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GM bringing fuel cell cars to Hawaii

John Lloyd
via Flickr
The 1966 GM Electrovan - the first ever hydrogen fuel cell car - looks particularly good for traipsing around Oahu. Throw a surfboard or two on that thing and you're set.

General Motors' fuel cell facility is in Honeoye Falls, about a half-hour south of Rochester. Now that we have that out of the way, let's talk about Hawaii.


GM announced in May that it was piloting a hydrogen infrastructure project on the island of Oahu. The auto giant is partnering with Hawaii's largest gas company (handily called The Gas Company) to develop the infrastructure necessary to make hydrogen fuel cell cars make sense.

So far, fuel-cell-powered cars have been stymied by what we in the innovation business call a classic "chicken or the egg" conundrum: you can't have fuel cell cars without hydrogen filling stations. And you can't have hydrogen filling stations without fuel cell cars.

For GM, what Hawaii represents is a near-perfect opportunity to break out of that paradigm.

"Hawaii is an excellent initial test market for us," says GM's Director of Fuel Cell Commercialization Dan O'Connell. "[The goal is] to demonstrate how easy it could be to put in the hydrogen infrastructure to support the vehicles."

Here's why. The Gas Company is already pumping hydrogen through its natural gas lines. The hydrogen is a byproduct of the process used by the company to convert imported petroleum into natural gas. What GM is starting to do is tap into those pipelines, siphon off the hydrogen and use it to create a network of filling stations that could ultimately power an island-wide fleet of fuel cell vehicles.

Progress is slow, but GM officials say things are going as scheduled. Currently there's only one demonstration vehicle on the island -- one of the 119 road-ready fuel-cell-powered Chevrolet Equinoxes in existence. There are no filling stations for it yet. GM says the goal is to have 20-25 on the island.

"The earliest that we could commercialize a technology like this would be around the 2015 time-frame," says GM's Executive Director for Fuel Cell Activities Charlie Freese.

If all goes well in Hawaii, Freese says states like California and New York are probably the next in line for fully functional "hydrogen highways" and hydrogen-equipped urban clusters.

WXXI/Finger Lakes reporter for the Innovation Trail.