Will fuel cell vehicles forever be in the shadow of battery electric vehicles, or is their time coming?
For at least 20 years, hydrogen has been touted as a fuel of the future. But progress with infrastructure and new models has been tentative at best, in contrast to the rapid rise of battery electric vehicles.
There are now more EV charging stations than filling stations for conventionally fuelled vehicles, according to Nissan. What’s more, figures from the SMMT show that 3147 battery electric vehicles were registered in August, accounting for 3.4% of the new car market. Compare that with total UK sales to date for Hyundai’s fuel-cell-powered Nexo of… six.
WHY CONSIDER A HYDROGEN FUEL CELL VEHICLE FOR YOUR FLEET?
1. Rapid refuelling (around five minutes) compared with recharging a battery electric vehicle (BEV).
2. Long range compared with a BEV (the Hyundai Nexo can travel 414 miles on a tank of hydrogen according to WLTP testing).
3. Range suffers less when the vehicle is driven at high speed compared with a BEV.
4. Hydrogen can be produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen then combines with oxygen in the fuel cell to produce electricity, and emits only water vapour. There’s no CO2or any emissions harmful to local air quality.
1. Limited choice of cars.
2. Those that are available are expensive. The Hyundai Nexo has a P11D value of £69,440, while the P11D of the Toyota Mirai is £65,945.
3. Small refuelling network, concentrated in certain areas.
4. Although refuelling remains quicker than recharging, ultra-rapid chargers for BEVs are closing the gap.
Even so, fleet managers would be unwise to ignore the potential of hydrogen power. There are signs that hydrogen’s time is coming, and that fuel cell vehicles can address some of the weaknesses – both perceived and real – that are present with battery electric vehicles.
As things stand, the hydrogen refuelling network is dwarfed by the EV charging network. According to H2stations.org, there are just 17 active hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK.
Of these, seven are operated by ITM Power, with two of these in partnership with Shell. “ITM Power has plans to build a further two stations, another with Shell at Gatwick and the first hydrogen bus refuelling station in Birmingham,” says CEO Graham Cooley.
Why so few? Along with the chicken-and-egg problem of there being few hydrogen cars, Cooley blames limited government investment.
He said: “To date, the UK government has invested 30 times more money in plug-in electric vehicle infrastructure compared with hydrogen infrastructure. Therefore, it becomes a self-fulfilling policy. You put more money into the infrastructure and the number of vehicles increases. And that’s what they need to do with the hydrogen network. Where hydrogen infrastructure will be in five years depends on a change in government policy.”
Despite the modest investment to date, Cooley believes that a change in policy is coming. “I’m very optimistic. The government has a much better understanding of how you use hydrogen and is now looking at not only cars, but buses and trains, ships and trucks.”
“If you put more money into the hydrogen infrastructure, the number of cars will increase”
Hyundai agrees with ITM Power that government support is vital for hydrogen’s future. “If the government’s Road to Zero plan is to be met, government will need to ensure that all relevant legislation policies are fully aligned to the Road to Zero plan, thereby removing certain barriers to the development of the refuelling structure,” says Hyundai’s head of PR, Natasha Waddington. “Until the refuelling infrastructure improves there will be a barrier to adoption in larger numbers.”
While the UK may be slow to adopt hydrogen, Hyundai is heavily into the fuel globally. “We have committed to making major investments into the production of fuel-cell vehicles – we are planning a production capacity of 500,000 units per year by 2030 – not limited to passenger cars but also extending to commercial vehicles such as trucks and buses,” says Waddington.
Other fuel cell advocates are continuing to invest in hydrogen tech. Take Toyota, which has now built more than 10,000 examples of its fuel-cell-powered Mirai.
Some 25 of those are on the fleet of London-based green taxi service Green Tomato Cars. A small number perhaps, but managing director Jonny Goldstone has found them close to ideal for his business, and has another 25 on order.
“For, us hydrogen is preferable to a battery electric vehicle,” says Goldstone. “The primary factors are range and the speed of refuelling. At the moment we’re averaging around 300 miles on a tank, although that will reduce in the colder months. Refuelling takes just minutes.
“Our drivers are self-employed, so time spent sitting waiting for an electric vehicle to recharge is money lost.”
Hydrogen is well suited to such intensive, high-mileage use, says Cooley, who believes fuel cell and battery-electric technology are complementary rather than competitors. “I don’t think it’s a case of one or the other. Short-range battery electric vehicles, with easy access to charging, will live happily along with long-range hydrogen vehicles that you can fill at a filling station.”
That’s the theory. If the development of hydrogen infrastructure gathers pace, it could yet be matched in practice.