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Tina Casey headshot

Hydrogen Skeptics Be Warned - Hyundai Has an H2 Vision

By Tina Casey

Electric vehicles are taking the world by storm, but there is already trouble on the horizon. Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (often referred to as FCEV) are beginning to compete for the hearts and minds of the motoring public.

In the latest development, earlier this week Hyundai Motor Group announced a roadmap for the hydrogen powered future it’s calling “FCEV Vision 2030.”

The Hyundai FCEV Vision 2030

Hyundai, which includes the Kia brand, is not messing around. The company plans to “drastically boost its annual fuel-cell systems production capacity by 2030” while also partnering its fuel cell technology with other auto companies as well as drones, ships, railway engines and, of course, forklifts.

Why forklifts? That’s a good question. The warehouse logistics sector has been among the early adopters to switch from batteries to fuel cells, considering it must have zero emission vehicles for indoor work.

Fuel cells win out in two key areas: time and space.

Automobiles powered by fuel cells can be refueled as quickly as an those with an internal combustion engine, so warehouse operators aren’t stuck with racks of batteries waiting to be charged. Without the need for a battery room, warehouse operators can use that space for other needs.

Power generation and energy storage are two other growth areas that Hyundai expects to see.

It’s a hydrogen society, we just live in it

Like Toyota, Hyundai is looking at hydrogen as a holistic solution to 21st-century energy needs. Here’s the money quote from Euisun Chung, Executive Vice Chairman of Hyundai Motor Group:
“Hyundai Motor Group, the global pioneer of the commercial production of FCEV, is taking a bold step forward to expedite the realization of a hydrogen society We are confident that hydrogen power will transcend the transportation sector and become a leading global economic success.”

Hyundai is also keeping a close eye on the competition. If all goes according to this FCEV Vision 2030 plan, Hyundai will ramp its FCEV production up to 500,000 units per year by 2030. That should be enough to keep Hyundai in the running for a leader in global production, which the company calculates will reach 2 million units yearly by 2030.

Other elements of FCEV Vision 2030 include a second fuel cell manufacturing plant in Chungju, South Korea and the splashy launch of Hyundai’s second-generation NEXO model.

One thing holding back the FCEV auto market is high cost relative to battery EVs and conventional automobiles. Hyundai, though, anticipates that improvements in fuel cell technology will help bring down the true cost of ownership (the cost of the vehicles plus lifetime fuel and maintenance costs).

Oh, no! Not again!

If this sounds like deja vu all over again, you’re onto something.

When automotive transportation first burst upon the scene in the late 19th century, electric cars were the mode of choice. Unfortunately the heyday of the battery was short lived. Petroleum-fueled engines soon beat them out on cost and convenience, and the rest is history.

So, now that battery EVs have gotten another chance, are they going to blow it again?

In other words, will hydrogen vehicles eventually push out battery EVs? Fortunately for battery fans, the answer is probably no.

Battery technology has improved (to put it mildly) since the 19th century, meaning greater range at less cost. Just as importantly, opportunities to charge an EV are more widespread and convenient. Even up through the 1930’s, many rural communities across the U.S. had no electricity.

Clean energy is yet another factor favoring battery technology. Not long ago, EVs in the U.S. were likely to be charged with electricity from coal-fired power plants unless hydropower was available. Fossil fuels are still part of the picture, but solar and wind power are beginning to join hydropower as significant sources of electricity within the national grid mix.

Speaking of fossil fuels, that’s also an issue for fuel cell vehicles. Most hydrogen is currently sourced from fossil natural gas.

Fortunately, clean tech is cleaning up the fuel cell landscape, just as it has been tidying up battery EVs.

The key development is using an electrical current to “split” hydrogen from water, with the electricity sourced from renewables like wind or solar power.

Image credit: Hyundai.

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey