In my role at the Carbon Trust, I have been working for a number of years to accelerate hydrogen powered fuel-cell electric vehicles to market. Our analyses suggest that this less fashionable technology is likely to make the largest ultimate contribution to reducing carbon and other emissions from road vehicles.
While battery-only electric vehicles (BEVs) are now on sale, the high cost of battery packs able to offer useful range means that these are still more expensive than most customers are willing to pay: Ricardo is predicting that BEVs will only make up three per cent of vehicle sales in 2020!
Even if a breakthrough in battery technology were to result in more affordable BEVs, there will be fundamental limitations on charging time and range that will limit their use to urban commuter journeys.
In contrast, fuel cell technology offers a route to lower cost electric vehicles with long range; it is much cheaper to store most of the energy on board the vehicle as hydrogen than in large battery packs, then use a fuel cell to convert this to electrical energy and a much smaller battery to manage variable power requirements.
Two roadblocks remain before hydrogen fuel cell cars can become mainstream however: a reduction in fuel cell system costs and clean, affordable hydrogen fuel distribution. Recent analysis by McKinsey and others shows that the infrastructure challenge can be addressed in an affordable manner - initially through production from natural and biogas - and this is something the governments of Germany and California are already committed to.
We further expect that improvements in fuel cell technology will lead to a sharp reduction in capital costs over the next 10 years. By 2020, our analysis calculates that fuel cell electric vehicles could be on a par with the cost of plug-in hybrids, ~£15,000 for a mid-size passenger car with 550km range, while being able to offer substantially lower carbon emissions.
Given the scale of investment in automotive battery technology in Asia, China in particular, it will be very difficult for the UK to benefit materially from deployment of batteries in vehicles.
However, this country has a great heritage of fuel cell development, and if fuel cell powertrains are developed to meet mass market requirements, the UK economy could benefit substantially. However, it will be necessary for the government to commit to supporting the roll out of hydrogen infrastructure, as the Germans and Californians have done, in order for the UK to capture full value from this opportunity.
Dr Robert Trezona is technology director at the Carbon Trust