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UC Davis researchers suggest we may be at the beginning of a real hydrogen transition in transportation
15 August 2014
Researchers at the Institute of Transportation Studies University of California, Davis suggest that a number of positive trends indicate that we may be seeing the beginning of a real hydrogen transition in transportation, despite earlier starts that fizzled.
This is far from certain, they acknowledge in a new NextSTEPS whitepaper, as hydrogen faces a range of challenges, from economic to societal, before it can be implemented as a large-scale transportation fuel. Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are technically ready; what is still to be determined is the required confidence in hydrogen’s future for investors, fuel suppliers, automakers and consumers, they suggest. However, they note, “the trends are encouraging and the hydrogen enterprise has never been more serious and focused. The next three to four years will be critical for determining whether hydrogen vehicles are just a few years behind electric vehicles, rather than decades.”
NextSTEPS is a four-year (2011-2014) multidisciplinary research consortium, part of the Institute of Transportation Studies University of California, Davis. STEPS research includes four interdisciplinary energy pathways—hydrogen, biofuels, electricity, and fossil fuels—and eight cross-comparative areas—consumer demand and behavior; infrastructure system analysis; energy, environment, and cost analysis; innovation and business strategy; vehicle technology evaluation; integrative scenarios; policy analysis, and; mobility and travel behavior.
… in the past few years important factors have emerged that are re-accelerating the commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.
The next two to three years will see concerted efforts to introduce hundreds of hydrogen stations capable of supporting the introduction of tens of thousands of FCVs in selected regions worldwide, backed by several hundred million dollars in public investment and billions of dollars in private investment. If these regional rollouts succeed, hydrogen FCVs might be just a few years behind plug-in vehicles in the commercialization process and might ultimately capture a larger share of the light-duty vehicle market.—“The Hydrogen Transition”
Driving factors. Key to realizing the potential role for hydrogen in transportation is automakers’ continuing commitment to hydrogen FCVs as a necessary complement to plug-in electric vehicles and a critical component of their long-term strategy to provide vehicles that contribute to energy and climate policy goals.
In many respects, hydrogen FCVs could offer features that are similar to today’s gasoline cars and are more challenging to achieve in battery-powered vehicles, including good performance, large vehicle size, refueling time of 3-5 minutes and a range of 300-400 miles. In other words, hydrogen FCVs could enable zero tailpipe emissions and significantly lower life-cycle emissions without compromising consumer expectations.—“The Hydrogen Transition”
Hydrogen fueling infrastructure has been a major challenge. Recently, regional public-private partnerships have developed comprehensive strategies for coordinating early hydrogen infrastructure development with FCV rollouts in North America, Europe and Asia. These partnerships are bringing key stakeholders together. A few regions (notably California, Japan and Germany) have committed significant funds to support the next crucial steps forward on infrastructure build-out.
Worldwide,the UC Davis team notes, public funding for RD&D and policies supporting hydrogen is trending upwards (with the notable exception of the United States where federal support has fallen by about 60% from its peak in 2008, although states have moved to support hydrogen). Global public support now totals about $1 billion per year, leveraging many times that amount in private funds.
Low-cost shale gas has improved the prospects for natural gas-derived hydrogen, especially in the United States, where it is a major force in the resurgence of federal interest in hydrogen energy. And while natural gas-derived hydrogen does produce greenhouse gas emissions, these emissions are less than half those of a conventional gasoline vehicle, due to the greater efficiency of the fuel cell.
Several methods of producing hydrogen, including from renewable sources, provide the potential for even greater benefits.
Additionally, they note, hydrogen is being widely discussed as a flexible energy carrier for integrating intermittent renewables like solar and wind into the energy system. For example, power grids in Europe and North America are incorporating ever more intermittent renewables (especially wind power), which are not coincident with demand, creating significant amounts of excess generation and driving a growing interest in energy storage. Hydrogen’s potential advantage compared to other electricity storage technologies like batteries, compressed air and pumped hydro is its flexibility, enabling concepts like power to gas, seasonal storage as a means of better controlling the grid, and using off-peak power to make hydrogen transport fuel.
Transition issues. Primary issues to be addressed are: how to spur vehicle sales, how to coordinate the rollout of hydrogen infrastructure as vehicles arrive, how to build investor confidence in the market and how to reduce the early financial risks for fuel suppliers and automakers.
UC Davis researchers have examined both near-term and long-term transition issues, including managing the early introduction of hydrogen vehicles and associated infrastructure, and accomplishing a longer term transition to low carbon sources for hydrogen such as renewables and hydrocarbons with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
Their results indicate that it would be technically feasible to build out a hydrogen infrastructure coordinated with vehicle rollouts in a series of lighthouse cities. They find that perhaps 50,000 FCVs in a given region (e.g. Southern California) with 100 stations would be enough to bring hydrogen costs to competitiveness with gasoline on a cost per-mile basis. The station investment cost would be $100-$200 million.
Public funding. Early and durable public policy will be needed to launch hydrogen infrastructure, the team posits. Their calculations suggest that regional hydrogen infrastructure investments totaling $100-$200 million spent over perhaps 5-7 years in support of 100 stations could launch a cost-competitive regional hydrogen supply. It appears that this is poised to happen in at least three places in the world: California, Germany and Japan.
We seem to be tantalizingly close to the beginning of a hydrogen transition. But energy decision-makers have heard this before. Is it different this time? We believe it may be.
… The stalling point has been that the funding required to launch hydrogen infrastructure is more than the usual amount for R&D projects, though vastly less than for current expenditures on the energy system. The risks involved in getting through the “valley of death” have daunted investors. The long-term rate of return (and societal benefits) are potentially attractive, but the path is not certain. How to get across the valley of death? The first-mover disincentive has made it tougher to get private investment. Not surprisingly, some potential infrastructure investors want to wait until the FCV market is more secure and they could build large, fully utilized stations with confidence.
… If these regional rollouts are successful, hydrogen FCVs may be just a few years behind plug-in electric vehicle, not decades. It appears that these efforts may jumpstart the hydrogen economy at last.
Joan Ogden, Christopher Yang, Michael Nicholas, and Lew Fulton (2014) The Hydrogen Transition
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