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[Sustainable Future] Hydrogen cars drive hydrogen future

An economy based on the clean gas begins on a dangerous road

Oct 22,2019
Hydrogen-powered cars were, just a few years back, up there with anti-gravity guns and “teleporters”: fun to think about, but far from reality.

Even as the technology improved and got closer to real-world production, prices remained too high, and the infrastructure just wasn’t where it needed to be. Almost no one believed in the potential, and making hydrogen-powered vehicles seemed like a waste of money and time for automakers.

Yet times are a-changin’, in part because the demand side has caught up with the technology. As governments prioritize a sustainable future, policy is starting to drive development.

The dominant technology is fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), which run with electricity supplied to the motor from fuel cells that burn hydrogen gas and convert it into electricity.

Hydrogen has been touted as a high-potential fuel for vehicles as it only produces water as a byproduct, making it essentially a zero-emission fuel. Electric cars and hydrogen electric cars are both non-polluting vehicles, but FCEVs have been considered the ultimate green car because they can purify the polluted outside air while running.

FCEVs combine hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to create electricity and emit only pure water as a waste product. While sucking in oxygen from the air to produce electricity, FCEVs absorb fine dust in the air, essentially working as a mobile air purifier on the road.

According to Global Market Insights, the global market for FCEVs is expected to grow from $830 million last year to $11.6 billion by 2025.

The Moon Jae-in administration is focused on raising the production and sale of FCEVs to a total of 81,000 units by 2022, 65,000 for the local market and the rest for exports.

The government ultimately hopes for the country to supply a total of 6.2 million hydrogen vehicles by 2040 while increasing the number of FCEV fueling stations in Korea to 310 by 2022 and more than 1,200 by 2040.

The bold promises are part of the Moon administration’s aim to boost the country’s hydrogen economy currently valued at 1 trillion won ($846 million) to 43 trillion won by 2040 and create 420,000 jobs.

If achieved, the hydrogen economy will use hydrogen as the main energy source for households and industry, and everything will be run with the gas.

“The hydrogen economy marks a revolutionary change in the industrial framework - one that will replace coal and oil with hydrogen as a source of energy,” Moon said during an event at Ulsan in January this year.

“Across all sectors - from hydrogen’s production, storage and transport to its utilization - new industries and jobs will be created. For our part, it will also be a golden opportunity to fundamentally transform the national energy system and secure new growth engines.”

According to the road map, 15 gigawatts of power will be generated by hydrogen by 2040, with 8 gigawatts allocated for domestic use.

Korea wants to be the leader in hydrogen economy development, and making the FCEV a car of choice is one of the most important pillars in fulfilling the Moon administration’s ambitions.



East Asian frontier

At the moment, Hyundai Motor, Honda Motor and Toyota Motor are the leading players in the market as they are the most recognized for making their own commercially-available hydrogen-powered cars.

Hyundai Motor was the first to the gate in the hydrogen car race. The largest Korean automaker by sales became the first in the world to mass-produce its own FCEVs when it launched the Tucson, or ix35, FCEV in 2013. The automaker sold a total of 916 units of the Tucson FCEV as of early October.

Toyota followed two years later in 2015 with the Mirai hydrogen-powered sedan after first unveiling the model at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2014. Honda joined the hydrogen race in 2016 with the Clarity sedan after unveiling the model at the Tokyo Motor Show in October 2015.

Even though the Asian automakers were early movers in the hydrogen competition, Toyota and Honda did not release any new hydrogen models after their first models.

Toyota even recalled all units of the Mirai it sold by 2017 citing problems with its fuel-cell system, but earlier this month, it unveiled the prototype model for the second generation of the Mirai targeted for introduction in the second half of next year.

It the end, Hyundai Motor has remained the only automaker in the world to have continuously made visible progress in developing and investing in FCEVs. The Korean automaker launched the Nexo FCEV last year, which can travel a lot farther than the Tucson and has some level of autonomous driving technology.

The Nexo can go up to 609 kilometers (378 miles) on one filling of hydrogen, the longest travel distance for any FCEV in the market and more than twice the average distance of 300 kilometers for electric vehicles. Hyundai Motor has sold a total of 3,174 Nexo FCEVs as of early October.

With Hyundai Motor leading the pack and remaining committed, Korea ultimately seeks to have one-third of cars in the country to be electric vehicles or FCEVs and occupy 10 percent of the global market for those cars by 2030.



Change is coming

Yet in recent years, countries other than Korea have rolled up their sleeves and started to make investments and bold promises to turn the improbable dream into a reality.

Japan, already working to showcase a “hydrogen society” during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, plans to have 200,000 FCEVs on its roads within the next six years and 800,000 by 2030. The country has also plans to establish a network of 900 hydrogen fueling stations by the same year.

