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Automakers are investing in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles but where are the stations?

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk calls hydrogen fuel cell technology “mind-boggingly stupid,” “incredibly dumb” and “fool cells.” Yet, world’s major automakers think hydrogen fuel cell technology is a gamble worth the risk. Toyota released the fuel cell vehicle Mirai in Japan in 2014. Hyundai offers a fuel cell SUV of the luxury Genesis brand meanwhile, Mercedes is launching a hybrid that combines fuel cells with plug-in electric technology. More are expected to launch in years to come. And so, fuel cell technology remains to be a worthy contender in the fuel of the future race.

With global energy usage going up, the prices will reach an all-time high. In such a scenario, big breakthroughs in the new production methods for electricity such as fuel cells may not be as bad as it sounds. Some of the world’s major automakers are leasing hydrogen-powered cars to customers, promising to improve fueling infrastructure, as they explore other alternative methods to power the engine. The cars these automakers provide fail because there are basically no fueling stations to refuel.

Musk’s complaint is that using hydrogen for storing energy would be far less efficient. Other critics have cites reasons such as affordability, safety and the lack of supporting infrastructure among other things. That’s all well and good, but to win big profits, automakers must do something about the lack of fueling infrastructure.

Are we thinking creatively enough about Hydrogen fuel cells?

At Davos this year, thirteen global energy, transport and industry companies formed the Hydrogen Council to position hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles as the most natural solution for zero emission vehicles. Companies involved are Alstom, Air Liquide, BMW Group, Daimler, ENGIE, Honda, Hyundai Motor, Kawasaki, Royal Dutch Shell, The Linde Group, Total and Toyota.

The Toyota Mirai

Image: The Toyota Mirai

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched H2USA, a private-public partnership with fuel cell electric vehicle original equipment manufacturers. The tryst will bring more than 50 hydrogen fueling stations by the end of 2017.

As of now, the only place in America where driving on hydrogen is affordable is in California. The state has 25 fueling stations, with 16 in Los Angeles and 9 in the Bay Area. The state has already invested $100 million into the project and plans to spend another $20 million to support the installation of 100 more stations by 2020.

All that development is worth the applause, however, it’s worth nothing if electric vehicles outpace fuel cells in the short term. According to IHS Automative electric vehicles will cover 4 percent of the total car market by 2025, from one percent of today. Fuel cells, on the other hand, will only be 0.5 percent.

There are other shortcomings, too. Building hydrogen fueling stations cost 5 times than what it takes to build a conventional gas station. Lastly, fuel cell vehicles still remain expensive, mainly due to expensive mechanics and parts.

Outside of California, there is almost no hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure. Internationally, countries in Europe and Asia are especially supportive of this technology. Tokyo recently made a $350 million investment to improve hydrogen fueling infrastructure. It plans to create a “hydrogen society” before the 2020 Summer Olympics that will be held in Japan. There are also plans to develop fuel-cell powered buses, about 100 of which will be on the streets by 2020. Germany, South Korea, the U.K. and a few Nordic countries aren’t behind either. Critics have regarded their bet on hydrogen fuel cell technology a risky gamble.

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