NEW YORK – General Motors Corp. will establish a fleet of 13 fuel cell powered minivans in the metropolitan area here that will be supported by Royal Dutch/Shell Group’s Shell Hydrogen’s first hydrogen service station in this region.

The New York baker’s dozen will bring GM’s total fuel-cell vehicle (FCV) fleet to 40 vehicles.

Sequel would cost more than retrofitting fuel cells to existing cars, GM says.

“This fleet will put New York in the forefront on the road to a future in which our vehicles, industries and economy are energized by hydrogen,” Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of R&D and planning, says at a press conference to announce the project.

GM and Shell say they are teaming up with the Dept. of Energy in this demonstration and validation project.

All 13 GM FCVs will have an advanced fuel cell propulsion system that has 25% greater power density than earlier demonstration minivans stationed in Washington and one that is leased to the state of Maryland.

Burns says the company “has a target to design and validate a fuel cell propulsion system that has the performance and durability of an internal combustion system by 2010.”

It also must be affordable at scale volume, he says. “That’s (GM Chairman and CEO) Rick Wagoner’s assignment to me.”

Burns says fuel cells are one of his top three priorities. Although he doesn’t exclude the possibility, he emphasizes that GM is not promising to market FCVs by 2010.

“Rick won’t approve vehicles that have to be subsidized by GM,” he says. That means FCVs won’t go into production until there is a compelling business case that they can earn a profit for the company.

Burns says if GM has to reinvent the car by using a skateboard platform, which underpins the Sequel fuel-cell concept shown in Detroit, it would be more costly than retrofitting a hydrogen propulsion system into an existing production car. (See related story: A Sequel to GM’s Advanced Propulsion Efforts)

However, the company has not made a decision on which way to go, he says. GM also has not selected a location for building fuel-cell stacks or FCVs.

“This is not the design you want to take to higher volume,” Burns says. But he promises that GM FCVs will be better and cheaper in 2010.

GM says certain deficiencies such as difficulty of starting the vehicle in cold weather have been solved, and it fires up the FCVs in 9°F (-13°C) weather here to prove the point.

However, Burns notes that the company still must demonstrate that fuel-cell stacks and vehicles can be mass-produced. They also must achieve a service life of 6,000 hours that now is standard in conventional vehicles.

Shell Hydrogen CEO Jeremy B. Bentham says that after Shell launches its portable hydrogen refueling station, it plans to establish mini networks of four to six stations in the next five years to form an incipient hydrogen infrastructure. Ultimately, the country will need 12,000 hydrogen stations nationally. (See related story: GM, Shell Hydrogen Pump Finally Opens )

Bentham says that 50 million tons (45 million t) of hydrogen is consumed annually in the U.S. at present. That’s enough to fuel 200 million vehicles, but obviously additional hydrogen must be made available for other uses, including the refining of gasoline.

The Shell Hydrogen chief says it will take $20 billion to create a hydrogen infrastructure that is widespread throughout the U.S. and capable of satisfying an initial mass market. It would take tens of billions of dollars to create an additional 50 billion tons (45 billion t) of hydrogen.

The Shell executive declines to forecast FCV volume specifically, but he says one scenario predicts there could be 50 million on the road by 2030, 150 million by 2040 and 300 million by 2050. “Of course, that’s an optimistic scenario,” he says.