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The Hydrogen Economy Is No Longer A Pipe Dream

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Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage is a California-based journalist covering clean vehicles, alternative energy, and economic and regulatory trends shaping the automotive, transportation, and mobility sectors.

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China’s ‘Elon Musk’ Sees Big Future For Hydrogen Cars

The world's largest auto market may be changing its focus on which alternative fuel will have the leading edge. The man credited with making China the world's center of electric vehicles sales is now championing hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs). 

Wan Gang, a vice chairman of China’s national advisory body for policy making and former science and technology minister, is advising his country to take FCVs very seriously.

“We should look into establishing a hydrogen society,” Gang said. “We need to move further toward fuel cells.”

The previous Audi executive will be continuing the country's subsidy program for hydrogen-powered vehicles as EVs see incentives wane and phase out next year. Gang has been backing FCVs for years, bringing the same argument to the table that has won support for “new energy vehicles” (EVs)— boosting economic growth, tackling China’s dependence on oil imports, and reducing air pollution in the country’s fast-growing cities.

Gang understands that fuel-cell vehicles have quite a long way to go with only about 1,500 of them on Chinese roads, versus more than 2 million battery electric vehicles. Part of the challenge has been a very thin fueling station network.

There are only about a dozen of these hydrogen stations in place so far in China. Compare that to about 100,000 gas stations and over a million EV charging stations

China’s largest hydrogen station opened up earlier this month in Shanghai. The station was built by Shanghai Yilan Energy and Technology with daily capacity of fueling up to 1,920 kg of the gas. That’s enough to refuel up to 600 vehicles per day when it becomes operational soon.

The new station is expected to bolster Shanghai’s bus fleet, and help grow its inventory of fuel-cell buses. Shanghai is one of many Chinese cities that has seen much of its growth in alternative fuels tied to public fleet vehicles. Related: Cheddar To The Rescue? UK Company Uses Cheese To Power 4,000 Homes

Along with driving China to account for half the world's EV sales, Gang has been pushing for fuel cell vehicles for several years. He developed three FCVs during his time from 2003 and 2005 as chief scientist for China’s 863 Program, but it was certainly way too early to gain support. Now, he wants to see the country’s generous subsidies that are behind its EV sales success continue on with FCVs.

Toyota Motor Corp. is looking forward to hydrogen taking off in China. The Japanese company recently forged a business unit to build hydrogen-powered buses in China with Beijing Automotive Group Co. (BAIC). The companies are expected to increase production to be ready to provide fuel-cell buses to the Winter Olympics being held in the nation’s capital in 2022. These will be built by BAIC’s Foton Motor Group subsidiary fuel-cell buses.

The collaboration between Toyota and Foton is expected to extend to a full range of models, including passenger cars, vans, and light and heavy trucks.

Toyota began testing its Mirai fuel-cell car in China in 2017. The Mirai has been the top selling FCV in the world so far, but the numbers are not impressive — about 11,000 total FCVs sold so far worldwide. Nearly half of them have been in California, where generous incentives for buying the cars and building the fueling stations have helped.

The cost of the car is part of the challenge. Japanese government subsidies helped bring down the Mirai’s sticker price from the equivalent of about $70,000 to about $50,000. Toyota and other automakers say that the high prices come from the cost of fuel cell production. Toyota says that prices will drop as FCV production ramps up. 

Mr Gang doesn’t seem to worry about the challenges that typically come up over backing fuel-cell vehicles and their hydrogen fueling stations.

“We will sort out the factors that have been hindering the development of fuel-cell vehicles,” he said.

One of the strengths that FCVs have over EVs is driving range and fast-fueling time. Once these hydrogen stations become more common, vehicle buyers are expected to be drawn to the technology and fuel by being able to go 400 or more miles on a fueling and refilling the tank in less than five minutes at the pump.

Mr Gang’s vision is that EVs will provide a tangible solution for dealing with inner-city traffic and pollution in the near future. Hydrogen-powered buses and trucks would perform well on highways for long-distance travel.

While China’s economy is stalled out and its new vehicle sales have dropped, that won’t be lasting forever. Embracing FCVs and hydrogen could be a huge boost forward for the automotive industry.

By Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com

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