Canadians have slowly started to accept that electric vehicles (EV) will replace good old fashioned gasoline-powered cars as their daily driver. But industry leaders say EVs could eventually be eclipsed by a more convenient technology: hydrogen fuel cells.
One of the first out of the gate is the stylish and refined Hyundai Nexo. It’s quiet and clean like an EV, but has one distinct advantage – is refuelling range is similar to tried-and-true gasoline powered vehicles.
Fuel cell cars like the Nexo, which I sampled at a recent test drive of high-efficiency vehicles, combine the best of both internal combustion engine (ICE) and battery electric (BEV) technology.
Not all industry leaders are fans of fuel cells. Electric car champion Elon Musk, CEO of the battery-electric Tesla, has famously dismissed hydrogen “fool cells” as “mind-bogglingly stupid” and told Tesla shareholders a few years ago that “success is simply not possible.”
A lot of industry executives are betting Musk is wrong. A 2017 survey of 1,000 senior auto executives conducted by KPMG found they believe hydrogen fuel cells have a better long-term future than electric cars.
But can you even consider buying one? “If you live in Vancouver, yes,” says Nicolas Pocard, director of marketing at Ballard Power, in Burnaby, B.C. “If you live in Calgary, not today.” Or Toronto, for that matter, because you can’t refuel in either of those cities.
Fuel cells have a steep hill to climb to overtake BEVs. The first models are more expensive, hydrogen fuel cell stations only exist in B.C. and Quebec, and the most-popular method of producing hydrogen is so energy intensive that the net environmental gain versus ICE vehicles is marginal.
How expensive? The Nexo lists at $73,000 in Canada, while the similarly sized Hyundai Kona BEV lists at $44,999. Toyota’s Mirai fuel cell vehicle is only offered for fleet sales in Canada and a company spokesman said prices are negotiated with the client. When the Mirai is made available to individual customers, “we expect the price . . . to be similar to a comparably equipped Camry.” Fifty-seven Mirais have been sold in Canada and about 5,800 in the U.S.
Don Romano, president of Hyundai Canada, said the high initial cost of the Nexo reflects the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in research and development, and the fact that the cars have not reached economies of scale.
“What’s the cost of a Ferrari?” said Romano. These early generation fuel-cell vehicles are “probably the most expensive cars on earth.”
Other manufacturers with fuel cell vehicles on the market include Mercedes Benz (F-Cell), Honda (Clarity) and U.K.-based Riversimple (Rasa). More than a dozen concepts from other manufacturers are also in the works.
Fuel cells have several advantages over gas and electric. Hydrogen is one of the most abundant resources in the planet, and new models from industry leaders Toyota and Hyundai can travel more than 500 kilometres between fill-ups. Unlike BEVs, fuel-cell vehicles can be refilled in minutes, rather than the hour or more it takes at the highest capacity recharging stations. (Lower voltage home chargers typically take several hours.)
Instead of storing electricity in huge batteries, fuel-cell vehicles combine hydrogen gas and oxygen to produce electricity, which runs the motor. The only byproducts are water and heat – no tailpipe emissions.
Yet, one of the biggest knocks on fuel-cell vehicles is the way hydrogen is produced. More than 90 per cent of the world’s hydrogen is produced by steam reforming of natural gas, said Ballard’s Pocard. This process requires the burning of fossil fuels, and thus does not eliminate the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
However, Craig Scott, director of Toyota’s advanced technologies group in Los Angeles, says hydrogen produced through steam reforming hydrogen is still 50 per cent cleaner than ICEs in the U.S. on a “wells-to-wheels” basis. He notes that electricity comes from a broad range of sources in that country, including natural gas and coal.
“Hydrogen is definitely not a dirty fuel,” he said.
Pocard says lower-emission ways of creating hydrogen are coming on fast. In Europe, for example, companies are buying excess electricity produced by wind farms during off-peak hours at next to no cost to create hydrogen through an electrolysis method. It can be produced, compressed and delivered to the customer at cost-parity with diesel fuel, he said.
Canada could do the same, especially B.C. and Quebec which have excess power from hydro-electric facilities at off-peak hours, Pocard said. Hyundai’s Romano agrees. Noting Ontario Hydro sells excess hydroelectric power to U.S. markets at “25 cents on the dollar,” he said, “We could convert what we’re overproducing into hydrogen.”
And even the home province of fossil fuels – Alberta – could produce hydrogen with a lower carbon footprint using new natural gas technology. In fact, a pilot project in Alberta has two heavy-duty hydrogen-powered trucks travelling between Edmonton and Calgary.
For consumers, refuelling is a still a major hurdle, as I learned during the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada EcoRun, held this summer in Alberta. This western province has no hydrogen refuelling stations, so when the Nexo used up its supply of fuel, the EcoRun demonstration was done.
Pocard and Romano both said fuel retailers are reluctant to invest in the massive network of hydrogen refuelling stations across Canada. Right now, three cities have refuelling stations: Trois-Rivières (one), Montreal (one), and Vancouver (two, with three more on the way).
Romano said fuel retailers are waiting to see which technology will win out before adding hydrogen stations.
Toyota’s Scott says governments will have to provide incentives to build infrastructure, as they are doing with battery recharging stations. For every taxpayer dollar subsidizing refuelling infrastructure in California, he said, hydrogen gets three cents and electricity gets 97 cents. That state has about 40 hydrogen refuelling stations, and more than 18,000 electrical charging stations.
“The market is not going to move from the incumbent (gasoline) without clear policy directions,” Scott said.
In heavy industry, Roman says, hydrogen fuel cells are “the only solution” because large trucks are unable to accommodate “giant batteries on wheels.”
Pocard calls heavy duty fuel-cell vehicles “the low hanging fruit.” A fleet of buses in one city, for example, can be refuelled daily with just one hydrogen station. As the price of technology goes down and refuelling stations are added, he predicts, light-duty vehicles become economically viable.
At the very least, most of Canada is nowhere near leading jurisdictions’ readiness to support fuel-cell cars, said Pocard.
California, for example, has a Fuel Cell Partnership involving auto manufacturers, energy companies, fuel cell technology companies and government agencies. Hyundai is deploying 1,000 fuel cell commercial trucks in Switzerland, and China is promoting the adoption of hydrogen vehicles in selected trial regions as it sets up an ecosystem that includes hydrogen production, storage, transportation and refuelling.
Romano predicts a bright future for hydrogen: “I am absolutely positive hydrogen systems are a part of our future.”