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Hydro bus project moving to Kona

Updated: 
August 27, 2015 - 1:30am

The Big Island’s first hydrogen production facility, part of a $5 million demonstration project, will be built in Kona rather than Puna.

Initially, the facility, which will support two hydrogen-powered shuttle buses at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and one for Hele-On, was to be located at Puna Geothermal Venture. The idea was to tap a firm renewable energy source directly to produce hydrogen from water through electrolysis.

But concerns of the area being isolated because of a lava flow that entered Pahoa last year prompted the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, which operates under the University of Hawaii at Manoa, to seek an alternate site, said Mitch Ewan, HNEI hydrogen systems program manager.

“We were ready to close the deal” when the flow began threatening populated areas, he said.

“We thought it was too much risk for our project.”

Instead, the station will be located at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority site in Kailua-Kona and will rely on electricity from the grid.

Ewan said he has a rental agreement with NELHA and is working on a request for proposals to build the production facility and fueling station. Another fueling station will be built at Kilauea Military Camp for use by the park.

He anticipates having everything ready for use by the end of the first quarter of 2016.

Ewan said the demonstration is meant to be a “market transition project” that can show the viability of using hydrogen-powered vehicles, which mostly emit water vapor.

“We’re getting the general public aware of hydrogen and familiar with it,” he said.

The shuttle buses, which will be gifted to the agencies, are being outfitted for hydrogen use on Oahu.

Relocation of the production facility means it won’t use 100 percent renewable energy, one of the project’s goals.

Using electricity from the grid, rather than through a cheaper agreement with PGV, will increase the cost of hydrogen production for the two-year demonstration project. That means use of the shuttles could be more limited than initially planned, he said.

“We’ll manage how much we make to match our budget,” Ewan said. “It’s a significant impact financially.”

He added that he is seeking other partners to participate in the project, which could help make up the cost difference.

Additionally, relocation of the facility means Hele-On’s shuttle will operate in the Kona area rather than Hilo, Ewan said.

The project is funded with a mix of grants from U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Naval Research, and the state’s hydrogen fund.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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