For years, diesel has been the pinnacle of clean driving technology. But the scandal over cheated emissions tests at Volkswagen could reinvigorate attempts to get alternative technologies on the roads.
On Tuesday, six companies will sign a letter of intent at a meeting hosted by the German transport ministry that could give hydrogen fuel-cell cars an important boost, Handelsblatt has learned.
The Berlin-based joint venture is called H2 Mobility, and aims to set up and run 400 hydrogen filling stations in Germany by 2023.
German automaker Daimler, gas firms Air Liquide of France and Linde of Germany, French oil company Total, Anglo-Dutch group Shell und Austria’s OMV will all take part.
Investments in the project are estimated at €400 million, or $455 million.
The German government has already been subsidizing hydrogen technology, allotting €1.4 billion for the period of 2006 to 2016. A further €161 million will be added for development projects by 2018.
“We’re at a point that we haven’t reached in the past decades. The breakthrough is now possible,” Antoine Mazas, managing director of German unit Air Liquide Advanced Technologies, told Handelsblatt.
Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt will oversee Tuesday’s signing. “Electromobility must be emotional and arouse passion,” the minister told Handelsblatt, adding that electric cars with hydrogen fuel cells ticked those boxes. “They have a large range and can be refueled in just a few minutes.” The key now is to build a nationwide network of filling stations, he said.
Hydrogen fuel-cell cars drive without generating any emissions, provided the hydrogen is created from renewable energy sources. But so far, there’s a severe shortage of hydrogen models in series production.
“The breakthrough is now possible.”
Korea’s Hyundai and Japan’s Toyota have launched cars and Honda plans to follow suit shortly. The first model from Daimler is expected in 2017. At present, however, Germany has only 19 public hydrogen filling stations, though it had planned to have 50 stations by 2015.
It’s the chicken and egg problem. Without more vehicles, it makes no commercial sense to open hydrogen filling stations. But without filling stations, customers won’t buy the cars.
“Of course the infrastructure must come first,” said Mr. Mazas of Air Liquide. “But with 400 filling stations we’ll have very good coverage. Then everyday use will be possible.”
Linde’s management sounds equally upbeat. “Fuel-cell drive technology has made enormous progress and is on the brink of its market launch,” chief executive Wolfgang Büchele said. The technology could help to significantly curb emissions, he added. Linde has equipped 100 filling stations around the world with hydrogen technology, including 14 of Germany’s 19 public locations.
Video: How hydrogen fuel-cell technology works.
The VW scandal could give hydrogen a further boost. “The diesel scandal shows that we’re reaching the limits with the combustion engine,” one industry source said.
German manufacturers have long argued that diesel could compete with alternative driving systems. But Mr. Mazas of Air Liquide begs to differ. “Burning fossil fuels isn’t possible without emissions,” he said.
Germany plans to have up to 50 hydrogen filling stations by 2016 when a development project called Clean Energy Partnership ends. “We have proven that the technology works,” Mr. Mazas said. “Now we want to spread it.”
Hydrogen isn’t just a big issue in Germany, either. Japan, the United States and other European countries are pushing it too. With the advantage of a bigger range and faster refueling times, fuel-cell vehicles can compete with purely electric cars. The problem is that the first models to hit the market have been expensive. That’s why there have been calls for direct purchase subsidies for the vehicles.
Air Liquide said the cars could be made more attractive in other ways as well, by assigning them privileged parking rights or allowing them to use bus lanes, for example.
Linde engineers have also developed the world’s first hydrogen bicycle to boost public awareness of the technology. It can travel 100 kilometers on just 34 grams of hydrogen gas. A limited prototype series is being planned, Handelsblatt has learned.
Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Axel Höpner is the head of Handelsblatt’s Munich office, focusing in particular on Allianz and Siemens. To contact the authors: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org