Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

Leading Gas Company Launches Hydrogen Fuel Cell EV Fleet

By Tina Casey

France-based ENGIE is best known for its leadership role in distributing, storing and importing natural gas in Europe. So, when the company launched a fleet of 50 hydrogen fuel cell utility vehicles last week, it would be natural to assume that the hydrogen is coming from the usual source, namely, natural gas.

Guess again. The project comes under the umbrella of one of ENGIE's numerous subsidiaries, ENGIE Cofely, which is centered on energy efficiency and sustainability. If the fleet is a bottom line success, it could be the beginning of a long, slow -- or rapid, as the case may be -- global transition to renewable hydrogen.

Renewable Hydrogen For Fuel Cell EVs

For those of you new to the topic, fuel cell EVs run on electricity, just like their battery-powered cousins. The difference is that fuel cells generate electricity on board through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen.

If that on-the-go factor sounds like an advantage over today's generation of battery EVs, it is. A tank of hydrogen takes minutes to fill up, far faster than a typical full battery charge.

On the downside is that thing about natural gas, but with the advent of low cost renewable energy, fossil hydrogen could be on the way out. Among the many pathways to renewable H2 is electrolysis, in which an electrical current is used to "split" water.

The new fuel cell EV fleet will consist of 50 hydrogen Renault Kangoo vans, which ENGIE Cofely will deploy to service buildings it has under contract in the Ile-de-France.

Here's the money quote:

The definitive installation will produce hydrogen on site with an electrolyser powered solely by renewable energy. The hydrogen station is designed, manufactured and integrated by McPhy, a leader in production, storage and hydrogen distribution equipment that serves the energy transition.

From Natural Gas To Renewable Hydrogen

Parent company ENGIE is among the growing ranks of legacy fossil companies acknowledging that the age of oil and gas is drawing to a close.

That doesn't necessarily mean demand for oil or gas will evaporate entirely, but it does mean that energy companies will need to diversify into renewable energy if they want to stay afloat -- and do right by their investors.

In a press release announcing the new fuel cell fleet project, ENGIE states that it "positions itself as a forerunner in this revolution:"

...ENGIE owns, through its subsidiary GNVert, more than 150 alternative fuel stations in France.
 ENGIE is also an international leader on the recharging infrastructures market for electronic vehicles, with a presence in 30 countries and 980 cities around the world.

The company also notes the growing role of power-to-gas technology, which deploys renewable hydrogen as an energy storage platform for wind and solar power. In other words, renewable hydrogen acts as an enabler for integrating more wind and solar into the grid:
...renewable hydrogen is one of the missing links needed to construct a more sustainable energy system. This conviction led the Group to create in the beginning of 2018 a business unit with a global vocation dedicated to this market in the making.

It looks like ENGIE has decided to go head-to-head with the similarly named Enel Group, a company that has been in the vanguard of the energy transition. That's quite a sea change for ENGIE, which was the target of environmentalists' wrath in the runup to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

It remains to be seen if the new "business unit" will ease the company out of its fossil dependency. However, given the goings-on at last week's meeting of the G7 in Canada, stability of price and supply would be a major and growing advantage for renewable hydrogen over its fossil-sourced cousin.

Gilding The Fuel Cell EV Lily

Circling back to that new fleet project, as an expert in efficiency ENGIE Cofely is also looking to leverage autonomous capabilities to cut costs.

Reduced fueling time is one element the company anticipates. The renewable hydrogen company McPhy is providing its "McFill" filling station for the fuel cell fleet, and is claiming a filling time of less than five minutes. There may be other efficiencies related to autonomous driving and connectivity, too.

ENGIE Cofely is also responding to a direct bottom line incentive for switching to zero emission vehicles. The fleet will fuel up at the Rungis International Market, which bills itself as the biggest fresh produce market in the world. Toll-free driving is available to "clean" vehicles as part of a broader strategy to cut down on pollution:

With a stream of more than 25 000 vehicles per day, the Rungis Market, which offers free motorway toll to all clean vehicles that use the station for refueling, is a strategic location for the development of green mobility for freight transport in Ile-de-France.

Rungis Market has also embarked on a broader sustainable development program to address transportation emissions and other issues.

Other partners in the ENGIE Cofely fleet venture include Symbio, which converted the vehicles for fuel cells and enhanced autonomous operation, and Alphabet, which owns the vehicles and is renting them to ENGIE Cofely. Financial support was provided by the European Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking.

Converting Fleets To Clean Power

Speaking of Alphabet, the Alphabet in this fleet project is not to be confused with the parent company of Google. Alphabet is BMW's fleet management subsidiary. It launched in Europe in 1997 and within 10 years it grew over the 250,000 vehicle milestone. In about half that time -- from 2007 to 2013 -- it doubled to more than 500,000 vehicles, and by 2015 Alphabet was billing itself as one of the five largest fleet providers in the world.

In 2010, Alphabet began dipping into the sustainable driving market with a car sharing service called AlphaCity, aimed at enabling companies to expand beyond conventional carpooling. It also began offering clients offsets for carbon emissions in the form of environmental projects.

The company currently offers an electric vehicle option, and if all goes well with the ENGIE Cofely fleet, it looks like renewable hydrogen could be the next addition to the company's sustainable mobility menu -- with the potential for a significant impact on the global marketplace.

Fuel Cell Mobility For The USA

ENGIE Cofely already has a footprint in the US -- last year, for example, it entered into a 50-year, $1.65 billion contract with Ohio State University to help the school meet its climate goals -- and if the new fuel cell EV fleet is successful, there is a good chance the venture could be replicated here.

Toyota is among the companies tapping into the California market for early fuel cell EV adopters, and the US Department of Energy is supporting renewable hydrogen and the fuel cell EV market through foundational research and public-private partnerships.

Fuel cells are emerging into the US logistics sector thanks in part to Amazon, and at least one US company, the startup Nikola, has introduced plans for long haul semi trucks powered by fuel cells.

In the latest development, last week Nikola announced that it is looking to hire "top talent" to staff its new electric drive and fuel cell R&D center in Arizona.

Nikola is still in the pre-order phase, but a recent commitment of up to 800 fuel cell vehicles by the global beer giant Anheuser-Busch indicates that the company's business model is on track.

Photo: via McPhy.

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