Greater Portland will become the northern end of an evolving “hydrogen highway” along the East Coast if a Connecticut company moves ahead with plans to build a filling station here for a coming generation of fuel-cell-powered electric vehicles.

The station would be built in the next two years by SunHydro of Wallingford, Conn., and use solar panels and water to produce hydrogen. The first station using the technology opened last month in Wallingford, at Proton Energy Systems, an affiliate of SunHydro. A second station is planned for Braintree, Mass.

SunHydro has proposed an initial network of nine hydrogen service stations along Interstate 95 from Portland to Miami. It would be the world’s first chain of privately funded stations for fuel-cell-powered cars and trucks, the company said.

On Tuesday, a representative from Proton Energy will be in Portland to explain details of the venture. The free session will run from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., in Room 109 of the Abromson Community Center at the University of Southern Maine.

The presentation is being organized by the Portland-based Hydrogen Energy Center, which has worked with SunHydro and Proton to locate a station in Maine. A site hasn’t been chosen yet, according to the center. One consideration is having an adequate space with a south-facing exposure for the solar panels.

Fuel-cell vehicles run on electricity produced from hydrogen gas and emit only water vapor. The key is producing the gas by separating water molecules, which typically is done with electricity generated by natural gas. Proton manufactures an electrolysis system that it sells commercially, and has adapted the equipment to make hydrogen at the filling stations primarily with sunlight.

Environmentalists have dreamed for decades about shifting the world’s motor vehicles from gasoline, which causes pollution, to hydrogen produced with renewable energy. The concept has moved closer to reality in recent years as automakers such as Honda and General Motors have begun building prototypes of fuel-cell cars.

Toyota, for instance, has made 10 Highlanders available for use at the station in Wallingford.

But the transition to hydrogen faces challenges. Fuel-cell vehicles are too expensive to build for the retail market. And an alternative vision, for plug-in battery-electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf, is further along in commercial production and consumer acceptance.

Another obstacle is a chicken-and-egg problem. Car makers are reluctant to build large quantities of fuel-cell cars without convenient places to fuel them. Developers of those stations need greater vehicle demand to make an investment.

That situation has slowed the pace of California’s hydrogen highway, championed by outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The state planned 100 stations by the end of this year; only 31 are built or under construction.

SunHydro may stand a better chance of building its network. The East Coast stations would be privately financed by SunHydro’s wealthy owner, Tom Sullivan, founder of the successful Lumber Liquidators flooring chain, which has a store in Scarborough.

“Most everything done until now has been a demonstration project,” said Rick Smith, president of the Hydrogen Energy Center. “This is private money, with a goal to use the technology in day-to-day business. That’s a huge change.”

Each station is expected to cost $2 million to $3 million. To run a viable station in Greater Portland, Smith said, SunHydro will look for a local company that could operate a half-dozen or so fuel-cell vehicles.

“You don’t need much of a fleet to support a small fill station,” he said.

Other participants could get involved over time, said Gary Higginbottom, a director of the hydrogen center.

Hydrogen-powered buses shuttled around British Columbia during the Olympics last winter, he noted, and transportation planners in Portland envision the city’s bus fleet running on fuel cells some day.

There’s also interest at Quirk Chevrolet, which has been bringing a fuel-cell Chevy Equinox to Maine for demonstrations. GM plans to begin selling fuel-cell cars in 2015.

More information is available by e-mail from: [email protected]

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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