Shell has opened a new station in Newport Beach where drivers fill up at no charge. That's right: A big oil company is offering unlimited free gas.
But there is a catch. The gas is hydrogen, and it's free only to those driving a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
That's not a lot of people. Only 200 fuel cell vehicles are operating in the state, said Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Automakers plan to offer more, but even then the highest estimates are for no more than 50,000 in operation in California five years from now, she said.
The cars will be expensive — as much as double the price of a gasoline compact or mid-size auto, according to current estimates. At the moment, they can only be leased.
Shell is paying for the pumps, which look like any other gas pump, because it wants to learn "about costs, consumer behavior and how to dispense it efficiently to different vehicles," said Matias Sanchez Cane, North America commercial manager for Shell Alternative Energies.
Hydrogen is free because Shell doesn't know how to charge for it. The California Division of Measurement Standards is waiting for state lawmakers to authorize it to regulate sales of automotive fuel in kilograms, which is how compressed hydrogen gas is measured, said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the agency.
It could be free until 2015, when Gov. Jerry Brown has told regulators to have infrastructure in place for people to use alternative-fuel, zero-emissions vehicles such as hydrogen cars. The Shell station is only the eighth public hydrogen station in the state and seventh in Southern California. The plan is to have 68 built in metropolitan areas and key locations throughout the state, Dunwoody said.