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Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Creep Up -- Slowly -- on Electrics
Posted April 20, 2017
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Creep Up -- Slowly -- on Electrics
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By Dee-Ann Durbin. Updated April 20, 2017 9:43AM

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Hydrogen fuel cell cars could one day challenge electric cars in the race for pollution-free roads -- but only if more stations are built to fuel them.

Honda, Toyota and Hyundai have leased a few hundred fuel cell vehicles over the past three years, and expect to lease well over 1,000 this year. But for now, those leases are limited to California, which is home to most of the 34 public hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S.

Undaunted, automakers are investing heavily in the technology. General Motors recently supplied the U.S. Army with a fuel cell pickup, and GM and Honda are collaborating on a fuel cell system due out by 2020. Hyundai will introduce a longer-range fuel cell SUV next year.

"We've clearly left the science project stage and the technology is viable," said Charles Freese, who heads GM's fuel cell business.

Like pure electric cars, fuel cell cars run quietly and emission-free. But they have some big advantages. Fuel cell cars can be refueled as quickly as gasoline-powered cars. By contrast, it takes nine hours to fully recharge an all-electric Chevrolet Bolt using a 240-volt home charger. Fuel cells cars can also travel further between fill-ups.

But getting those fill-ups presents the biggest obstacle. Fueling stations cost up to $2 million to build, so companies have been reluctant to build them unless more fuel cell cars are on the road. But automakers don't want to build cars that consumers can't fuel.

The U.S. Department of Energy lists just 34 public hydrogen fueling stations in the country; all but three are in California. By comparison, the U.S. has 15,703 public electric charging stations, which can be installed for a fraction of the cost of hydrogen stations. There are also millions of garages where owners can plug their cars in overnight.

As a result, U.S. consumers bought nearly 80,000 electric cars last year, but just 1,082 fuel cell vehicles, according to WardsAuto.

That's why automakers will keep hedging their bets and offer electric vehicles alongside hydrogen ones.

Honda began leasing the 2017 Clarity fuel cell sedan [pictured above] earlier this year; about 100 are already on the road. At this week's New York Auto Show, the company also introduced electric and plug-in hybrid versions of the Clarity.

The plug-in hybrid can go 42 miles in electric mode before a small gas engine kicks in, Honda says. The all-electric Clarity can go 111 miles on a charge. Both will go on sale later this year.

"We think going forward the powertrain market is going to be very diverse," said Steve Center, vice president of the environmental business development office at American Honda.

Hyundai's Genesis luxury brand also blended technology with its GV80 SUV prototype, which was revealed in New York. The GV80 is a plug-in fuel cell vehicle, which means it would get power from stored electricity as well as hydrogen. It's not clear when -- or if -- the GV80 will go on sale.

Fuel cell cars create electricity to power the battery and motor by mixing hydrogen and oxygen in the specially treated plates that combine to form the fuel cell stack.

The technology isn't new. GM introduced the first fuel cell vehicle, the Electrovan, in 1966. It only seated two; the back of the van housed large steel tanks of hydrogen and oxygen. It went about 150 miles between refuelings, and its hydrogen tank exploded on at least one occasion.

Advances in hydrogen storage, fuel cell stacks and batteries have allowed engineers to significantly shrink those components to fit neatly inside a sedan. Oxygen is now collected from the air through the grille, and hydrogen is stored in aluminum-lined, fuel tanks that automatically seal in an accident to prevent leaks. Reducing the amount of platinum used in the stack has made fuel cell cars less expensive.

Honda's new Clarity can go 366 miles between fuelings, the longest range in the industry.

The Clarity leases for $369 per month for 36 months. That's more than the $354 monthly lease payment for the Chevrolet Bolt electric. But Honda, Toyota and Hyundai are all throwing in free hydrogen refueling. It costs between $13 and $16 per kilogram for hydrogen, or up to $80 to fill the Clarity's 5-kilogram capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

Even with that perk, analysts think sales of fuel cell vehicles will be limited until more fueling stations are built. But carmakers will still invest in fuel cells. GM's Freese says there are many applications beyond cars, including unmanned, deep-sea vehicles or backup home power systems.

"One of the reasons global car Relevant Products/Services companies do something like this is they want to have a finger in the pie. Should we suddenly have to shift over, they want to be able to do it," said Jack Nerad, an executive market analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

The number of fueling stations could also grow quickly if automakers partner with governments and energy companies, as they have done in California. Earlier this year, 13 companies -- including Shell and BMW -- formed a council to accelerate the adoption of hydrogen as a transportation fuel.

Heather McLaughlin of San Ramon, California, was one of the first customers to lease a 2017 Clarity. She says she prefers a fuel cell car over an electric because she can refuel it in minutes. And one fill-up a week more than covers her 50-mile daily commute to Benicia, where she serves as the city attorney.

She recently drove the Clarity to Southern California and found plenty of stations along her route.

"I like the innovation," said McLaughlin. "It helps if we can have more of these on the road."

© 2017 Associated Press syndicated under contract with NewsEdge/Acquire Media. All rights reserved.

Image credit: Honda.

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Daniel Rothschild:
Posted: 2017-04-23 @ 9:04am PT
Hydrogen Fuel Cells are the answers to so many of our problems today including these non-ending wars over that black carcinogenic goop stuff, oil! It would be a great 1st step towards global warming, smog, pollution, cancer, auto care costs, overpriced utility monopolies etc. Electric cars powered by batteries are stupid. They require a carbon foot print to create its plug in energy source. You have to wait 5-9 hours to recharge. What do you do with the used up failed battery packs? How much does it cost to replace them? Big Money! Fuel cell will open all kinds of futuristic doors including powering your home, trucks, forklifts, motorcycles, race cars, industrial plants, schools and maybe even Jets! And the emission is that dangerous substance called water?! Even cleaner than your tap water...now that's a sad commentary. Steam engines were tried over 120 years ago and failed and so was battery powered cars.This is the chance of a lifetime to right so many problems in the world and feel good about finally making the right decision over OIL GREED of misinformation that battery power cars are a solution. Even the Oil industry know that battery powered cars are inefficient in so many ways. But they are terrified of the hydrogen fuel cell technology because it will definitely marginalize them into oblivion over time on so many levels of energy supply and production. I am not going to buy a petroleum car again. Once my BMW 650i and Chevy Tahoe are dead their replacements will be hydrogen fuel cell electrics with high torque motors that give the performance of the future. And if I get thirsty on my drive to Palm Springs I can just pull over and drink some clean H2o exhaust!!!

Ande:
Posted: 2017-04-23 @ 2:30am PT
The headline should read "Battery vs Fuel Cell electric cars". Both are electric, it is the electricity storage that is different.

I see this tendency to refer to battery storage as electric and all other options as non-electric all over the net. It apears that these writers do not fully understand the subject they reporting on. (Sigh).

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