Fill ‘er up

Imagine a world where all it took to power a car was sunshine and tap water. That isn’t a pipe dream but, rather, the reality of emerging technology that someday could turn your house into a personal, zero-emission gas station.

It’s called a residential hydrogen refueler, and only one currently exists. Tucked away on the Torrance campus of Honda R&D; behind a security guard and a locked gate, the sleek system is designed to power Honda’s limited-production FCX Clarity sedan and other hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. The system uses solar panels — a 6-kilowatt array of thin-film cells, to be precise — to power a machine the size of a mini-refrigerator that sips in H2O and breaks it apart into hydrogen and oxygen gases. The hydrogen is then pumped directly into the car, which uses the gas to generate electricity for the car’s electric motor. No fossil fuels, no pollution, no additional strain on the power grid — and all done at home.

Welcome to the future.

How far into the future? About five years, according to statements from automakers and a “memorandum of understanding” signed in September by manufacturers such as Daimler and fuel providers including Shell. Honda, General Motors, Toyota, Mercedes and other auto manufacturers have indicated they likely will begin selling hydrogen-powered production cars to consumers in 2015.

How quickly will the home hydrogen refueler follow, and how much it will cost? Honda won’t say. But it’s a promising technology that advances the trend toward consumers detaching from a fossil-fuel economy and becoming more self-sufficient. It’s a future in which American homes are less reliant on a large-scale infrastructure — power grids, water districts and the like — and provide at least some of the solutions themselves via solar panels, gray-water systems, rainwater harvesting and home-based car-refueling technology.

Other hydrogen fuel-cell cars already exist. Made by GM, Toyota and Mercedes, they currently are available only for lease, as with the Clarity. Most of the lessees are in “station clusters,” specific geographic areas that have hydrogen fueling stations. It’s the scarcity of these hydrogen stations that’s seen as one of the biggest barriers to mass adoption of fuel-cell cars.

By contrast, electric cars that can plug into a home power outlet are getting most of the attention these days with the imminent arrival of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. But the enthusiasm of hydrogen-car drivers, coupled with the promise of hydrogen stations at home, indicate these fuel-cell vehicles could also be a player.

“They’re going to have to break into my garage if they think they’re getting this car back in three years,” said Clarity driver Jack Cusick, 41. The assistant principal of Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach was talking about the burgundy-colored Honda he’s been leasing for the last 18 months and will need to return in January 2012.

Cusick is one of 20 participants in the Clarity program, which began in July 2008. Almost 80,000 people worldwide had applied.

“When you hear about field testing a car, you expect to drive something that isn’t necessarily duct tape and cardboard, but you don’t expect it to be a fancy car,” said Cusick, who used to drive a Hyundai Accent. “This is a luxury automobile.”

Equipped with seat warmers, satellite radio, dual climate controls and radar-activated brakes, among other features, the Clarity is luxurious. It’s also outrageously expensive — most likely worth at least $1 million because of the high cost of developing the technology and low volume of cars in production. Honda won’t reveal a price for an individual vehicle, but when these cars are finally available for sale, their cost will be comparable with luxury sedans.

Cusick’s lease is steep: $600 a month. He still finds the price reasonable because it includes regular maintenance, comprehensive and collision insurance as well as the cost of hydrogen. Many of the state’s weights and measures departments haven’t yet determined what to charge for a gaseous fuel measured in pounds of pressure rather than gallons of liquid.

Sure, Cusick has heard quips about the Hindenburg and fielded inquiries about whether the car is likely to explode — jokes he counters with questions about the Exxon Valdez.

“It’s not like their cars run on Pepsi or something,” said Cusick, who lives in Irvine and refuels at the hydrogen station at UC Irvine. “I’m driving a car that spits out nothing but water.”

The UC Irvine location is one of 21 hydrogen stations in California, 17 of which are in Southern California, and only six of which are in active use. Those sites include a Shell station in West Los Angeles, where many of the fuel-cell drivers are clustered. Four other hydrogen stations are scheduled to open later this year in Torrance, Newport Beach, Harbor City and Fountain Valley, allowing the Clarity lease program to expand by 180 more cars. The cost of installing each hydrogen station is roughly the same as a gas station, between $1 million and $2 million, according to a Honda spokesman.

“The vehicles have progressed more quickly than the fuel providers,” said Tim Brown, technology manager for sustainable transportation at UC Irvine. “The cars are marketable, but the question is the fueling.”

Part of Brown’s research involves the siting of future hydrogen stations, which he says don’t need to be nearly as prevalent as gas stations. “If you optimize where you put them, eight hydrogen stations can ensure the same level of service as 34 gas stations,” he says.

Jon Landau stops by the Shell station in West Los Angeles to fuel up his Clarity at least once a week. He pulls up to the pump near his exit off the 405 Freeway and kills the car’s quiet electric motor. After entering a code into the digital display at the pump, he connects the nozzle to the car, twisting the connector to form a tight seal. Landau says it takes about 50% more time to fill his Clarity than a gas-powered car, but the experience comes with a benefit: no smelly fingers.

“I’ve found I can get between 230 and 240 miles to the tank,” said Landau, a producer of “Avatar” who lives in Sherman Oaks, commutes to an office in Santa Monica and occasionally travels to San Diego. “There’s no trip I can’t make and get back here,” said Landau, who initially leased the Clarity thinking he would use it only for commuting. Now he drives it more often than his Mercedes 550S.

“I can’t tell you today that hydrogen is the answer or that ethanol is the answer or pure electric is the answer, but it’s programs like these that will lead to the answer,” said Landau, who was attracted to the Clarity out of concern for his kids’ future and the environment. “Making a difference starts with one small step, and if enough people take that same small step, someday we’re all a bit forward. Reducing our reliance on foreign oil sources, or offshore oil sources, it’s very evident we have to look toward alternatives.”

Hydrogen, as a fuel, can be generated many ways, including via electrolysis with solar panels (such as the Honda system) or wind turbines, as well as with “bio gas” generated by wastewater treatment plants — a system that will be the source of the new hydrogen fueling station in Fountain Valley. According to UC Irvine’s Brown, the waste gas from sewage treatment plants and landfills in Southern California holds the potential to power 3 million of the region’s 10 million cars.

According to Steve Ellis, alternative fuel manager for American Honda Motor Co., the ability to refuel a vehicle at home ranks third among the values consumers see of owning an electric vehicle. Honda’s decision to pursue a hydrogen home fueler followed its involvement with a Canadian company that makes a natural-gas home fueler.

“We saw the same possibility could exist for hydrogen,” Ellis said of the solar-powered hydrogen system. The home fueler represents the evolution of technology Honda developed almost a decade ago. Twenty-five percent more energy efficient than the electrolysis system it devised in 2001, the home fueler no longer requires a mechanical compressor or storage tanks. It now operates entirely with a new high-efficiency solar array sized to fit an average American roof and able to support typical driving habits, about 10,000 miles per year.

“When I was a kid, they told us in the 21st century we’d have cars that fly. I don’t have a car that flies, but this is good enough for me,” Clarity driver Cusick said. Fueling cars at home is the future, he said. “Now that I’ve had the opportunity to not only see a hydrogen car working but actually drive it, I don’t see any reason to go back to anything else.”