Clearing the hurdles to hydrogen mobility

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could well be the answer to emission-free mobility: so where are they all? Two hydrogen experts talk about clearing the hurdles to widespread adoption.

With the world on the right track to curb carbon emissions by phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles, hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are perfectly poised to fill the void.

Compared to their battery electric counterparts, they offer a longer distance range and can be rapidly refuelled. Yet still, according to a 2018 Information Trends report, a mere 6,364 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been sold globally as of year-end 2017. So, while hydrogen mobility has huge potential, certain hurdles stand in the way of its widespread adoption.

Hurdle 1: The ‘chicken and egg’ situation

There are two key components to hydrogen mobility: the vehicles and the infrastructure. And much like the chicken and egg, one has to come first. The “dilemma” is that both require high initial investment costs. So far, automakers have been reluctant to invest in the development and commercialisation of FCEVs if there is no refuelling network to serve their customers. In fact, according to the previously mentioned “Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles – A Global Analysis” report from Information Trends, one single automaker – Toyota – accounts for over 77% of the 6,364 hydrogen FCEVs sold around the world. At the same time, hydrogen refuelling station (HRS) operators are reluctant to invest in the development of a network if there are not enough FCEVs on the roads to make it a viable business venture.

Thomas Schaefer, Marketing Manager, Hydrogen Mobility Solutions and Co-Founder of BeeZero at The Linde Group: “Despite steady growth, the chicken and egg situation means the market for FCEVs is still low, hence there are so few on the roads. As long as the effects of economies of scale do not take off, costs for end users remain relatively high. Couple that with a limited refuelling network and it’s a tough sell for any original equipment manufacturer (OEM). They need an incentive – so in our view, a critical mass of refuelling stations must come first. Public-private partnerships for building early networks are the way forward. In Germany, Linde is participating in the H2 Mobility consortium which aims to build 100 stations by the end of 2019. These will be strategically placed around and between the major cities making the whole country accessible. If by then FCEVs have reached a certain market penetration more stations will be built, bringing the total to 400 by 2022. Of course, hydrogen mobility is not limited to passenger cars. Linde is also promoting back-to-base applications, like buses, trains (as featured in the BBC) and forklifts which don’t rely on such a network for refuelling. Instead, one HRS can serve an entire fleet of vehicles.”

Hydrogen refuelling stations only become attractive for investors if enough FCEVs use them.

Hurdle 2: Making green hydrogen affordable

Green hydrogen in green fields: Linde is operating an electrolysis plant at Energiepark Mainz (Image: Energiepark Mainz)

The only emission you’ll get from the tailpipe of an FCEV is water so clean you could drink it. Hydrogen therefore has the potential to be the ideal partner for sustainable mobility if it can also be produced with zero emissions. The good news is that it can. So-called “green hydrogen” is produced by using wind, solar or hydropower as a feedstock for electrolysis, whereby water (H2O) is split into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen. This production can either be carried out on-site at an HRS or at a centralised plant and distributed – rather easily, in fact. Not only that but electrolysis systems offer the added benefit of being highly efficient means of energy storage for any grid. New generation electrolysis technology exists: the problem is the cost of implementing it on the industrial scale.

Stefan Huebner, Technology & Innovation Expert at The Linde Group: “Green hydrogen works out so expensive in the end due to the high overall cost of electricity including levies, grid-fees and taxes. At the minute, no matter how you look at it, producing “grey hydrogen” by the conventional method of steam reforming using relatively cheap fossil fuels like natural gas is by far the more attractive option. But there are signs that the green market will take off – and Linde is currently setting up a strategy for when it does. On top of that, we are working on demo projects such as the Energiepark Mainz. As a partner in one of the biggest power to gas plants in the world, Linde has been showcasing and promoting the different applications of electrolysis – energy storage and green H2 production – all while gaining valuable experience for the future.” 

Hurdle 3: Convincing consumers

In the hydrogen hotbed that is California, fuel cell mobility is firmly on the public’s radar – because there is an established market. The state’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) regulation has helped usher in around 2,500 hydrogen cars and 35 refuelling stations. Consumers are now incentivized to buy FCEVs by way of tax rebates of up to $5,000. But that’s not the case everywhere; and with the public’s buy-in so imperative to the widespread adoption of any emergent technology, this needs to be addressed. It’s not only a lack of awareness of hydrogen’s potential as a fuel, but many people still harbour safety concerns that are no longer justified.

Thomas Schaefer, Marketing Manager, Hydrogen Mobility Solutions & Co-Founder of BeeZero at The Linde Group: “We need to get hydrogen out there: in the public awareness and conversation. To that end, Linde sits on the Hydrogen Council, a global initiative that aims to increase visibility of and advocate for hydrogen solutions. But if consumers are expected to embrace hydrogen mobility, they not only need to hear about it but also see it in action. So, between 2016 and 2018, we ran BeeZero – the world’s largest hydrogen car-sharing program – in Munich. This gave more than 5,000 users the opportunity to experience emission-free hydrogen mobility first hand in everyday use. There was certainly a real buzz around the topic! In a similar vein, Linde is a long-standing and proud sponsor of the Shell Eco marathon, a student race with hydrogen-powered vehicles. It’s a fun way to explore the full capabilities of hydrogen as a fuel.“

BeeZero carsharing: the FCEVs are perfect for the long drive to the mountains to escape the city.