Is it time to pay attention to hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars?

Fri, 2014-08-22 06:00 -- Doug Cooley

Are hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars still a contender in the race for zero-emission automobiles?  

Or are battery-propelled electric cars so established that fuel cell cars -- vehicles that run on electricity using a fuel cell powered by hydrogen -- will never catch up?

A research team at the UC Davis-based Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) -- which is a member of the Council's Advisory Board -- contends that fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) do indeed remain in the race. In a recent white paper titled The Hydrogen Transition, they push back against some entrenched skepticism toward FCVs. The researchers point to a number of positive trends that are driving hydrogen and fuel cell technologies closer to commercialization.

“Taken together, these positive trends suggest that we may be seeing the beginning of a hydrogen transition,” Joan Ogden, a UC Davis professor who co-authored the report, says in a blog post. “The question isn’t whether fuel cell vehicles are technically ready: They are. But how do you build confidence in hydrogen’s future for investors, fuel suppliers, automakers—and, of course, for consumers?”

Infrastructure build-out begins

One key development driving FCVs forward is a concerted effort to build out a hydrogen fueling infrastructure. For instance, SCC Associate Partner Black & Veatch is now working to construct the nation's first network of hydrogen fueling stations in California.

The project, which calls for completing 19 stations located at existing gas stations by 2015, is funded through a $27.6 million grant by the California Energy Commission, reports BusinessWire. Toyota, which plans to introduce its first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in California in model year 2015, is also helping finance the project.

Ogden says California has awarded a total of $46 million to build 28 hydrogen fuel stations and has committed to a $20 million annual investment in stations over the next seven years. “Our estimates indicate that perhaps 50,000 FCVs in a region with 100 stations would be enough to make hydrogen cost-competitive with gasoline on a cost-per-mile basis. The station investment cost would be $100-$200 million,” she states in the ITS report.

In addition to California, the paper notes that funding commitments to infrastructure development are coming together in Japan and Germany, too.

More reasons to bet on FCVs

Other important factors boosting the outlook for FCVs are also articulated in Ogden’s blog post.

  • Government support for hydrogen and fuel cells is on the rise.  Global public funding is now about $1 billion per year and supports research, development and deployment of power and transportation applications.
  • Natural gas costs remain low. Low-cost shale gas has improved the prospects for natural gas-derived hydrogen. Natural gas-derived hydrogen does produce greenhouse gas emissions, yet these emissions are less than half compared to a conventional gasoline vehicle due to the greater efficiency of the fuel cell.
  • Public policies encourage FCVs. These include direct subsidies for purchasing vehicles and fuel infrastructure, tax exemptions, zero emission vehicle regulations, and low carbon and renewable fuel standards. In some areas, hydrogen vehicle owners benefit from HOV lane access, free parking and free fueling.
  • Hydrogen technology addresses climate change. There’s growing realization that hydrogen FCVs could be a critical technology enabler to a low carbon transportation future. Clean water vapor is the only exhaust from a hydrogen vehicle.

Ogden also points to a recent study by the National Research Council that calls out the significant long-term benefits of hydrogen FCVs. That study suggests that fuel cost savings for customers and the reduced costs of air pollution, oil dependence and climate change outweigh FCV transition costs by 10 to 1.

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