Gasoline-powered automobiles won’t be vanishing from roads anytime soon, certainly not within the next decade. But when it comes to a car’s carbon footprint, combustion engines have already been surpassed by Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) and Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs). These two vehicle types produce zero tailpipe emissions, discharging only water vapor and warm air.
Emissions are only half of the green battle when it comes to the carbon footprint of cars. BEVs still need to draw power from the grid (that often burns fossil fuels) to charge, and the hydrogen that FCVs require comes from various feedstocks ranging from fossil to renewable sources.
These technologies are still growing rapidly, however. Electric vehicles have shown drops in electricity consumption from year-to-year, and FCVs are building on those advances in drivetrain technology and power systems. The cost-effectiveness of hydrogen gives FCVs a competitive advantage as a longer-term solution to green transportation options despite the more volatile nature of hydrogen as an energy carrier.
It is projected that the worldwide market share of fuel cell electric vehicles will exceed 300K units by 2024 generating more than $9 billion in that time. While that number of expected units accounts for a rather small percentage of overall global vehicle production, FCVs are showing steady growth around the globe but are facing some challenges in the United States.
Automotive companies want to ensure that their name will always be part of the ongoing and ever-changing fuel cell conversation. In the present, they need to appease shareholders and maintain the values of their brands by showing active investment in automotive fuel cell growth. But they must also look to the future to ensure that their competition does not pass them by.
Fuel Cell Vehicle Manufacturers
While Toyota and Nissan are going it alone in their quests for fuel cell technology, other automotive brands are making unexpected partnerships to advance automotive fuel cell development at a more rapid and cost-effective rate. For example, Honda has introduced its Clarity FCV in a joint venture with GM to produce advanced hydrogen fuel cell systems in Michigan. Hyundai (including Kia) is teaming with Audi (and its parent Volkswagen Group) and is looking to increase the fuel-cell system production from 3,000 to 700,000 units over the next 12 years. The first Hyundai Nexo fuel cell vehicle was already delivered stateside in late 2018.
The costs of automotive fuel cells and parts have dramatically decreased in the past decade. According to a report by the Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technology Office, there has been an 80% drop in the cost of electrolyzers, “a crucial component in hydrogen-fuel production.” And, like the partnerships developing between automotive brands, there are similar team-ups occurring between fuel cell manufacturers aiding in these price drops. Canada’s Ballard Power Systems, for example, recently announced a strategic collaboration with Weichai Power, a large Chinese conglomerate that specializes in auto parts and logistics creating a technology transfer that aims to diversify the brands and raise stock prices.
Turning four-figure production into six-figure production within a decade might not seem like a great deal of growth, but fuel cell technology is a slow-to-develop process particularly outside of the assembly line. Like the partnerships between fuel cell and vehicle manufacturers respectively, there will need to be similar team-ups between public and private ventures to create key changes in infrastructure.
Hydrogen Fueling Stations
Presently, the number of hydrogen fueling stations globally is around 500. Only 39 of those are located in the United States, 35 of which are in California with the remaining four located on the East Coast. Similar to the proliferation of other types of EVs (Electric Vehicles) the initial growth of hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure is occurring on the coasts. While those areas represent a large portion of the population in the U.S., significant and quick growth has yet to materialize.
However, the U.S. Department of Energy has launched H2USA, a public-private partnership with automotive companies “to address the key challenges of hydrogen infrastructure” and “promote the introduction and widespread adoption of fuel cell electric vehicles across America.” The state of California will also be investing $20M per year until “100 stations are built for commercial purposes.” Simultaneously, CARB (California Air Resources Board) is continuing its big push for more and more ZEVs (Zero Emissions Vehicles), which is likely going to open the door for more hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
The timeline for FCVs to take their place on the road alongside BEVs and gasoline-powered automobiles is indeed a lengthy one, estimated to be circa 2030. A great deal can happen in a decade, but the future of FCVs is tied directly to these three current day scenarios. When it comes to the R&D side of fuel cell vehicles, these unprecedented partnerships and continued investments by manufacturers will ensure an increase in production. The drop in the cost of automotive fuel cell parts will certainly aid in the scalability of that production. The more difficult goal to achieve in the next decade will most certainly be infrastructural changes in the form of nationwide charging stations. Achieve this trifecta and fuel cell vehicles will have a bright and clean future.
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