On top of the station cost, the science of hydrogen production needs to evolve. According to Rambach, currently 95 percent of hydrogen fuel is made from natural gas, which is combined with steam to produce methane. Efforts to produce it using methane captured from cows or waste management facilities are still in the experimental phase. The fuel will also need to be trucked in, just like regular gasoline.
According to Rambach, hydrogen stations are being built with future advances already in mind. “The big picture,” Rambach said, “is for hydrogen stations to be self-contained—to make their own hydrogen onsite.” For example, a station he's helping to develop in Rohnert Park, California, is designed so it'll someday be able to use solar or geyser power to make hydrogen fuel.
The cars need fuel stations, and vice versa
Right now, Rambach and everyone else are razor-focused on getting stations online. Station availability will encourage car sales, and car sales will create new customers for the stations. “The cost of the station is the cost of sales,” Rambach said. “The enabler for those sales is the station.”
Currently the fuel is expensive—$13.59 per kilogram at the West Sacramento station, which equates to almost $70 for filling the Mirai’s 5kg capacity. While it’s likely the cost of fuel will drop as production ramps up, Toyota is giving Mirai owners three years’ worth of free fuel, up to $15,000. That’s just one of many perks designed to offset the challenges of being a Mirai early adopter.
Keeping Mirai customers happy is job one for Judy Cunningham, the manager leading Mirai sales for Roseville Toyota. For her, it’s all about the fueling stations. “The car is a given,” she said, “but the main component is infrastructure.”
The dealership’s getting a mobile fueling station, subsidized by Toyota, which will be free and available at least through the summer of 2016. Roseville Toyota isn’t stopping there, though: Cunningham noted that the dealership owner is hoping to develop a gas and hydrogen station on land he owns in Rockland, California.
Cunningham acknowledged that her first 10 “VIP” Mirai customers are enthusiasts like Rambach. They’re willing to put up with some inconvenience to have one of the first of these cars—and will talk it up to everyone they know. The 700 Mirais allotted to California are already sold out, but Cunningham’s building a waiting list for the next shipment, which is expected by the summer of 2016. Cunningham said all the current Mirais are hand-built in Japan at the agonizing rate of just three a day, but Toyota is opening an automated plant for them in the near future.
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