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Britons now can buy hydrogen cars, even if they have virtually no place to recharge them. Two manufacturers, Toyota and Hyundai, have already begun marketing their fuel cell cars in the UK.
Toyota plans an aero-styled sedan priced, for now at least, at a little over $100,000. Hyundai's first offering is expected to be a “crossover” model, an SUV that looks like a car, for about $81,000. Honda says it will join them in Britain in 2017.
“The only emissions out of the back of the car is water, either as water vapor or droplets, so you have no CO2, no [toxic nitrogen oxide], no particulates,” Robin Hayles, manager of sustainable fuel development at Hyundai, told The Guardian.
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“You have the advantages of petrol and diesel in terms of range, performance and refill times, and the advantages of an electric vehicle: zero emissions, very smooth to drive, and instant torque,” Hayles said.
The key here is emissions, which have become an important feature for cars in the kingdom. Britons drive so many diesel-powered Volkswagens that the country has been exceeding its pollution safety limits set by the European Union since 2010 because of the German automaker's use of “defeat devices” on millions of its vehicles, which vastly under-report their emissions of toxic nitrogen oxide.
So far, neither Toyota nor Hyundai have sold a hydrogen car to an individual customer. The cars are expensive. Even with a rebate of more than $23,000 per vehicle from the EU, they cost about twice as much as most electric cars, and of course are far, far more expensive than those powered by fossil fuels.
As of now, their potential customers are companies with connections to industries involved in recharging the vehicles. They include companies with fleets of cars, such as taxi firms, and local government bodies such as Transport for London, which is responsible for public transit in the United Kingdom's capital.
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The reason is essentially the same problem that plagues electric vehicles (EVs) in California: few recharging stations. California is a leader in the United States in adopting electric cars, with more than 150,000 EVs on its roads, but not nearly enough charging stations to serve them all regularly.
A gasoline-powered car can travel at least 200 miles without refueling, but an EV can go only about 80 miles on a single charge. Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation that includes language encouraging California's leading utilities to compete to set up thousands of charging stations throughout the state.
The same is true in Britain with respect to hydrogen charging stations. In fact, there are only four in the kingdom. And it raises the old chicken-and-egg conundrum: With a dearth of charging stations, no one will buy hydrogen cars. But if no one buys the cars, why build the charging stations?
Britain faced that problem in 2010 to serve electric vehicles, and solved it with easily accessible charging posts along roads around the country at a cost of a few thousand dollars each. But hydrogen charging stations cost significantly more.
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As a result, government and industry expect there will be no more than 65 hydrogen charging stations in Britain by 2020, mostly in urban areas. Michael Dolman of the consultancy Element Energy says the country would need 1,000 such stations to achieve comprehensive coverage.
The British government has stepped forward with financial help. For example, it contributed nearly $3 million of about $5.5 million in grants to one company, ITM Power, to build two new hydrogen charging stations in London.
But that's only a very small start. Despite its steep cost, the hydrogen car has around four times the driving range of an electric car; Hyundai's boasts a range of 360 miles. But that's cold comfort if the nearest charging station is 400 miles away.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com