BRUSSELS – The development and use of hydrogen-fueled automobiles is starting to gather pace in the European Union, with the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, encouraging growth in the segment as it pursues a goal of achieving a climate-neutral Europe by 2050.
The Commission has obtained the authority to lay down technical rules on the operation of hydrogen autos in the EU from mid-2022. In the meantime, the EU has been helping the auto sector by funding two research projects – H2ME1 and H2ME2 – both aiming to grow a hydrogen fueling station network across the EU.
These projects have had budgets of €70 million ($77 million) and €100 million ($110 million), respectively, with the EU’s Horizon 2020 research program sinking €67 million ($73.9 million) in total into both, which will run until May 2020 and June 2022, respectively.
The research projects involve more than 40 partners from nine countries and from across the transport, hydrogen and energy industries, including Audi, BMW, Engie, H2 MOBILITY, Hyundai, Michelin, OMV and Renault. Together the participants are trying to entice businesses and public bodies to invest in hydrogen mobility.
The projects’ goal is to see an additional 49 hydrogen filling stations and more than 1,400 cars, vans and trucks run on hydrogen within the EU by 2022.
The Commission hopes EU member states and regional governments will provide financial incentives (within the scope of EU state aid rules limiting national subsidies) for the use of hydrogen vehicles because their zero-tailpipe emissions will help the EU meet its increasingly tough climate-change goals.
Depending on tank size, hydrogen vehicles can run significantly farther than electric vehicles before refueling. Hydrogen vehicles also can be convenient, given that they usually do not take more than 10 minutes to be fueled. And when vehicles run on so-called green hydrogen made from renewable energy sources, they have no indirect emissions either.
Even hydrogen generated from natural gas can operate fuel cells that reduce carbon dioxide by producing no tailpipe emissions, according to H2ME.
Renault is developing a Master ZE Hydrogen van, expected to be released between January and June 2020, and a Kangoo ZE Hydrogen light-commercial vehicle possibly launching this December.
Stephan Herbst, a technical general manager at Toyota Motor Europe, whose company is participating within H2ME and makes the Toyota Mirai hydrogen car, tells Wards sales of fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) will really take off once fueling infrastructure increases and manufacturers start producing on a larger scale.
“Today, there are less than 200 hydrogen refueling stations across Europe, not spread equally geographically,” says Sabrine Skiker, EU policy and communication manager of industry association Hydrogen Europe. “One of the leading countries is Germany, with 77 stations open as of today, and plans to have 100 stations open by 2020.”
The association is targeting the opening of about 3,700 hydrogen fueling centers across the EU by 2030, which its Hydrogen Roadmap for Europe hopes will be a sufficient critical mass of stations to give motorists confidence that they can fuel up with hydrogen when they need to.
But a Renault spokeswoman notes this expansion will not be cheap, given a single fueling station costs about $1 million to establish. Refueling vehicles is similarly expensive at present, especially when compared to conventional diesel and gasoline cars, with current hydrogen costing €10-€15 ($11-$16) per kilogram (2 lbs).
Skiker says hydrogen would reach cost parity with diesel when 1 kg of hydrogen costs between €4-€6 ($4-$7). She adds that in July, 1,092 drivers in Europe had hydrogen-fueled cars which is not much – “but the vehicles can be purchased now and this shows the maturity of the sector.”
FCEV new-car registrations in the EU doubled in first-half 2019 to 209 compared with 102 a year earlier, says Kasper Peters, senior communications manager at the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association.
The biggest shift can be seen in the Netherlands, where 65 Dutch drivers registered their FCEVs in the first six months of this year compared to zero registrations last year. Encouraged by having the largest fueling infrastructure, 100 German drivers registered their hydrogen cars so far this year. Norway, a non-EU country widely known for being the biggest consumer of electric cars, has registered 29 FCEVs over the same timescale.
Sales have been registered in the wealthier part of Europe, and this is not surprising given hydrogen cars currently are not only expensive to run but also are expensive to buy. The Hyundai Nexo (above, left), for example, costs $75,000, although in Germany, with government subsidies and a leasing system, the price could fall to about $57,000, “which is fairly reasonable for a top-class zero-emission SUV with a 600-km (373-mile) range,” Skiker says.
A battery-electric vehicle of similar size could cost more than €120,000 ($132,000), she says. Skiker also notes the price of Toyota Mirai, which today costs $88,000, is expected to fall as the Japanese automaker and other manufacturers are working on developing platinum-free fuel cells free of expensive precious-metal components.
FCEVs also have value in terms of generating jobs in the auto sector, considering hydrogen cars have many more components than EVs and many European companies such as Freudenberg, Bosch and Powercell plan to or already are producing fuel cells in Europe, Skiker says.
“The main components needed for FCEVs can be produced in Europe, while most of them are produced outside in the case of BEVs. To sum it up: FCEVs will create more jobs located in Europe,” she says.