In an article by Penton-owned Auto-industry news and data service WardsAuto, Executive Director of the EU PPI Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative; Bert De Colvenaer is quoted as saying “there is no market for this technology”.

It’s an interesting statement to make at a time when three major manufacturers (Hyundai, Mercedes and Toyota) have announced they will be launching fuel cell vehicles in 2 years time.

Clearly there is not going to be a market for a technology which is still prohibitively expensive, and requires a refuelling infrastructure that doesn’t yet exist, but I think the point that Bert De Colvenaer is making, is that 2015 is the earliest that the market may exist, and as such there is likely to be a blend of technologies before any one dominates, if indeed any one technology does become dominant.

The EU are investing €1.4bn in to the technology through the Public/Private initiative, with a view to making the technology cheaper and to support and generate a demand and a market for the technology – they recognise that Hydrogen has a part to play in the move to cleaner vehicles and a reduction in emissions and pollutants.

While the likes of Hyundai, Mercedes and Toyota are hedging their bets on one technology dominating the future transport market, it’s reassuring that the EU research backed view is less single minded:

“We are trying to introduce a fourth energy vector in the market besides gas, petroleum and electricity…
…There will be no one winner in our community. They will all win.”

I agree: the route to cleaner vehicles, greater energy efficiency and the reduction of emissions is not a single technology path: a number of solutions will fit together: the concept of e-mobility.

For Hydrogen: the technology and materials price needs to drop a great deal more, and the infrastructure needs to be rolled out to support it. In the meantime battery EVs are affordable, the fast-charge infrastructure is growing, and the slow charge infrastructure arguably already exists for a great deal of EU drivers; home-charging for short, local journeys.

Auto makers like Hyundai, Toyota and Mercedes seem to want one technology to dominate, and for that to be fuel cells, but that’s a gamble, because if battery/energy storage technology improves at a faster rate than the costs of fuel cell technology drops and infrastructure roll-out takes place: they may find themselves backing the wrong horse.

But I don’t think that’s the point of them backing fuel cells – I expect they know that battery EVs stand a chance of being dominant in the shorter term, and if that does happen: they wont necessarily lose out, because fuel cell vehicles are EVs with a different kind of energy storage: I have no doubt they will produce excellent production battery EVs if the market demands it, but ultimately they expect Hydrogen to play its part, and they know that it will need political support to happen quickly, and they intend to put them selves in a dominate position from the start.

They also realise that the oil companies have a big interest in the success of hydrogen, which pretty-much gurantees that fuel cells will play a part in future transport. The oil companies are proving to be more valuable partners in hydrogen infrastructure investment, than the power-utilities are for battery EV charge infrastructure investment. Toyota, Mercedes and Hyundai know that they wont be making this journey alone.

The full WardsAuto article:

European Partners Aim to Promote Fuel Cells, Hydrogen

BRUSSELS – A public-private partnership that is heading into its second phase in 2014 wants to make fuel-cell and hydrogen technology a reality in the European market in coming years.

“The fuel-cells and hydrogen technology is ready for demonstration, but it will take another couple of years before it is ready for market,” Bert De Colvenaer, executive director of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative says during a European Parliament event in Brussels.

The initiative he is managing has obtained commitments of €1.4 billion ($1.9 billion) from the European Commission’s funding program for research and from the automotive and energy industries. “The ambition is to keep on improving the technology, to make it cheaper, long-term and with a long life,” De Colvenaer says.

The challenge, he says, is that currently there is no market for this technology. In the first phase of the intiative that launched in 2008, the industry worked alongside research centers to develop and demonstrate the technology; the upcoming phase will look into preparing it for the market.

“We are trying to introduce a fourth energy vector in the market besides gas, petroleum and electricity,” De Colvenaer says, noting that second-phase participants want to see the market mechanism embrace this developing energy technology.

To do that, projects receiving second-phase funding will be those that lower the cost of the technology and ensure that it enters into mass production. De Colvenaer says companies that never have worked together before, including those from the petroleum, gas and automotive industries, are collaborating in this partnership to put fuel-cell vehicles on the road.

“There will be no one winner in our community,” he says. “They will all win.”

De Colvenaer praises the cooperation between the energy industries and the EC in the first phase of the initiative. Funding for the companies was allocated in areas it most wanted to develop, while Brussels was able to guide the industry toward potential solutions for society’s transport and environmental needs.

This way of working will be perpetuated in the second phase of the partnership, De Colvenaer tells WardsAuto. But he cautions against setting hopes too high.

“A technology loop where you build something takes about five years,” he says. “You can’t increase the speed of technology development much.”

De Colvenaer believes hydrogen will be the solution for storing energy generated from renewable resources, and technically that already is possible. Hydrogen then would provide the link for Europe’s transition from fossil fuels to less-polluting forms of energy powering cars.

“Fuel cells and hydrogen will allow Europe to cope with sustainability and security of supply in the future” he says.

That also will keep the EU at the forefront of technology and market development. Otherwise, De Colvenaer warns, “the international competition would be fierce, mostly with Japan and China.”

The initiative ultimately should help Europe do away with combustion engines, something European Parliament member Vittorio Prodi, an Italian Social Democrat, finds appealing.

“The joint undertaking is important per se” says Prodi, a member of the Parliament committee on industry, research and energy. “But it also means so much for the development and advancement of our society.”

The final public funding for the partnership must be confirmed after the European Parliament and EU governments agree on an overall EU budget for 2014-2020. Confirmation is expected in the next two months.

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