The year 2030 is a key time for China’s hydrogen economy road map as well. The country is aiming for more than 1 million FCEVs in service by then, even though the country only has around 1,500 such units, most of which are buses, in operation at this point.

It’s not just East Asia betting on hydrogen-powered mobility. Other countries on different continents have joined the eco-friendly race and are paving the ways to pursue their own hydrogen dreams.

Since 2017, 12 countries, including France, Britain, Sweden and China, have announced they would ban fossil fuel vehicles from being operated in their countries by 2050 at the latest.

The phase-out measures have been coming as the countries are looking to meet their national environmental targets promised in international climate agreements, including the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol, both of which call for signatories to reduce carbon emission levels and shift to more eco-friendly energy sources.

As such bans come into place, automakers with global sales, like BMW and Mercedes-Benz, have been forced to find new sources of profit. While most of them have found ways to make electric vehicles, some looked beyond the electric car market and decided to take the next logical step and pour funds into FCEVs.



Just waiting for the right time

BMW surprised the global auto industry last month during the Frankfurt Motor Show by unveiling its first hydrogen-powered concept car, the “i Hydrogen Next.”

The i Hydrogen Next, which follows the design cues of BMW’s X5 SUV, came as the German automaker aims get its share of the growing demand for FCEV vehicles in the near future.

“We expect to see an increase in demand for this technology in the second half of the next decade, and we will be ready with an offer for our customers if this is so requested,” said Oliver Zipse, CEO of BMW Group during the motor show.

The BMW Group plans to present a small fleet of hydrogen-powered cars based on its X5 model in 2022 and may start offering FCEVs to customers in 2025.

Mercedes-Benz, although better known for its high-performing luxury gasoline models, unveiled the GLC F-CELL, the world’s first electric vehicle featuring fuel-cell and plug-in hybrid technology, in November last year.

The automaker has been developing FCEVs since 1994 and released a number of models, although not in significant numbers. The latest release from Mercedes-Benz is unique in that it can operate solely with electricity from its lithium-ion battery when all the hydrogen in the system is gone.

General Motors actually developed an FCEV before but seems to have lost interest. The Detroit-based automaker launched a small fleet of Chevrolet Equinox SUVs in 2007, yet it did not release any new FCEVs since then. The U.S. automaker instead focused on developing fuel cells in collaboration with Honda since 2013.



Not too sustainable

To truly make hydrogen-powered mobility into an acceptable eco-friendly solution, however, something must be done about the elephant in the room.

Many tout hydrogen cars as the greenest cars ever, but at this moment, FCEVs are not so much greener than electric vehicles, as making hydrogen gas involves some level of pollution in most cases.

According to a report from the Posco Research Institute, 96 percent of hydrogen produced worldwide is made with electricity generated by fossil fuels, emitting carbon dioxide in the process.

Today’s technology cannot produce enough hydrogen from renewable energy sources, and according to the Korea Petroleum Association, 95 percent of 1.64 million tons of hydrogen gas produced in Korea in 2017 was made from the burning of fossil fuels.

While statistics differ depending on research centers on how much carbon dioxide is released in making hydrogen gas, it is commonly believed that around 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of carbon dioxide is produced when making 1 kilogram of hydrogen gas.

Efficiency is the main reason energy companies stick with fossil fuels. While separating hydrogen from the burning of fossil fuels achieves 80 to 90 percent of cost efficiency, the current method for harvesting hydrogen from renewable energy sources is only 55 percent efficient.

The research institute said around 60 percent of the total energy is wasted when using renewable energy sources to separate hydrogen from water and again converting the harvested hydrogen back into electricity.

For that reason, the Posco Research Institute says FCEVs are not much greener than electric vehicles already out in the market. Electric vehicles can easily use electricity already harvested from renewable energy sources.

Also for hydrogen to become a nationwide energy, costs must be reasonable, but operating FCEVs are very expensive right now compared to driving electric vehicles.

According to the Korea Gas Corporation (Kogas), a kilogram of hydrogen costs between 6,500 won and 7,500 won. For a 100-kilometer drive, an FCEV consumes about 2 kilograms of hydrogen, which would translate to about 15,000 won for the distance.

That is more expensive than the 11,448 won it costs to drive Hyundai Motor’s Avante gasoline-powered sedan 100 kilometers and more than three times the 4,970 won for Hyundai Motor’s Ioniq electric vehicle to travel the same distance.

“For the supply of hydrogen cars to be expanded, its price level must be competitive compared with other fuel sources like gasoline, diesel, liquefied petroleum gas and electricity,” said a report from the Korea Energy Economics Institute (KEEI).

The not-so-affordable price tag is largely determined by the high production cost for hydrogen gas. Making hydrogen in greener ways is not so efficient at this point, and the KEEI argues that lack of production and distribution infrastructure for hydrogen is preventing the price level from falling to acceptable levels for consumers.

