As the journey towards the development of viable alternatives to petroleum-powered engines gathers pace, a great deal of the publicity at the recent Frankfurt Motor Show centred on the imminent release of all-electric cars by several of the major European automotive manufacturers. However, while much of the world’s press gushed over the forthcoming launch of the Volkswagen E-Up!, the sleek Audi e-Tron and a range of typically quirky offerings from Renault, officials from the upper echelons of the German car industry were quietly inking a deal that could pave the way for hydrogen-powered vehicles to emerge as a serious rival to electric vehicles.
The H2 mobility scheme
Early in September 2009, the German transport minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, met up with representatives of eight industrial partners in Berlin to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) aimed at establishing a national hydrogen fuel network, which could be fully operational across the country as early as 2015.
High-profile partners in the initiative, known as the H2 mobility scheme, include Daimler, EnBW, Linde, OMV, Shell, Total, Vattenfall and the NOW GmbH National Organisation for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology, leaving the door open for the involvement of further interested parties in the future.
The plan will take the form of two phases:
Phase 1, running from 2009 to 2011, will involve the assessment and evaluation of a variety of options for the establishment of a nationwide hydrogen network, as well as an analysis of possible measures to increase public support. New hydrogen fuelling stations will also be installed to expand the small existing hydrogen network in urban areas such as Berlin and Hamburg. This will take place within the framework of the German economic stimulus package (Konjunkturpaket II) and other national and state programs to jointly address standardisation and cost reduction issues.
Phase 2, set to run until 2015, will involve the further development of a national hydrogen fuel network and the introduction and commercialisation of electric vehicles fitted with fuel cells.
According to Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, “The widespread adoption of fuel cells will only occur when drivers can readily refuel with hydrogen. To accomplish that end, we’re working together with oil companies, energy providers and public policymakers to help drive the development of the necessary infrastructure.”
Clean Energy Partnership
Over the last few years, German companies have made significant progress in the development of hydrogen based technologies for the automotive sector, prompting many observers to single out the country as a potential ‘incubator’ market with the potential to kick-start the more widespread adoption of hydrogen technology across Europe. To a large extent, such significant progress has been enabled by the whole-hearted support of the German government in tandem with the on-going commitment of a critical mass of industrial stakeholders. These efforts have been crystallised by a common vision – the preparation for the commercialization of fuel-cell powered electric vehicles and the embedding of hydrogen- and fuel cell technologies in the future powertrain portfolio.
Co-ordinated efforts began in 2002, with the foundation of the Clean Energy Partnership (CEP), a partnership between global players like BMW, Daimler, Ford, GM/Opel and Volkswagen set up to provide comprehensive evidence that it is possible for ‘normal’ customers to safely use hydrogen for road transportation. Having already demonstrated the technical and economic viability of a hydrogen fuel infrastructure, the CEP has now embarked on an innovative project to establish the Hamburg–Berlin ‘hydrogen region.’
Scheduled to run until 2010, this phase of the project will concentrate on validating technology in everyday conditions, with a particular focus on the further development of technologies that are essential for hydrogen’s market entry at a later date. A third phase, running from 2011 until 2016, will further refine technical, political and organizational aspects in preparing the market for the introduction of commercial hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2016.
Recognising that the creation of a publicly accessible hydrogen infrastructure is a crucial prerequisite for the successful introduction of fuel-cell vehicles, Germany has forged ahead with the establishment of hydrogen centres in several urban areas, in particular Berlin and Hamburg. To date, a total of thirty hydrogen fuelling stations have been set up across the country, seven of which are publicly available at existing petrol stations. The burgeoning network means that Germany has established a comfortable lead over neighbouring countries and can already claim a leading position in terms of the development of a hydrogen infrastructure in Europe.
Key players in the sector suggest that as little as five to ten hydrogen fuelling stations may be enough to secure a modest ‘first supply’ in a major city and that, by connecting existing urban networks with complementary supply corridors on main transport arteries, the essential ingredients for a nationwide development can be created.
The fuel cell fleet
Unsurprisingly, the Berlin-Hamburg region is also the location of the highest concentration of existing hydrogen vehicles. Under the umbrella of the CEP, a fleet of 40 hydrogen vehicles are being used in an experiment to demonstrate the everyday viability of hydrogen as an alternative fuel for vehicles and to test the existing infrastructure of hydrogen fuelling stations.
Since it unveiled the first fuel-cell vehicle in 1994, Daimler has invested more than one billion Euros into the development of the technology. Given such high levels of R&D investment, it is not surprising that, with 100 test vehicles and over 4.5 million kilometres of test runs, the company can now boast one of the largest fuel-cell vehicle fleets of passenger cars and buses worldwide. The small series production of the B-Class F-CELL will commence at the end of 2009, with the first prototype of a new generation of fuel-cell buses also expected by the end this year.
In addition, Daimler’s rival BMW continues to support the development of Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicles, not least via the on-going promotion of the Hydrogen 7 luxury sedan. In a high-profile publicity event in 2007, a 100-strong fleet was delivered to a group of elite customers including politicians, celebrities, star athletes and industry leaders, in order to test the luxury vehicles in ‘real world’ conditions. Since then, the company has remained committed to the further development of the technology, particularly through a partnership with Ford (Aachen and Dearborn), Volvo and a number of other partners including Graz University of Technology, aimed at continuing research into hydrogen-fuelled combustion engines.
It is now clear that the H2 Mobility scheme represents Daimler’s contribution to an ambitious global hydrogen fuel initiative. Just a day before the German announcement, a consortium of some of the world’s leading fuel cell vehicle manufacturers including Daimler, as well as Ford, General Motors/Opel, Honda, Hyundai-Kia, the Renault-Nissan alliance and Toyota, issued an unprecedented joint statement, committing them to the market introduction of fuel cell vehicles from 2015.
The signatories strongly anticipate that from 2015 onwards a significant number of fuel cell vehicles, perhaps as many as several hundred thousand units over their life cycle, could be commercialised on a worldwide basis. Since each company will carry out their own specific production and commercial strategies to internal timetables, it is possible that the commercialisation of FCVs may even occur earlier than 2015.
Echoing the German strategy, the signatories urge that, to ensure the successful market introduction of fuel cell vehicles, a hydrogen infrastructure has to be built up with sufficient density, and should grow outwards from urban areas via corridors into region-wide coverage. They have also lent strong backing to the notion of establishing a large-scale hydrogen infrastructure in Europe, beginning in Germany, whilst simultaneously promoting similar projects in other regions, including the US, Japan and Korea.
Even though many analysts remain sceptical about its prospects, taken together, the German and global initiatives outlined above mean that there can now be little doubt that, far from quietly disappearing from view, hydrogen power is set to emerge as a key alternative energy source. At the launch of the H2 Mobility scheme, Wolfgang Tiefensee, the German Minister for Transportation, Building and Urban Affairs went as far as suggesting that, alongside electric, fuel cell technology will form a central part of the future energy mix saying, “Today, after more than 100 years of combustion engines and the dominance of oil, we are facing a new technological era in the transport sector. Our aim is to continue consistent and systematic promotion of electromobility based on batteries and fuel cells … aiming at establishing the nation-wide supply with hydrogen in Germany at around 2015 in order to support the serial-production of fuel cell vehicles.” While, at least in the short-term, it is very likely that much of the attention will continue to focus on battery technology, particularly with the forthcoming release of a raft of hybrid and all-electric vehicles, it will be interesting to observe the impact that the establishment of a growing viable hydrogen infrastructure will have on the perceptions of manufacturers, drivers and other stakeholders.