Weekly Brief: Hydrogen Blows Back onto the Zero Emission Agenda

BMW is doubling down on the hydrogen car revolution.

The carmaker sent its hydrogen-powered iX5 sport utility crossover into limited production last week. It plans to produce about 100 hydrogen-powered iX5s this year, which it will field test to assess if the vehicle is ready for mass production. Toyota will supply the hydrogen cells, while BMW will build the fuel-cell systems and the vehicle itself.

At a special event at the Munich factory where the iX5 will be built, BMW CEO Oliver Zipse made a bold proclamation. “Hydrogen will become more relevant in individual mobility due to its advantages,” he said. “Hydrogen-powered cars are the ideal technology for us to complement pure battery-electric vehicles.”

Most carmakers disagree. Mercedes-Benz, Audi, General Motors, Nissan and Ford have all abandoned their forays into hydrogen-powered cars for a number of reasons. They’re expensive to make, their energy efficiency is questionable and there’s little fueling infrastructure to support them, to name three.

The state of California once viewed hydrogen as the “fuel of the future.” In 2004, the same year Elon Musk took a controlling share of Tesla, California went all in on hydrogen with plans to build Hydrogen Highways from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Fast forward two decades and there are about 14,000 charging stations for BEVs in California. By contrast, there are only 54 hydrogen charging stations in the Golden State and fewer than 100 in all of America.

The only two hydrogen-powered cars on the market are the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo. In 2021 global sales for BEVs hit 4.2M. Global sales for hydrogen fuel-cell cars were a measly 15,500. No wonder most carmakers are investing hundreds of millions into BEVs and abandoning hydrogen cars altogether.

Yet, BMW sees an opportunity. The carmaker is quick to point out that the charging infrastructure for BEVs is woefully insufficient, given how quickly governments and carmakers are looking to ramp up production. Hydrogen cars can help fill the gap, Zipske said. They’re also better suited for those customers who need to travel long distances through rural environments, he said, and can help reduce demand on those raw materials that go into building electric batteries. Zipske thinks that between 20% and 30% of all consumers could end up in hydrogen cars instead of BEVs.

In other news last week, German auto supplier Bosch announced that it will overhaul its campus in South Carolina with a $200M investment, with the goal of transforming it into a fuel cell technology hub for the US market. Bosch plans to build 147,000 square feet, or nearly four acres, of new factory floor space to build hydrogen fuel cell stacks. The expansion will create 350 jobs. Fuel cell stack production is slated to begin in 2026.

Bosch isn’t focused on building fuel cells for hydrogen cars, however. Instead, they’re targeting hydrogen-powered Class 8 trucks, where Bosch believes the business fundamentals are stronger. The batteries needed to power a long-haul truck are heavy compared to fuel cell stacks that are lighter and more efficient. Fuel cell trucks also have a longer range and can be filled up in a fraction of the time that it takes to charge an electric truck – both positives for truckers logging thousands of miles at a time.

Daimler Trucks has built a fuel cell truck that uses liquid hydrogen and currently is advancing it through field trials. The company believes that hydrogen will become the new diesel for the long-haul industry. Back in 2019 Bosch invested $100M into electric truck start-up Nikola, which has a hydrogen truck of its own in the works, the Nikola Tre. Bosch plans to invest a total of $1Bn in hydrogen fuel cell technology by 2024, including the South Carolina investment. That’s a big statement from one of the world’s largest auto-parts manufacturers.

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