According to a McKinsey & Company report, the average production cost for 1 kilogram of hydrogen is as high as 9,500 won, which is already higher than the selling price of 7,500 won per kilogram in Korea. This means that in some cases, making hydrogen is an easy way to lose money for energy companies.



Progress in the pipeline

Kogas, the state-run energy company, is ready to tackle the set of problems and ultimately drag the hydrogen price down to 3,000 won per kilogram while pursuing greener ways to produce hydrogen.

Kogas said in April that it will invest 4.7 trillion won as a part of following the Moon administration’s hydrogen economy initiative, initially establishing 25 hydrogen production facilities by 2030 along with 700 kilometers of hydrogen pipeline to transport the gas.

The gas provider said it will utilize 403 existing distribution centers and 4,854 kilometers of pipeline in the country.

The agency plans to build nine hydrogen-producing facilities by 2022 in major cities. Other facilities will be added gradually by 2030. It also has plans to import hydrogen from other countries to make the gas more affordable.

Through such investments, the company is expecting to supply 1.73 million tons of hydrogen gas annually by 2030 and up to 3.45 million tons per year by 2040. That will be enough to bring down the cost of hydrogen to 4,500 won per kilogram by 2030 and ultimately to 3,000 won per kilogram later on.

Kogas is also aware of the fact that hydrogen is not being produced in environment-friendly ways at this point, and the gas provider said it will invest 300 billion won through 2030 in research and development (R&D) to achieve technological independence for the entire value chain of the local hydrogen industry.

Also with those R&D funds, the gas provider is going to foster greener hydrogen gas-producing technology, like electrolysis of water, in partnerships with companies and academia.

“Through the road map, we will do our best to make the hydrogen industry the new key industry for the country,” Kogas CEO Kim Young-doo said.

“We will move one step further and strengthen ties with global companies to lead the age of low-carbon, environment-friendly energy.”

Kogas is not the only entity looking to find ways to harvest greener hydrogen.

The Korea Electric Power Corporation Research Institute started on a research project along with Korea Midland Power in July to develop a technology that emits no carbon dioxide during hydrogen production.

The state-run entities hope to create a 20-kilowatt-hour green hydrogen production system by 2021 and start commercializing the system a year later. The new system, when completed, is expected to be more efficient than traditional hydrogen production using fossil fuels, which would put Korea ahead of others in the global eco-friendly energy business.

“A green hydrogen production system can economically benefit the fuel-cell development industry and create new business models,” a spokesperson for the research institute said.

“This project will contribute to the government’s pursuit of realizing the hydrogen economy.”



Still a burning question

Negative public opinion is another roadblock for FCEVs in becoming a true game changer.

Hydrogen explosions are scaring people from accepting the gas as a next-level energy source, and overcoming that obstacle still remains a key task in popularizing FCEVs.

After a hydrogen storage tank exploded in an industrial complex in Gangneung, Gangwon, in May this year and killed two people while injuring six, installing new hydrogen-related facilities in Korea has often faced fierce opposition from resident groups saying: “not in my backyard.”

The explosion at Gangwon Technopark shattered the windows and walls of the park’s two structures for manufacturing when oxygen somehow found its way into the tank, according to results of a preliminary investigation.

Around a month later, a hydrogen fueling station in Norway burst into flame and injured two people nearby.

From these incidents, safety of hydrogen-related facilities has been called into question, with many people continuing to associate fuel cells with the Hindenburg-type disasters.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, hydrogen is safer than other fuels commonly used today but still comes with a degree of danger.

Hydrogen is more inflammable than fossil fuels. And for that reason, fuel cell manufacturers and automakers have concentrated on preventing and detecting leaks on products while assuring adequate ventilation for hydrogen systems.

In Korea, the government has been arguing that hydrogen is a safe energy source.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy held a ceremony in September to celebrate the opening of a new hydrogen fueling station at the National Assembly building in Yeouido, western Seoul.

The government is launching a safety certification system for hydrogen fueling stations starting November and is planning to implement a number of policies to ensure the safety and the performance of stations to be installed throughout the country.

As the world moves closer to a hydrogen-centered future, automakers are now engaged in a race to develop FCEVs and to stay in the eco-friendly mobility race. Unlike in the past, when only a few players remained active in the competition, the hydrogen competition is open to almost everyone, with some coming up with detailed plans for the technology.

But as making hydrogen is inefficient and involves some pollution at this point, and with negative public opinion toward hydrogen, roadblocks for hydrogen to truly become the energy source of choice remain.

While hydrogen could be the energy of the future, the path toward that future is still a rocky road.

BY KO JUN-TAE [ko.juntae@joongang.co.kr]


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