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Honda Phill CNG home refueling
Honda Civic GX being refueled in owner's garage. The wall-mounted Phill unit uses low-pressure residential natural gas and slowly compresses it overnight, refilling the 3,600 psi tank in the trunk, giving the car a 200-220 mile range. The price of the natural gas, plus the added electricity cost results in the gasoline-equivalent of $1.20 a gallon.

Honda's Phill-way to Hydrogen

Honda's Stephen Ellis talks about home refueling and the path to a hydrogen-based transportation future

By Bill Moore

A Chinese proverb says a journey of 10,000 miles begins with the first step. And at Honda, it could be said to start with PHIL, or at least that's the way my friend Stephen Ellis sees as the most logical way to get to hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Estimates vary from a "few" billion dollars to hundreds of billions to create the necessary infrastructure to fuel hydrogen cars. While there are something like 170,000 gasoline stations in America, there are just a handful of sites -- mostly in California -- where the public can conveniently buy hydrogen (excluding industrial gas suppliers). This raises the age-old "chicken 'n egg" conundrum. People won't buy fuel cell cars until there is a convenient infrastructure, and energy companies won't build the necessary stations until there are sufficient numbers of cars to justify it.

But what if you could simply side-step the problem by letting people make their own hydrogen at home, refueling their H2-powered vehicles (both internal combustion engine or ICE-based and fuel cell-powered) in their own garages?

Honda's Stephen Ellis explained to me that Honda learned from its electric car program that owners really appreciated the convenience of home recharging. They could plug-in their cars at night and wake-up the next morning to a fully-charged battery that gave them 80-100 miles range, usually more than enough to meet their daily commuting needs.  
Honda's Stephen Ellis demonstrating Phill refueling unit.

With that lesson firmly implanted, Honda decided to partner with FuelMaker Corporation to develop "Phill", a residential, compressed natural gas refueling station that will enable Civic GX owners to conveniently refill the car's tank at home. The unit will initially be leased in California for as low as $39 a month when soon-to-be announced state incentives take effect. Ellis estimates installation will run between $500 and $1,500. Honda plans to start slow with the program, setting a sales target of 400 units in California in 2005.

What excites Ellis about the Phil program is the fact that it may be a model for how we get from a fossil fuel-based economy to a hydrogen one. He explained to me that earlier this year, he and his colleagues were brainstorming ways to help promote cleaner transportation alternatives. They developed the chart below to help them visual a potential pathway to a hydrogen-powered transportation future, one that avoided the huge costs of a new fuel infrastructure.

With earnestness in his voice, Ellis explained to me during the Clean Cities Conference in Palm Springs earlier this week that the natural gas-based Phill program is a logical stepping stone to hydrogen vehicles. Clearly sensitive to criticisms from the electric car community for killing its EV Plus program, he reasoned that although Honda's super-clean conventional and hybrid vehicles are good for the environment, they still rely heavily on imported petroleum and generate substantial greenhouse gas emissions.

A better solution -- in his view and others, including T. Boone Pickens -- is compressed natural gas (CNG), which is significantly cleaner than gasoline in terms of its overall emissions and the climate-changing CO2 our vehicles pump into the atmosphere. In fact, the Civic GX, which is a dedicated CNG vehicle whose 3,600 psi tank occupies most of the trunk space of the four-door, five passenger compact, has earned a number of accolades for its environmental merits. It is the only vehicle distributed nationwide that is certified to the stringent EPA Tier 2-Bin 2 emissions standard, as well as meeting California's Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (AT-PZEV) standards.

Honda says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has certified the U.S.-made Honda Civic GX as "the cleanest internal combustion engine-powered vehicle", a claim that may be superseded soon by Ford's new hydrogen-fueled shuttle vans, just now going into service in Florida. Regardless, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently named the Civic GX as the "Greenest Vehicle of the Year" in overall environmental performance, ranking it even higher than hybrid vehicles.

So, from Honda's perspective, the way to move beyond our over-reliance on petroleum is to steadily shift to natural gas and then to hydrogen. Ellis refers to the early Phill program Beta testers as his "hydrogen apprentices". He contends that when it comes time to switch from compressed natural gas to hydrogen, this group will find it a relatively easy transition since they are already used to dealing with a gaseous fuel and home refueling.  
Phill refueling unit.

And here, Honda is also breaking new ground. It has developed -- in collaboration with Plug Power a hydrogen home refueler. One unit is installed at its Torrance, California facility and the other at Plug Power's New York headquarters. The New York installation is half the size and complexity of the first generation unit in California, an encouraging technological trend.

Conceivably, at some point in the hopefully not-to-distant future, Honda may sell you both a hydrogen-powered car and the home generation device to refuel it and provide your home with both electricity and hot water, presumably reformed from natural gas. The company's Power Equipment division recently announced an $8,000 residential co-generation unit that is clearly a step in that direction.

Of course, natural gas is also a depleting resource, so we'll have to come up with other ways to generate electricity and hydrogen that won't aggravate global warming or damage our environment and our health along with it. But as an interim step from petroleum to hydrogen, Honda's scheme makes a lot of sense, though not everyone agrees.

During the 11th Clean Cities Conference in Palm Springs, a delegate from the Northeast was overheard commenting that there's not a fire marshal in the region that will approve this system, so Honda is likely to have an uphill struggle ahead overcoming entrenched objections to home refueling. But this is exactly the same fight it would have had trying to introduce hydrogen, a gaseous energy carrier with its own unique set of safety concerns. Winning the battle now should make it easier to move to hydrogen someday.

Honda contends -- based on a recent study -- that there's much greater likelihood of being struck by lightening than a fire being started from natural gas home refueling. Ellis pointed out to EV World that Phill incorporates a number of safety features including a ceiling sensor to detect escaping gas. The refilling hose uses a simple but safe connector that can be coupled and uncoupled with a single hand.

The four-cylinder, 1.7L GX, which retails at $21,760, has a range of 200-220 miles on natural gas. It qualifies for a $2,000 federal tax deduction and some states allow GX owners to drive in High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, which can be a huge time savings for many owners and lessees. Depending on local natural gas prices, Ellis estimates that owners can refuel their vehicle for the equivalent of about $1.20 gallon gasoline.

The Civic GX/Phill combination offers an enticing alternative that can save owners time and and money while fighting global warming, reducing air pollution and completely eliminating their personal dependence on imported oil. That's a pretty hard combination to beat, when you think about it, especially if it helps us move forward on that journey of 10,000 miles.

Times Article Viewed: 28958
Published: 06-May-2005

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