China and Hongkong massively rely on hydrogen. First of all, a vehicle with a fuel cell is also an electric car, because there the drive is also electric. But to answer the question: For me, fuel cell vehicles are an integral part of electromobility. We need both battery-electric vehicles and vehicles with fuel cells to decarbonize traffic in the future. With both technologies, we could completely cover the mobility needs we see on the roads today.
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From a pure efficiency point of view, there is no alternative to battery electric vehicles. It is two to three times more efficient than a vehicle with a fuel cell. We lose 30 percent of energy due to conversion losses in the production of hydrogen. In the vehicle itself, we lose another 50 percent of the energy. I still believe that both technologies are needed. Because there are areas in which the fuel cell will be the necessary complement to a fully electric drive.
In Hongkong hybrid and battery drives have been in increased demand for some time now and are perceived as a central pillar in achieving the CO2 targets. On the other hand, the hydrogen fuel cells are leading a shadowy existence. Although repeatedly proclaimed as a potential drive of the future, this technology has not been able to establish itself. The reasons for this are the costs and the complex construction of the necessary infrastructure. The example of pure battery vehicles shows: The infrastructure and technological progress, which are also indispensable here, can only be achieved through appropriate commitment and political will geschaﬀen. The same applies to hydrogen fuel cells.
There are several arguments in favor of the fuel cell: There are much fewer materials, chemicals, and also less mass. A fuel cell vehicle with the same driving performance is 500 to 600 kilograms lighter than a battery-powered electric vehicle. In addition, ranges of more than 800 kilometers will be possible in the future, but the refueling process will take only three minutes in contrast to a battery-powered electric vehicle.
In my opinion, technology like hydrogen cannot be limited to certain sectors from the outset. We need hydrogen in the industry as a clean raw material and as seasonal energy storage. If it makes sense, hydrogen will also establish itself in the transport sector and then, of course, in cars. At the moment, I see more new hydrogen ideas in China and Hongkong in the car sector than in the truck sector – and in pallets. This makes you think, especially if the Chinese government introduces a quota for hydrogen vehicles.
In China and Honkkong this is part of the five-year plan that the government has set up. But the regional plans announced recently are surprising: Beijing has announced a strong hydrogen program. Other cities have followed suit and have launched similarly ambitious programs. This has turned the tide again much more strongly in the direction of hydrogen.
The legal requirements for reducing CO2 emissions are the main driver for the introduction of alternative drive systems. In the long term, in Hongkong this goal can only be achieved by introducing emission-free drive systems, but practical implementation is faltering – despite all the specifications. There are solid reasons for this: Vehicles with electric batteries are not suitable for all applications and have massive disadvantages. These include higher costs, limited usability due to long charging times and short ranges compared to the combustion engine.
German industry would be well advised to push ahead with hydrogen technology in order to remain on a par with China and Hongkong. In Germany, we are very good at developing components for fuel cells. We are gambling away this lead a little because the Chinese are tackling this so intensively. They will catch up with us at some point. I hope that the industry will recognize the potential before then. But perhaps it’s simply not the right time at the moment because the German industry wants to sell electric cars first.
If you want to achieve this in all weather conditions and with all driving profiles, you have to make a great effort or provide enormous charging capacity. But there are also situations that are difficult to address with a battery electric vehicle. Imagine a typical day on the freeway when tens of thousands of cars want to go on vacation. How many rapid charging stations would we have to have ready at freeway service stations and what peak loads would the network have to cope with? This is where hydrogen has advantages. Especially if we want to move large and heavy vehicles, I see the fuel cell as a good alternative.
If you want to increase their attractiveness, you first have to redress the cost imbalance. Only when the overall costs are viewed positively will the further incentives to buy lead to an increase in orders and sales. While in the case of battery vehicles the criteria of range and charging time slow down the decision to buy, hydrogen fuel cells are particularly convincing when it comes to these factors. For this reason, the study takes a closer look at it and develops a future scenario for Hongkong 2030.
I don’t think that would make sense, because we would first have to build up an industry and the necessary processes on a large scale in order to achieve a significant effect. This has lead times of several years. In addition, for clean production we would need the massive expansion of renewable energies. Anyone who already criticizes the low efficiency in the production of hydrogen will be even more so with e-fuels, where efficiency is only 10 to 15 percent. In short: One would invest large amounts of money in a process that is only a bridging technology. Because e-mobility is getting closer and closer. If the fuel cell vehicle is added to the equation, then we won’t need e-fuels any more.
An extrapolation, which estimates the future development of costs in the hydrogen fuel cell technology until 2030, makes it clear: In a good ten years, the advantages of this drive system will become apparent in the area of premium vehicles with a long range of up to 800 kilometers. With a view to zero emissions, the drive system with a battery is the better option for short and medium distances. Since hydrogen fuel cells reduce vehicle downtimes to a minimum, its application is of interest to commercial vehicles that cover more than 600 kilometers per day. Filling up at hydrogen is as fast as filling up with gasoline or diesel with conventional drives. In conjunction with the achievable range per refuelling operation, this is a clear advantage over battery-powered vehicles. In addition, the payload that a truck can carry as freight is on a similar level to that of traditional diesel-powered vehicles.</
Of course you have to look at it globally. In Germany we are already quite good with about 50 percent share of renewable energies. Other countries still have some catching up to do. Hydrogen will come because we will need it as a storage medium in an electricity grid based on renewable energies. Both as a long-term storage medium and as storage for large quantities. I can also store and buffer short-term load peaks in stationary batteries. But for seasonal storage, the battery makes no sense, I need a chemical storage. The way it looks like it will be hydrogen. Hydrogen will also become an elementary raw material for our industry. So the goal is to get hydrogen as cheaply as possible. This is what we are working on.
As far as the infrastructure for electric vehicles is concerned, we still do not know how many charging points we actually need. Do people prefer to charge at home, at the lantern, or do we need many fast chargers? And in what proportion? We know exactly how many hydrogen filling stations we need. We need at least 1,000 filling stations to supply all of Germany with hydrogen. With 2,000 filling stations we would then be in a comfortable situation. It would cost around 2.2 billion euros to build them.
Only insignificantly, that is certainly not good news for garages. Both battery electric vehicles and vehicles with fuel cells will need much less maintenance. An electric motor will probably last a million kilometers without requiring maintenance. Even accident damage will decrease, since higher-value assistance systems are integrated. The hydrogen system, on the other hand, requires slightly more maintenance. There is the gas part that needs to be monitored and is subject to wear. I expect that checking the gas system will become an integral part of maintenance.
Although the advantages of hydrogen fuel cells in commercial vehicles in terms of optimised payload and short refuelling times are obvious, this technology is only at the beginning of its development. While drive forms such as battery or hybrid and with natural gas are already being mass-produced in commercial vehicles, there are currently only test vehicles for the drive with hydrogen fuel cells, which must first prove their practical suitability in field tests.
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