The race to replace hydrogen vehicle fuel derived from natural gas with renewable hydrogen just became a little more interesting, thanks to Hyundai. The automaker recently announced a fuel cell vehicle project in South Korea powered by fossil hydrogen, but it is also collaborating with various organizations on projects that deploy renewable hydrogen in the U.S. and Switzerland.
For companies looking to decarbonize their fleets, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles offer an alternative to battery EVs. They have zero tailpipe emissions, except water.
Fuel cell vehicles also have the advantage of fueling up in minutes like a conventional vehicle. And overall, they have a longer range than battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs).
The problem is that most hydrogen today is sourced from natural gas. Companies that seek next-level, supply chain decarbonization need to focus on opportunities in the emerging field of renewable hydrogen.
Hyundai is one auto manufacturer pushing the shift to renewable hydrogen, though it is still involved in the fossil fuel-based hydrogen field.
Last week, Hyundai announced that it will deliver a total of 12 fuel cell trucks to South Korea’s Gwangyang Port in South Jeolla Province. Unfortunately for green hydrogen advocates, apparently the idea is to fuel the trucks with hydrogen from petrochemical facilities at the port.
On the renewable side, Hyundai is already engaged in a long-running collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy for fuel cell vehicles, and earlier this year it loaned five of its splashy new Nexo fuel cell sedans to the DOE for use in the greater Washington, D.C. region. The cars will be used for a technology validation study that includes fueling up with renewable hydrogen.
The DOE plans to send its Nexos to different parts of the U.S. for study. That is a significant development, because currently hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are mainly confined to California, where a hydrogen fuel station network is gradually taking shape.
Outside of California, companies seeking either fossil or renewable hydrogen are faced with the same problem that bedeviled battery EVs in the early years: Why invest in zero-emission vehicles when there is no convenient fuel station?
The DOE does not plan to leave its new Nexo fleet stranded without fuel. At least some of the cars will have access to compact renewable hydrogen fuel stations, regardless of where they are sent.
The Nexo collaboration involves the so-called “SimpleFuel" fuel stations developed by the U.S. company IVYS Energy Solutions, with support from the DOE. SimpleFuel units are far less expensive than building new fueling station infrastructure: They are modular, shippable, and can fit into a space the size of a parking spot.
They are also designed to produce renewable hydrogen on site: The SimpleFuel system “splits” hydrogen from water. Ideally, renewable sources of power will provide the electricity needed to run the system.
The South Korea project may be a step backward for decarbonization, but it is dwarfed by another Hyundai project in Switzerland that involves the launch of 1,600 fuel cell trucks.
The trucks will fuel up under an arrangement with the renewable hydrogen consortium Hydrospider. As with SimpleFuel, Hydrospider is zeroing in on water-splitting to produce renewable hydrogen.
Hydrospider’s plans also involve deploying renewable energy to run its water-splitting operation. Among the consortium members is Alpiq, a leading Swiss energy producer focusing on hydropower. The fuel cell company H2 Energy and the industrial gas and engineering firm Linde AG round out the membership.
The jury is still out on whether or not vehicles running on fuel cells can compete with either (or both) conventional vehicles and battery-powered EVs.
Analysts are all over the map. Some see a cost-competitive future looming just over the horizon, in about five years or so. Others see renewable hydrogen edging into the market for stationary energy storage in the near future, while struggling to get a foothold in mobile applications.
Time will tell. In the meantime, three states in the far reaches of the U.S. northeast — Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont — are already putting out feelers for stationary energy storage systems that can work with renewable hydrogen.
The aim is to use hydrogen as a storage medium for wind and solar energy, allowing more renewables into the grid. Alleviating transmission bottlenecks is another goal of the projects.
The energy storage angle provides renewable energy producers with new opportunities to monetize their facilities during periods of low demand.
If that trend takes hold, economies of scale could help bring the cost of renewable hydrogen down, making the prospects for a competitive fuel cell vehicle market look a little brighter.
Image credit: Hyundai USA
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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