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Toyota fuel-cell power plant in limbo after California utility withholds support

The plant, one of the world’s largest, would support the automaker’s hydrogen truck and passenger vehicle fleets.

Toyota’s hydrogen fuel-cell commercial vehicle prototypes keep rolling off the factory floor, but the automaker hasn’t had the same luck pushing the boundaries on hydrogen fuel infrastructure.

Last week the automaker unveiled a utility tractor designed to handle port container cargo. The project comes as Toyota and truck manufacturer Kenworth are bringing 10 hydrogen-fueled Class 8 trucks to the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Amid fanfare over the vehicles, Toyota executives are scrambling to save on a first-of-its-kind fuel cell power plant and fueling station the vehicle manufacturer had planned to bring to the Port of Long Beach facility.

The plant, a partnership between Toyota Motor North America and FuelCellEnergy, a developer of fuel-cell power plants, would produce 2.35 megawatts of electricity and 1.2 tons of hydrogen per day — enough to power the plant’s operation and commercial vehicle projects.

The new facility would also power Toyota Mirai fuel-cell sedans coming from Japan into the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

But the project is now in limbo after Southern California Edison (SCE) said it would not purchase excess electricity from the plant because of concerns about the kind of fuel used to generate the electricity.

Absent the power purchase, the facility is not economically feasible, the project team has said.

The utility’s decision not to support the project came as a huge surprise, said Craig Scott, director of the Advanced Technologies Group for Toyota Motor North America. “It essentially flies in the face of everyone’s expectations.”

The plant, first announced in 2017, is integral to the clean truck demonstration projects, Scott said.

“It was the foundation. Having renewable hydrogen produced at scale at the port to support the fleet of trucks, and the future fleet of trucks, would allow us to demonstrate that true zero emissions, from well-to-wheel in heavy duty transportation, is possible … and that we could do it at a cost that was competitive.”

Biogas vs. directed biogas

As originally conceived, the Long Beach facility would participate in the Bioenergy Market Adjusting Tariff (BioMAT) program. BioMAT is a feed-in tariff program, which allows small bioenergy projects to sell power to one of the state’s investor-owned utilities at a price that is higher than that of power produced from nonrenewable sources.

SCE spokesperson Robert Laffoon Villegas told FreightWaves he couldn’t comment directly on the Toyota project. However, in an emailed statement, he said the utility was generally opposed to projects that use the type of fuel intended for the Long Beach plant.

The plant’s marketing materials say it will be powered by biofuel produced from California agricultural waste.

But the reality is a little more complicated in that the biowaste won’t fuel the plant directly.

Instead, the developers would purchase what is called “directed biogas,” in which the biogas is produced at an offsite facility and then pumped into the general gas pipeline, where it mixes with traditional natural gas.

That once-removed process doesn’t meet the criteria for the BioMAT program, Villegas said.

“The objective of the BioMAT program was to support specified fuel sources,” he said.

“The allowance of directed biogas from other locations without a specific limit fundamentally changes the operation of the program (i.e., increases the ability to use lower-cost fuel stock) without related cost reduction benefit to customers,” Villegas said in the email.

Scott disagreed, saying the BioMAT rulemaking explicitly allowed for directed biogas. The project developers have submitted the project for review by the California Public Utility Commission, and a response is expected in about 30 days. If the decision is not favorable, the Long Beach facility will not move forward.

Alternative sources

In the meantime, Toyota is actively exploring on-site alternatives to making hydrogen — e.g., through solar electrolysis, in which hydrogen is produced from solar-generated electricity.

It that doesn’t work, Toyota will buy renewable hydrogen from other sources and have it delivered to the site, which is how most hydrogen is bought and sold today.

“We were just hoping we could push the envelope, to go beyond the status quo,” Scott said.

Toyota has already built one of the largest hydrogen fueling stations in the world on-site in partnership with Air Liquide.

Scott said the Long Beach facility would produce more hydrogen than any other plant in the world. But that amount — one ton per day — is still “minuscule” compared with industrial scale refineries producing 300 to 400 tons per day, he emphasized.

The amount of renewable electricity is likewise small, about two megawatts of power. That’s a drop in the bucket for an investor-owned utility like SCE, Scott said.

“It’s helpful to keep these things in context because I think there’s a lot of commentary, people saying, well it’s a really big project and that’s why there’s some hesitation,” Scott said.

“It’s not a big project.”

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected].