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Green Wheels

Refill stations key to success of fuel-cell vehicles

Fuel cell technology has major advantages over battery power, but will it ever be ready for commercial markets?

Published June 15, 2012

Steve Ellis drove white-knuckled from Detroit to Toronto.

Not because bad weather or crazy traffic put his life in danger.

Blue bars on his dashboard display were what rattled his nerves.

Ellis, manager of fuel-cell vehicle sales for American Honda, was bringing his company’s Clarity sedan to the World Hydrogen Energy Conference, held here last week.

The bars showed how much hydrogen remained in the high-pressure tank — less blue, less fuel. He knew from the start it would be dicey: The Clarity officially gets 320 kilometres on a full tank; this trip totalled 378.

But driving carefully, averaging 101 kilometres per hour, Ellis pulled up to the conference hotel with 30 kilometres to spare.

That light-footed style “is not how people typically drive cars,” Ellis says. But his trip “shows it can be done.”

The journey, like the conference, aimed to demonstrate the fuel-cell vehicle is alive and kicking, even though it’s been the “technology of the future” for so long that few outside the industry take it seriously and some declare it dead.

But Honda and other carmakers have continued research and development, and now say the fuel-cell vehicle is ready for prime time. And they’re (sort of) promising dates for the arrival of these cars, which generate electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen.

“We want instant gratification and fulfilment: that’s what society has been trained to expect,” Ellis says. But “this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Hyundai says will have 1,000 fuel-cell vehicles on the road next year. Since 2008, GM has racked up nearly 4 million kilometres on a fleet of 119 fuel-cell Equinoxes and has put 220,000 laboratory kilometres on its next generation technology, to be available by 2016. Daimler, with 200 cell-powered Mercedes-Benz B-class crossovers on test leases, has announced consumer sales in the “2014 onward time frame.” Honda isn’t promoting a sales date but has leased its Clarity to California customers since 2008.

Collectively, fuel-cell testers — cars, trucks and buses — have travelled millions of kilometres. While there’s always room for improvement, the technology is safe and durable, the carmakers say. I’ve driven four models, from one of the aging Equinoxes to a luxurious Benz B-class, and they’re all impressive.

The manufacturers won’t reveal what their production models will be or speculate on prices, although Daimler says its cost will be similar to an equivalent diesel hybrid.

The technology has two major advantages over battery power:

First, at current stages of development, fuel-cell vehicles travel further on a tank of hydrogen than electric vehicles go between charges, and they can be refuelled in minutes, rather than hours. In addition, while it’s extremely expensive to increase an EV’s range by enlarging its battery pack, fuel-cell vehicles just need a bigger hydrogen tank, which is relatively cheap. All this makes them as capable of long trips as any internal-combustion car.

Second, they’re powerful enough to move heavier vehicles and tow large loads.

The hydrogen can be produced from electricity or natural gas — now cheap and abundant thanks to the not-so-green practice of blasting it from the ground by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The challenge now is to cut costs and build fuelling stations.

The manufacturers say they’re on track for cost-saving measures such as reducing the amount of platinum in the cells.

The stations are a much tougher chicken-and-egg dilemma: Costs won’t fall until fuel-cell vehicles are made in mass volumes. They won’t sell in large numbers until stations are widely available. But who will build stations if the vehicles aren’t moving?

This is where the showroom dates become questionable.

Each station costs about $1 million. Studies conclude California, North America’s fuel-cell leader, would need 68 to support commercial sales. To date, only 25 are built or funded.

The Vancouver area has six; barely enough for a test fleet. The GTA would require 20 or 30, says Eric Denhoff, who heads the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association.

Canadian companies are world-beaters in testing fuel cells and building tanks. Vancouver has the planet’s largest fuel-cell bus fleet, with 20, and this month Daimler opens a cell manufacturing plant there.

But in Canada, only B.C. has a plan and cash to develop them, Denhoff says. “We’re behind . . . more work has to be done. There’s a need for early-adopter money from governments to solve the chicken-and-egg problem.”

So, fuel cell vehicles remain “the technology of the future.”

Still, to those who doubt, Daimler’s Christian Mohrdieck has some advice: “Let’s stay calm and wait for the fulfilment of the promises.”

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