'We are seizing the future'

South Carolina’s Hydrogen Freeway officially opened Monday with the dedication the state’s first public hydrogen fueling stations, in Aiken County and Columbia.

The dedications were the kick-off events at this week’s National Hydrogen Association Expo & Conference. About 1,000 researchers, entrepreneurs and others from around the world are expected to attend the event, which runs through Friday.

S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell joined Columbia and Aiken County dignitaries in dedicating the two stations at separate ceremonies on Bettis Academy Road in rural Aiken County near I-20 and on Laurel Street in Columbia.

“The creation of a new industry by thinking outside the box” is one aspect of the conference and the state’s hydrogen push, Harrell said. “But the primary reason is to get the United States off foreign oil. South Carolina is now leading that charge.”

Harrell is the state’s leading advocate for hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cell research, product development and marketing. Absent from the conference schedule this week is Gov. Mark Sanford, who has supported some targeted investment in hydrogen research, but has opposed large influxes of public money.

Hydrogen fuel cells, which produce electricity without pollution, is seen by many as a job producer for the future, a path to move the state from manufacturing to so-called high-tech, knowledge-based industry.

In the Midlands alone, state and local governments have spent nearly $41 million to establish the region as a hydrogen hub.

There are only 171 hydrogen fueling stations in the world; 66 in the United States and three in the Southeast — with two of them in South Carolina.

The stations help cement Columbia and the state as a player in the hydrogen world, along with California and New York, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said.

“This is a great day for Columbia, the Midlands and South Carolina,” he said. “We are seizing the future.”

Officials traveled from Aiken to Columbia in hydrogen-powered vehicles Monday, dedicating the two stations.

The Aiken station in the Sage Mill Industrial Park is across from the Bridgestone tire manufacturing plant that uses a fleet of 28 fuel-cell powered forklifts.

At the ceremony, an Aiken County-owned, hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Silverado pickup received the station’s first fill-up. The truck uses hydrogen to power a modified internal combustion engine.

A second hydrogen vehicle on hand was a Kia Borrego SUV that uses hydrogen fuel cells to run a silent electric engine. The SUV can travel more than 400 miles on a single hydrogen fill-up and produces only water that is so clean officials said people could drink it.

It gets the equivalent of 54 miles per gallon of gasoline. The SUV prototype cost $450,000 to build, said Kwon Tae Cho, engineering manager for Kia America. The Korean carmaker plans to start mass-producing fuel-cell powered vehicles between 2015 and 2020 with the SUV dropping to about $60,000.

In Columbia, a Honda and a Mercedes-Benz powered by hydrogen fuel cells joined the caravan, along with a hydrogen bus.

Right now, hydrogen from the S.C. fueling stations costs about $6 a gallon. But that is expected to fall when hydrogen demand rises and the infrastructure to produce and deliver hydrogen improves. Harrell said the state’s hydrogen push is a long-term.

“It probably won’t produce tons of jobs in the short term,” he said. “But the jobs will come.”

He noted the state must build the infrastructure for hydrogen — fueling stations, production and delivery system — to position itself to benefit from the technology when it comes to maturity, perhaps in 10 or 20 years.

“When they built the first locomotive, there weren’t railroad tracks across the country either,” he said of the fledgling hydrogen infrastructure.

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