The successful rollout of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles is a “chicken or the egg” dilemma where automakers are reluctant to market cars without infrastructure, and fuel providers are reluctant to build stations without cars.
But a new University of California, Davis report says this impasse may be ending with regional public-private partnerships emerging to develop smart, comprehensive build-out strategies in different locations around the globe.
These new infrastructure paradigms allow more-efficient fueling networks, saving millions of dollars compared with earlier designs, and hold the promise of providing hydrogen conveniently and affordably, researchers from the university’s Institute of Transportation Studies report.
“We seem to be tantalizingly close to the beginning of a hydrogen transition,” says lead author Joan Ogden, professor of environmental science and policy and director of the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways.
“The next three to four years will be critical for determining whether hydrogen vehicles are just a few years behind electric vehicles, rather than decades.”
The study says a key to hydrogen's potential success is clustering hydrogen-fuel infrastructure in urban or regional networks, limiting initial costs and creating an early market for the technology before committing to full national deployment.
The researchers calculated that a targeted regional investment of between $100 million and $200 million in support of 100 stations for about 50,000 FCVs would be enough to make hydrogen cost-competitive with gasoline on a cost-per-mile basis.
This level of investment is poised to happen, they say, in at least three places: California, Germany and Japan.
In California, the state recently awarded $46 million to build 28 hydrogen fuel stations. Hyundai is leasing its Tucson FCVs to select consumers, while other automakers including Honda, Toyota, BMW, Nissan and Daimler expect to have production vehicles on the road in the next few years. Toyota, whose fuel-cell vehicles are set to hit the market next year, also is investing in hydrogen fueling infrastructure in the state.
Refueling in Minutes
Ogden says in many respects, hydrogen fuel-cell cars offer consumer value similar or superior to that of today's gasoline cars. “The technology readily enables large vehicle size, a driving range of 300-400 miles (480-640 km) and a fast refueling time of three to five minutes,” she says.
Additional highlights from the study include:
- Early and lasting public policies are key to help launch hydrogen infrastructure and provide consumer incentives for purchasing hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. These might be similar to incentives for plug-in electric vehicles, such as vehicle-purchase subsidies, tax exemptions, free parking and High Occupancy Vehicle lane access.
- Global public funding of $1 billion a year to support hydrogen R&D, deployment of power and transportation applications. Automakers have spent more than $9 billion on fuel-cell development.
- The near-term prospects for plentiful, low-cost hydrogen are good. The boom in low-cost natural gas makes possible low-cost hydrogen, especially in the U.S.
- The long-term environmental, economic and societal benefits of hydrogen FCVs are significant. Fuel cost savings for customers and the reduced costs of air pollution, oil dependence and climate change outweigh transition costs 10 to 1.
- For California, having hydrogen as part of the fuel mix could be integral to the state reaching its twin goals of 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025 and an 80% reduction below 1990 levels of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.
But the report says while hydrogen FCVs increasingly are seen as a critical technology for reaching long-term climate goals, with the potential for capturing a major fraction of the world's car fleet by 2050, the hydrogen transition is anything but certain.
“Hydrogen faces a range of challenges, from economic to societal, before it can be implemented as a large-scale transportation fuel,” Ogden says. “The question isn't whether fuel-cell vehicles are technically ready: They are.”
The real question is, “how do you build confidence in hydrogen's future for investors, fuel suppliers, automakers and, of course, for consumers?”