Carmel Valley hydrogen fueling station gets pumping

Carmel Valley is home to San Diego’s first and so-far only hydrogen fueling station. The FirstElement pump, located at the Shell Station on Carmel Valley Road and I-5, opened in December 2016.

FirstElement is committed to building up California’s hydrogen fueling infrastructure to ensure the success of the next generation of fuel cell vehicles that can reduce the impact on energy and the environment. With 17 stations across California, they own 65 percent of all the hydrogen stations in the state.

Dr. Shane Stephens, founder and chief development officer of FirstElement, said the company is the leading hydrogen station developer in the state, as they have opened the most stations on the fastest timeline while also providing the highest quality product and customer service. Their stations are located in Orange County, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, the Bay Area and one in Truckee.

The Carmel Valley Community Planning Board approved the local station back in March 2015.

“San Diego did take a little longer than expected but we did get there,” said Stephens, noting FirstElement has kept close watch on the station’s usage since December. “We expected it to be slower than others but it’s doing quite well given it’s the first station in the area and it’s only been open a few months.”

They picked the Carmel Valley location due to the demographics in the area, as many of the early adapters of fuel cell vehicles are located here, as well as the prime real estate right off the I-5 corridor.

FirstElement’s product is sold as True Zero, which Stephens said speaks to the benefit of the fuel. It is zero emission, zero petroleum and close to being zero carbon emission. Today, one-third of FirstElement’s fuel is renewable and they are working to get that number even higher.

Since opening for retail vehicle charging, the True Zero network has performed over 32,300 charges totaling more than 99,700 kilograms of hydrogen. That translates to True Zero’s stations having powered more than 6,687,000 zero-emission miles in hydrogen electric cars and having eliminated 4.2-million pounds of CO2 emissions.

“That’s the equivalent of planting a forest 16 times the size of Disneyland,” Stephens said.

The fuel cell electric vehicle uses fuel cells to power an electric motor using oxygen and hydrogen. It takes five minutes for a vehicle to fill a tank for 300 miles or more of driving, 60 to 70 miles per gallon. Initially hydrogen fuel will have price parity with gasoline but with more demand, it is expected to be about half the cost of gas.

The construction of the 805-square-foot pump at the Shell Station took about three months, Stephens said. The modern-looking facility features a 13-foot high arching blue canopy over the pumping station. Following construction, it went through a few weeks of testing and certifications, following the protocol set by ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers).

“(The protocol) has been worked on for more than a decade,” Stephens said. “There’s been a lot of effort put into getting everyone on the same standard.”

The station also went through a certification process with California’s Division of Measurement Standards, which ensures that when a consumer buys a product, they are fully getting what they pay for. A sticker on the pump denotes that the station is certified and that customers are getting the correct amount of fuel that is purchased.

The California Energy Commission provided FirstElement with a $27.6 million grant to build its first 19 hydrogen stations and they recently were selected to receive a second grant to build eight more stations, including one in Mission Valley on Mission Center Road.

“It’s a very exciting time. We’re seeing new sales records on our stations every couple of weeks,” Stephens said.

Those records will only improve as new fuel cell vehicles hit the market—in 2016, Toyota sold 1,000 units of the Mirai and the Honda Clarity has started selling units in California market this year. Mercedes Benz, Kia and Hyundai have also announced plans to begin retailing a fuel cell vehicle in the future.

“California is far ahead of the rest of the country,” Stephens said, noting there is a plan for a hydrogen fuel network in the Northeast but no stations have been built yet. “Of anywhere in the world, California is ground zero for the initial market launch of fuel cell cars.”