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Tina Casey headshot

GM's $2.5 Billion Hydrogen Fuel Cell EV Gamble About to Pay Off

By Tina Casey

General Motors turned heads last week when it announced big plans to expand its electric vehicle fleet, with hydrogen fuel cell EVs playing a strong role. The big question is, where does GM expect to find customers for hydrogen fuel cell EVs, when hydrogen fueling stations are so few and far between? That's a key question, considering that the company's fuel cell investment has added up to more than $2.5 billion since the 1990's.

The answer is right in front of you, especially if you've ever passed an Army convoy on the Interstate. With its own fuel stations and the potential for manufacturing its own renewable hydrogen fuel, the U.S. Army could prove to be the "stealth" customer that introduces fuel cell EVs into the mass market.

A hydrogen fuel cell EV in every pot...or not

For those of you new to the topic, fuel cell EVs are electric drive vehicles, just like their battery-operated cousins. The main difference is that battery vehicles take time to charge up, while fuel cell EVs can be fueled up in a matter of minutes, just like a gas-powered car.

Until battery technology improves, fuel cell EVs also benefit from longer range and more power, which explains why some manufacturers are focusing on the SUV and long distance truck markets for fuel cell EVs.

Of course, there's a catch. Just a few years ago, it was difficult to find public charging stations to recharge battery EVs. Likewise, public hydrogen fueling stations are practically non-existent outside of California and a few other states.

Hydrogen fuel stations are expensive, and it's difficult to convince investors to foot the bill unless they're confident that people will use them. However, very few people will buy fuel cell EVs until they are confident that they can refuel conveniently.

Hydrogen fuel cell EVs for the U.S. Army

Into this classic chicken-and-egg dilemma steps the U.S. Army. The Army's TARDEC vehicle research center has been working with GM to test a small fleet of fuel cell EVs in Hawaii, and on a new fuel cell SUV based on its Colorado model, called the ZH2.

In the latest development, last week GM unveiled something it calls the Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure (SURUS), which is designed to be the platform for a variety of different models.

Though the design is aimed at the commercial market, the Army is low-hanging fruit. If you caught that thing about "silent" in the name, that's an important tactical advantage that EVs have over conventional vehicles.

Along with silent running, a low heat signature is also an important tactical plus for EVs.

Another important feature of SURUS is its autonomous capabilities. The Army is already experimenting with semi-autonomous convoys, and SURUS would slide right into that concept.

Here's the rundown from GM, and you'll notice a subtle pitch to the Army in there:

SURUS leverages GM’s newest Hydrotec fuel cell system, autonomous capability and truck chassis components to deliver high-performance, zero-emission propulsion to minimize logistical burdens and reduce human exposure to harm. Benefits include quiet and odor-free operation, off-road mobility, field configuration, instantaneous high torque, exportable power generation, water generation and quick refueling times.

That "exportable power generation" angle is a significant one. It means that you could silently drive your SURUS to a site, and then just as silently use it to power other electrical equipment at the site -- a critical need for today's geared-up soldiers.

How serious is GM about fuel cell EVs?

So far, GM's SURUS announcement hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as its broader EV fleet announcement, but the company has made it clear that hydrogen will play a big role in its future:
Fuel cell technology represents a key piece of General Motors’ zero emission strategy. It offers a solution that can scale to larger vehicles with large payload requirements and operate over longer distances...The SURUS platform is equally well-suited for adaptation to military environments where users can take advantage of flexible energy resources, field configurability and improved logistical characteristics.

There's that pitch to the Army again, but evidently GM already has its eye on the consumer market as well, and it has been laying plans to roll out a significant number of fuel cell EVs. Last year the company announced $85 million in financing to build a fuel cell manufacturing plant in Michigan, as part of an ongoing fuel cell collaboration with Honda that launched in 2013.

GM's fuel cell technology is still in the evaluation stage at TARDEC. That includes stationary fuel cell generators, which share the same advantages of low noise, low odor and low heat for military applications. TARDEC expects to wrap up its testing early next year so stay tuned for more developments.

How serious is DoD about fuel cell EVs?

Interestingly, GM is also working with the US Navy to develop a small, unmanned fuel cell-powered submarine.

That's more bad news for fossil fuel fans. DoD is already front and center in the war against coal, and it has been developing a keen interest in both battery and fuel cell EVs.

If and when the Department of Defense adopts more EVs on a large scale, the national security factor will come into play, and you can expect more federal dollars aimed at growing the nation's network of battery EV charging stations and hydrogen fuel stations, too.

As for renewable hydrogen fuel, DoD is already on that, too. Last summer, for example, U.S. Army researchers joined the "water-splitting" club with a new method for generating renewable hydrogen from water.

Numerous research teams in the U.S. and globally are working on similar water-splitting technology, which can be powered by electricity sourced from sunlight.

With its growing number of on site solar arrays, DoD already has the solar power base covered, too.

Photo (cropped): via GM.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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