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A Hydrogen Education

Whenever the subject of infrastructure comes up, the chicken and egg analogy quickly becomes a part of the discussion. There won’t be hydrogen stations until there are enough fuel cell vehicles to use them and there won’t be enough fuel cell vehicles built until there are hydrogen stations to fuel them.

That argument could go on forever, but there is one roadblock that never comes up, until recently. Shell ran into problems when it announced in 2003 that it was installing a hydrogen demonstration pump at an established retail station in the Washington, D.C., area. Shell says that the intent of the Washington, D.C., station was to put hydrogen in a mass-market retail environment and learn how all of that works.

What they learned was that not every community is keen on having hydrogen stored at a station in their neighborhood. It seems that most everyone still thinks of hydrogen and Hindenburg, or hydrogen and bomb rather than hydrogen and fuel cell.

“Public awareness and public understanding of hydrogen is an issue,” says Chris de Koning, Global External Affairs and Communications Manager for Shell Hydrogen. “My personal view is that basically the perception of most people is more or less blank.” The concern is that with a lack of understanding, it only takes one person to say that it’s dangerous and everyone else doesn’t want it. And that’s exactly what de Koning says happened in Washington, D.C.

“What we encountered with the Washington station was that some people in the neighborhood said, it might be dangerous.” Shell felt the only way to save the project was by educating the community. They held town meetings to inform the citizens on what Shell, the company, is all about. They brought representatives to community meetings to better inform people about the real dangers of hydrogen comparing them to the gasoline they were already living with and they even built a visitor’s center at the station to further educate those in the community.

They worked with local government to better define the codes and standards controlling hydrogen and write them so the average citizen could understand them. They even did things like pay to train five of the city’s firefighters in how to deal with hydrogen emergencies. “We took all sorts of extra safety measures,” de Koning says, “because, of course, we want to get this right.”

The Shell retail hydrogen demonstration finally opened a year later than planned in October 2004. Yet even with the support of the Mayor of Washington, D.C., the local Fire Marshall and Department of Energy Secretary, Spencer Abraham, there were still some protesters picketing the station on opening day.

Shell announced in January 2005 that they will be opening a second retail demonstration station in New York City, sometime in 2006. But this time de Koning says that they have a better idea of what they may be up against and they don’t see it as being as big a problem. “Very simply looking at it,” says de Koning, “we had nothing to compare [the D.C.] station with. We couldn’t say that we’ve done it before. And now we can.”

The New York and D.C. stations are part of phase three, a five-year plan to build more retail demonstration stations. Shell sees the New York and D.C. stations as establishing the ends of an East Coast corridor with other stations popping up in between.

These next five years will be a learning experience for both Shell and for the communities, like the one in Washington, D.C., that are chosen as pioneers. And you can almost be guaranteed that the resistance they met in D.C. will follow them to whatever community they go to, though de Koning still contends that the farther down the road they go, the easier it will get.

GM Vice President Research & Development and Planning, Larry Burns has said that if we build 12,000 hydrogen stations across the U.S. we could make hydrogen available to 70 percent of the population. That would create the necessary infrastructure that everyone’s been asking about.

If that’s the case, and D.C. is the example, then that’s one down and 11,999 to go.

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Sun. July 21st, 2024

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