Will hydrogen powered vehicles be the way of the future?

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By Bruce Lantz

World leaders, at least in North America have made it clear: Electric vehicles are the path to an environmentally-friendly future.

But are they? Sitting in the wings and getting very little attention from climate change aficionados are hydrogen vehicles, which many experts say are even better for the environment than lithium battery-powered EVs.

Certainly, hydrogen fuel cell technology is emerging as a viable alternative to fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel. Hydrogen can generate electricity in a clean and effective manner using primary energy sources such as water, natural gas, biomass, etc. It can be used to supply electricity across sectors that include transportation, industrial and commercial buildings, and long-term grid-based energy storage in reversible systems. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) powered by hydrogen are among the cleanest modes of transportation, releasing no harmful tailpipe emissions and only emitting water vapour and warm air. Also, they possess more energy, take less time to fill up and can operate over a longer range between fill-ups. But at present, due to limited infrastructure and hydrogen dispensing units available, their acquisition and total cost is more than lithium battery-powered EVs. But government incentives and development of core aggregates will reduce costs and improve the overall economics of FCEVs.

Fuel cells are already used to generate electricity in other applications, such as in spacecraft and in stationary uses such as emergency power generators. Although the fuel cell concept was developed in England in the 19th century, the first viable fuel cells were not manufactured until the 1950s. There are hurdles to overcome before large-scale introduction of FCVs is possible: hydrogen production, distribution and storage, fuel cell technology and overall vehicle cost. But several initiatives are underway. Equinor ASA (EQNR:OL) and Tallgrass Energy LP (TGE:NYSE) are collaborating to pursue the development of large-scale low-carbon hydrogen and ammonia projects across North America. And EverWind Fuels (EVER:NASDAQ) and Bear Head Energy (BE:NYSE) are developing two neighbouring projects in the Canso Strait area of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. While Equinor and Tallgrass have not indicated when their sites might begin production, EverWind says it should be online by 2025.

“This is very positive news, especially given that such huge changes are on the horizon for things like vehicle requirement, a greener economy and the elimination of using coal to make electricity,” said Misty MacDonald, executive director of the Strait Regional Chamber of Commerce in Cape Breton.

“These companies are investing significant dollars in transitioning to the green economy. Those are positive indicators that things are going to continue to move in that direction. And there are also some other companies looking down the hydrogen pathway. Everything points positively in the right direction that things are moving forward.”

But moving toward what? Experts are divided on the value of hydrogen fuel cells for electric vehicles. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said hydrogen as a fuel is “the most dumb thing I could possibly imagine” while Anna Shpitsberg, deputy assistant secretary for energy transformation at the U.S. State Department called it a “game-changing technology”.

Certainly it’s obvious that more are looking at hydrogen’s potential.

In 2018, unit sales increased by roughly 5% compared to 2017, while total megawatts (MW) sold increased at a much faster pace of 22% compared to 2017.2 Sales are dominated by three regions – Asia consisting of Japan, Korea, and China; Europe with particular emphasis on Germany; and North America with California accounting for the majority of sales and activity to date. 

Canada’s hydrogen and fuel cell sector continues to thrive based on export market demand. The sector is recognized for its expertise and leading technologies, with Canadian products and services contributing to “world’s first” initiatives in the global rail, marine, transit, and light duty vehicle (LDV) markets.

Market activity in Canada has significantly increased over the past two years with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) spending to promote and deploy their fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), new public hydrogen stations opening, Toyota’s plan to bring 50 FCEVs to Quebec, Ontario’s transit agency Metrolinx assessing the feasibility of hydrogen-powered trains for regional GO Transit service, Canada’s first power-to-gas project coming online in Ontario, Air Liquide’s announcement of its plans to produce hydrogen from renewable power at its Becancour, Quebec, facility, and Alberta’s heavy Class 8 hydrogen hybrid truck project. 

The federal policy environment now centres on greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, technology innovation, and clean growth as the supports for a low carbon future. All three areas are relevant to greater hydrogen and fuel cell use across the economy. Six specific actions identified in the Pan-Canadian Framework can support greater hydrogen use in transportation and stationary applications. Natural Resources Canada’s (NRCan’s) Electric Vehicle and Alternative Fuel Infrastructure Deployment Initiative (EVAFIDI) is also helping to remove barriers to the availability of hydrogen fueling stations for public use. In addition, Budget 2019 included $130 million in funding over five years for zero-emission vehicle-related infrastructure. 

The Clean Fuel Standard will provide an important assist once it is implemented in the 2022-2023 timeframe as it will require increasingly lower levels of carbon in liquid, gaseous, and solid fuels for transportation, industry, and buildings. 

ZEV mandates, in place in Quebec and announced in British Columbia, could be a driver of change for OEMs with hydrogen FCEVs in their product lineup. New investments in publicly-accessible fueling stations are being supported by the federal government as well as British Columbia and Quebec. 

Certainly Eastern Canada is welcoming the introduction of the Cape Breton facility which will produce, store and export green hydrogen for markets in Canada, the American northeast and in the North Sea. The product will be shipped from a nearby port at Point Tupper, which can handle the largest tankers in the world, and the regional also has the road and rail infrastructure to move good efficiently.

“The Strait is well-positioned to welcome this,” said Tyler Mattheis, president and CEO of the Cape Breton Partnership, a private sector-led not-for-profit organization focused on all of Cape Breton. “These big companies and their investments are really shining a light on the opportunities here.”

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