After gaining an advantage in the global race for battery electric vehicle adoption, China seems to be gearing up for hydrogen fuel cell (HFC), another green energy solution for vehicles. Earlier this month, on 2nd November 2020, China State Council has announced a 15-year plan for new-energy vehicles that focuses on building fuel-cell supply chain and developing hydrogen fuel cell trucks and buses.
This move comes as part of China’s strategy of reducing carbon emissions by 2030, that was set by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The world’s biggest electric vehicle market has been mulling the options for alternative fuel sources. The hydrogen fuel cell is one of them, the Chinese government is promoting hydrogen-powered cars, trucks and buses. Beijing is offering the cities rewards to achieve HFC technology adoption target.
While hydrogen fuel cell as a power source for cars and light trucks might not be much viable, but it may work fine for the freight hauliers like heavy trucks. China seems to be emphasising on that segment only.
What’re experts saying?
Interestingly, the move to adopt hydrogen fuel cell technology for vehicle energy comes defying Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s stance towards the HFC. Musk has been mocking the idea of using hydrogen fuel cell technology as a substitute for fossil fuels for quite a long time. Back in June, Tesla CEO tweeted “Fuel cells = fool sells”, mocking the idea of using hydrogen fuel cells instead of electric batteries to power the next-generation zero-emission vehicles.
So far, using hydrogen fuel cell technology has invoked mixed reactions from the expert fraternity. While, experts across the world have been promoting hydrogen fuel cell technology as a substitute for fossil fuel, along with the electric batteries, many in the fraternity differ from this idea.
French thinktank Ifri’s member fellow Kevin Jianjun Tu said in October 2020 that, hydrogen is expected to play a much more important role to drastically decrease China’s greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Cambridge based research firm IDTechEx, fuel-cell vehicles will continue to be a commercial failure for the next two decades. BloombergNEF analysts Siyi Mi and Jinghong Lyu have indicated that China’s new 15-year energy and transportation plan comes with lack of details. They also said that the plan indicates Chinese policymakers are still deliberating over the role of hydrogen in China’s energy economy as the country aims to move toward a net-zero economy by 2060.
China’s 15-year energy and transportation plan
China is planning to have 1 million fuel cell vehicles on roads by 2030. Presently, most of the commercial hydrogen in China is derived from fossil fuel sources and is more expensive than electricity. Hence, using hydrogen fuel cell technology for the heavy trucks and buses presently is not economically viable.
However, as part of China’s new strategy, new wind and solar installation in Inner Mongolia is expected to produce up to 500,000 tons of hydrogen every year starting from 2021. Also, the country’s state-owned oil refiner Sinopec said last month that it is investing in hydrogen production, transportation, and fuel cells. Sinopec is also building a network of hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle refuelling stations.
China’s electric car movement’s father figure Wan Gang, who is also the Vice Chairman of China’s national advisory body for policymaking, said that pure battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles are equally important in the country’s new energy vehicle development strategy and will coexist in the long run.
Anhui Mingtian Hydrogen Energy Technology, a startup that develops fuel cell stacks and other components for hydrogen vehicles believes that China will become the world’s largest market for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles within 3 years and will have half a million of them on the road by 2035.
Where do automakers stand?
Several automakers present in China are working on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. While many of the Chinese companies are trying to tap into the segment in a bid to grab a large chunk of the market pie, major global automakers like Toyota and Hyundai too are working on the same.
According to Toyota, China’s focus on hydrogen fuel cell technology comes in the line with the Japanese automaker’s thinking. The auto company also believes that the Chinese market will be heavily dominated by hydrogen fuel cell-powered heavy trucks and buses in the near future.
South Korean auto giant Hyundai believes China has massive potential for hydrogen fuel cell-powered commercial vehicles. Hyundai has already inked agreements with five Chinese partners to promote hydrogen fuel cell commercial vehicles. Under these agreements, the auto companies aim to introduce 4,000 HFC commercial vehicles in China by 2025.