A Viable Alternative


Hydrogen is seeing support grow in Europe as an alternative to oil and gas, and over renewable energy such as wind and solar.

On Tuesday, 25 European nations backed a measure to increase hydrogen use to power factories, drive vehicles, and heat homes. A non-binding agreement was signed in Linz, Austria, that delved into increasing research into the technology and using existing gas grids to distribute hydrogen.

The coalition sees it as an alternative to fossil fuels to cut the continent's carbon emissions, and to solve the problem for electricity generation caused by fluctuating supply of renewable energies.

Advocates of the "hydrogen economy" have been pushing the fuel for decades. Yet support has been slow and instead, lawmakers have backed other technologies like electric vehicles. Oil and gas continue to be dominant in power plants, vehicles, and heating systems. Natural gas continues to grow as a cleaner and safer fuel over coal and nuclear for electric power, and is seeing more support for liquefied and com-pressed natural gas technologies in commercial vessels and vehicles.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen as an alternative power source does have growing business and government support in Europe, the U.S., Japan, and China. While fuel cell passenger vehicles are much smaller than even electric vehicles in sales, hydrogen is gaining global support for energy production and storage, heating systems, and fuel cell vehicles in the transport and public transit sectors.

Miguel Arias Canete, the European Union's top climate and energy official, said hydrogen could help Eu-rope meet its obligations to cut carbon emissions under the 2015 Paris accord. Canete told reporters it could also contribute to energy security by reducing imports of natural gas, much of which is shipped from Russia and countries outside of Europe.

Hydrogen advocates say that using more of it can stabilize energy prices and supply that can be erratic from fluctuating supplies of wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable energies. Converting electricity generated by renewables into hydrogen means the energy can be stored in large tanks and released again when necessary.

They say hydrogen fuel cell vehicles become just as clean as EVs, which need large lithium-ion battery packs to store their energy. Fuel cell vehicles generate power on board, taking away the range restrictions EVs face; and the fueling can be done in less than five minutes versus a half hour or more for recharging an EV.

Trains and transit buses are seen as a growth area, but it is at an embryonic phase. The world's first com-muter train service using a prototype hydrogen-powered train began in northern Germany on Monday.

Sources of hydrogen vary from fueling station to station, coming from techniques such as electrolysis and hydrolysis, and gases such as methane. Japan continues to lead the world in hydrogen fueling stations, and aims to have 160 of these stations opened by March 2021 to support a fleet of 40,000 fuel cell vehicles. That beats out California, which aims to have 50 of these stations in place by 2020. Japan expects to see the number of hydrogen stations grow to 900 by 2030, supporting a fleet of 800,000 FCVs.

Europe has about 80 hydrogen fueling stations in operation, and China is only just starting to deploy stations.

California (and eight other U.S. states backing California’s policy) and China support hydrogen stations and fuel cell vehicles through their zero emission vehicle mandates.

Japan sees it as part of its economic growth, with two of its local companies, Toyota and Honda, leading the charge. Much of the appeal in Japan came forth out of the Fukushima disaster in 2011. The country has shut down almost all its nuclear reactors since that time, and has been importing hydrogen, oil, coal, and liquefied natural gas since then.

Toyota continues to lead the fuel cell passenger car market with its Mirai sedan. Along with Toyota, other global automakers have made commitments and vehicle launches in fuel cell vehicles — including Honda, Hyundai, Audi, BMW, General Motors, and Mercedes-Benz.

The Japanese automaker also sees commercial trucks as a viable channel for sales growth supporting city government efforts to bring in more low-emissions trucks capable of driving through crowded city streets and pulling into restricted cargo storage yards. Toyota has made a deal with Seven-Eleven Japan to bring small fuel cell trucks into the retail chain’s distribution system.

During the summer, Toyota revealed a new prototype of its “Project Portal” fuel cell electric truck while hinting at future commercialization. The “Beta” test truck is built on a glider version of the Kenworth T680 tractor. It can go 300 miles on a tank of hydrogen, and is about 10 percent more powerful than the “Alpha” prototype that Toyota unveiled last year, according to the company.

Toyota has remained silent on the fuel cell truck’s future production plans, but sees it as more commercially viable than its past efforts. The company continues to remain committed to its broad, across-the-board strategy in vehicle technology and fuel. That covers fuel cell vehicles, hybrids, electric vehicles, gasoline-powered light-duty vehicles, and gasoline- and diesel-powered medium duty trucks through its Hino Trucks subsidiary.

Jon LeSage for US Energy Information Administration