grant from the Department of Transportation Maritime Administration to determine if it was feasible to build SF BREEZE (San Francisco Bay Renewable Energy Electric vessel with Zero Emissions) that could travel some 35 knots.

While the official report isn’t due out until September, Joseph Pratt, the SF BREEZE project manager at Sandia National Laboratories, said they sought to answer three main things: is it technically feasible, would it pass muster with maritime regulatory agencies and the economics.

The 15 monthlong research shows it is feasible to operate a 30-meter, 149-passenger ferry with a catamaran design on hydrogen-filled fuel cells reaching 35 knots and that it can pass regulations, according to Pratt.

The cost, however, is two times the conventional diesel ferry, he said, noting that diesel ferries cost between $10 million to $15 million and SF BREEZE would cost between $20 million and $30 million. But the bulk of that cost is in the fuel cell system, in this case an electric motor with electricity from about 150 fuel cells the size of carry-on luggage.

Sandia has secured another grant to optimize the ferry design, which would look at slowing the ferry down and adding passenger capacity to lower the cost.

“There’s some room to optimize a fuel cell ferry using today’s technology,” Pratt said. The lab is also working on powering a Scripps research vessel using hydrogen fuel cells.

Pratt said they didn’t do a market study and that while the feasibility study does factor in cost parity that may not be the most important factor, noting there is a demand for cars using this technology even with a higher sticker price than gasoline powered cars. The new Toyota Mirai, for example, costs $57,000, which can be lowered with government incentives such as a federal tax credit of $8,000, and a $5,000 cash rebate from the state.

“I’m really excited to see something like this could really happen,” Pratt said.

While hydrogen fuel cell research has gone on for decades, Pratt suggested that the auto industry and people’s growing awareness of climate change is creating a demand to make real world applications of the technology.

The research outcome is welcome news for Port officials. “The vision is that all ferry service on the Bay would be zero emissions,” said Port spokesperson Renée Dunn Martin.

Escher is also encouraged by the results and is committed to eventually building the ferry. He has even set a launch date of March 17, 2018, at 10 a.m., which happens to be St. Patrick’s Day. “St. Patrick got the snakes out of Ireland. We are going to have a solution for pollution,” Escher said.

Chris White, a spokesperson for the California Fuel Cell Partnerships, a collection of auto manufacturers building fuel cell vehicles, said, “We definitely need to have at least one [hydrogen filling station] in San Francisco.”

Currently there are 20 hydrogen filling stations in California with the nearest ones to San Francisco in Mill Valley, Emeryville, South San Francisco and Hayward. The state projects there will be 50 by the end of 2017.

More fuel outlets could incentivize purchases of these vehicle types, particularly heavy road users like drivers for ride-hail services such as Uber or Lyft.

“If you’re an Uber driver and you’re driving around in San Francisco, running over to Emeryville to fill your tank up is not real handy.” White said.

The push for zero-emission cars is being driven by state regulations. In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order calling for 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on California’s roads by 2025. Taking the effort further, Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Los Angeles, announced Friday a proposed bill that would require 15 percent of all vehicles sold in California to be emissions-free by 2025.

There are currently 331 hydrogen fuel cell car owners in the state. That is projected to increase to 13,500 vehicles in 2019 and 43,600 vehicles in 2022, according to the state’s Air Resources Board.

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