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October 09, 2019 - U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse tours the outdoor hydrogen facility with Laboratory Program Manager of Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technologies Keith Wipke at the Energy Systems Research Facility (ESIF) at NREL's South Table Mountain Campus. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

The vehicle rescue and travel club AAA Colorado will partner with New Day Hydrogen to build a hydrogen vehicle fueling station and put AAA service vans and tow trucks on the road that run on the alternative fuel, trying to jump-start clean, renewable energy uses in the state

“A hundred years ago, we thought it was our responsibility to get everybody we could into an automobile, and we did a good job of that,” said Skyler McKinley, spokesman for AAA Colorado.

“But there were environmental costs that we’re now reckoning with,” he said. “One way we’re working to address those is to get everybody who chooses to drive into a cleaner automobile, a carbon-neutral automobile. And for us, hydrogen seems like the best fit for Colorado.”

AAA Colorado has 720,000 state members and a fleet of about 100 repair vehicles. Once a refueling site is finished in the early part of 2022, McKinley said, AAA will run a small handful of response vans currently available from hydrogen vehicle manufacturers. Vans can handle more than half of AAA calls without resorting to a tow truck call. 

For the heavier-duty tow trucks, no current manufacturers offer hydrogen power, McKinley said. AAA Colorado will look for a conversion company. While the hydrogen effort is a pilot program, he added, if they work well “we expect to phase in hydrogen vehicles as we replace our fleet.” 

In the past, some conservation groups have criticized AAA clubs for lobbying to protect road construction or against gas taxes that might lead to less fossil fuel use. McKinley noted that each state club varies in policy, and that AAA Colorado for years has supported expanded transit, walkable cities and lower vehicle emissions. 

“AAA has moved on considerably from its positions in the 80s and 90s, across the country, and in Colorado I believe we’re the most progressive of any AAA entity on these sorts of things,” he said.

Hydrogen fueling stations use electricity to split the hydrogen from tap water. In the vehicle, hydrogen from the tank is converted to electricity in a fuel cell, powering an electric motor and drivetrain. Proponents of hydrogen as an alternative to electric charging say the fuel has a long range, and operates well in cold weather and demanding mountain terrain. 

Hydrogen refueling takes just a few minutes, while EV battery charging ranges from overnight with the slowest hookups to half an hour at scattered ultrafast chargers. The electricity needed for creating the hydrogen comes, ideally, from renewable sources like wind or solar power on the grid. 

New Day said it is also negotiating to put its modular fueling stations in Boulder and at a Colorado ski area.

AAA Colorado said consumer hydrogen fuel vehicles are made by Toyota, Hyundai, Ford and General Motors, but are sold primarily in California, which has focused on providing incentives and fueling stations for the alternative vehicles. The club said there are more than 8,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road in California. 

Colorado State University has one of the few hydrogen refueling stations installed here so far. A station at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden is for their demonstration vehicles and is not public. 

New Day Hydrogen plans and finances hydrogen fuel stations and works with fleet operators to change over vehicles to the alternative fuel, trying to create supply and demand at the same time. AAA Colorado said it will work with New Day to finance the new site at either its Greenwood Village or Centennial facility, and may also seek newly available federal energy and infrastructure grants to speed the process. A second fueling station could go on AAA property in Colorado Springs. 

“We’d open up to other fleet users as they develop this technology, and then the general public as hydrogen vehicles become available in Colorado, which is our ultimate aim,” McKinley said. 

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver