The Next Big Thing in Zero Emissions Vehicles

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1498320229880{padding-right: 50px !important;padding-left: 50px !important;}”]The Next Big Thing in Zero Emissions Vehicles by Sue Caskey (September 2016, unpublished)

(Word count: 1203)

Here in the USA we’ve gotten used to hybrid and electric cars as alternatives to gasoline powered, or internal combustion engines (ICE).

They’re easy to understand: you plug them in, and they go, just like your iPhone. Just like any other appliance.

There’s a newcomer on the horizon, new at least to the driving public in the United States. It’s the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, or FCV. You don’t plug it in: you fill it up at a fueling station just like a regular car, except that you’re filling your car with hydrogen. The hydrogen combines with oxygen in the engine to produce the energy to power your car, and water is the only thing coming out of the tailpipe. Even better, the cost is low, at about $1.50 per “gallon”.

You may have heard of FCVs before. In 2004, to strengthen his credibility on energy issues, President George W. Bush touted hydrogen FCVs as the next big thing in personal transportation. He announced that the federal government would spearhead public-private partnerships to promote hydrogen (H2) fuel cells as one of the premiere renewable technologies of the future. The fuel industry could easily get behind the effort, since hydrogen would need existing gas stations for refueling of H2 vehicles. Other corporate interests were happy as well, such as the up and coming natural gas industry. Natural gas would be a prime energy source for creating H2, and several big US companies had H2 in production for a multitude of industrial uses in the United States. While FCVs were a long way off in 2004, today they are gaining ground and popularity in Europe and soon will be a growing presence here in the US.

H2 can be easily manufactured using natural gas, which is abundant in the US, but also results in more energy being used to create the H2 than is saved by burning it in cars. But the electrolysis process that creates H2 can also be powered by renewable energy such as wind or solar. This makes FCVs potentially the only existing zero-emission fuel on the market. It also has the extra added benefit of providing a way to store and use solar and wind energy that is collected during hours of off-peak consumer demand, such as in the evening.

FCVs also beat electric battery-powered cars when it comes to driving distance. While electric vehicle manufacturers are working to build a battery that can last more than about 100 miles, the range of an FCV is as much as 400 miles. The FCV also has the same low maintenance and clean emissions as electric vehicles do.

Yet FCVs are not – so far – taking the United States by storm. There are three key things needed for FCVs to build momentum here: 1) fuel produced at reasonable cost; 2) a wide network of refueling stations; and 3) vehicles available in the market. In the US, H2 is already being manufactured for industrial purposes, and abundant natural gas makes additional stocks easy to make. As for the vehicles, Toyota and Honda are currently selling FCVs in the California market, and Hyundai, GM, BMW and Mercedes Benz are all either now selling or shortly about to release hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The last piece, the network, is the biggest missing piece for now. But there are many pressures building to get a network in place.

In Germany, Linde, a major H2 manufacturer, has taken the effort into its own hands, and is building a network of 400 fueling stations, and making a national effort to emphasize FCVs throughout the country. No German driver will be more than 50 miles away from an H2 refueling station when the network is completed.

In California, where tough emissions standards are helping push the growth of the ZEV market, a total of 20 hydrogen fueling stations are expected to be in place by the end of 2015. An additional 28 stations will be installed by the end of 2016, and beyond that, a network of up to 75 stations should be available throughout the state by 2020. Other states like Connecticut are beginning to install some refueling stations, with more planned. Ultimately, with the installation of a refueling station network, the market for FCVs will come full circle and begin to pay off for the decades of investments made in research and development. A public-private partnership, called H2 USA, has been working with all parties to make this a reality.

Why the delay in the United States, where the same technology now at work in Germany has been available for decades? One big reason is safety. Many people still think that hydrogen can be dangerous. However it’s no more dangerous than, and often more safe than, a tank of gasoline. Great advances in technology have been made since 2004 in both the structure of the fuel cells and the fueling stations. H2 has been widely used in commercial applications for some time: The US produces and safely uses more than 9 million tons of hydrogen each year, powering trucks, buses, forklifts and other vehicles. According to US Department of Energy, “Hydrogen can be used as safely as other common fuels we use today when guidelines are observed and users understand its behavior. Like natural gas vehicles, hydrogen vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell material handling equipment are refueled using a closed-loop system that helps to ensure safe operation.”

The potential profits and benefits of this technology to a transportation network can’t be overstated. Globally, according to some energy analysts, projections are that global automotive demand for hydrogen may increase five-fold between 2015 and 2019, from the current 600 kilograms per day, as cars such as the Toyota Mirai are sold in mass production. In the US, it’s a wide open market, and big producers are working on the network in California. Air Liquide, which has already built more than 50 H2 fueling stations in countries like Japan and Denmark, is partnering with Toyota to build stations in California and a dozen more across the Northeastern United States. Air Products, an industrial gas manufacturer, has been building buses, trucks and heavy equipment fueled by hydrogen for decades now, and has been tapped to provide some of the fueling stations that are part of the California initiative.

And what about wind production? Recently Texas produced so much wind that the price was negative for a short while. This type of excess could be turned into hydrogen for the automobile market. While electricity from wind or solar is not consistent enough to power homes and businesses full time, using renewables to power the H2 electrolysis process can occur at any time of the day or night. Electric utilities and private wind suppliers may find that there is a nice economic incentive for increasing wind production to help produce hydrogen for H2 fueling stations, or fuel producers can install their own wind farms to increase supply.

As all zero emission vehicles – whether electric or fuel cell – move toward becoming the standard, technology advances will continue to grow and reach far beyond just auto manufacturing.

Watchers of the FCV marketplace are already seeing market forces lining up behind what could be the next big thing.