Brave Thinkers November 2010

Tom Sullivan

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Antony Hare

Hydrogen is the ultimate have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too alternative fuel. It’s superclean—nothing but water comes out the tailpipe of a car that runs on hydrogen. It’s the most abundant element in the universe. The main problem is that there’s no such thing as a hydrogen grid: no one has built the network of thousands of refueling stations that would make owning a hydrogen car practical. Without the infrastructure, automakers won’t commercialize their prototypes, and without hydrogen cars on the road, entrepreneurs won’t build the infrastructure. You might say that nobody is baking the cake.

Enter Tom Sullivan, the wealthy 51-year-old founder and chairman of Lumber Liquidators, a 200-store hardwood-flooring chain that he started out of the back of his pickup truck in 1993. Sullivan, a libertarian, has long been interested in alternative energy on self-reliance grounds, not just environmental ones (he drives a black Maserati), and so, two years ago, after a Sunday morning of Googling, he plunked down north of $10 million to buy a small company that made electrolyzers—the machines used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen (very little pure hydrogen is floating around in the atmosphere, so you have to extract it from other substances). To Sullivan, solar-powered electrolyzers seemed like the perfect foundation for a network of hydrogen refueling stations: a guy could drive from station to station on nothing but sunshine and water. “I thought, I’ll build some stations and see if we can get it going,” Sullivan said. “Somebody had to just get off their ass and do something.”

This fall he opens his first SunHydro station, in Wallingford, Connecticut. It will be powered by 30,000 square feet of rooftop solar panels and will sell hydrogen for the gas-mileage equivalent of about $5 a gallon. Sullivan, who grew up near Boston and now lives in Miami Beach, plans to expand along the East Coast’s I-95 corridor, from Miami to Maine, by building stations at his Lumber Liquidators stores—slapping solar panels on the roofs and setting up electrolyzers in the parking lots. Of course, as a moneymaking venture, this might be completely crazy. But there’s also a bullheaded logic at work here. Sullivan is hoping he’s ahead of the curve. “I’d rather be early,” he said, “than late.”

Jason Fagone is a freelance journalist and author at work on a book about the future of cars.
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