Developing hydrogen fueling infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles: A status update

Published: 2017.10.04

Aaron Isenstadt, Nic Lutsey

This paper assesses the development of hydrogen fueling infrastructure networks around the world. We compile data on the current state of development of fuel cell vehicle technology. We summarize research on hydrogen fueling infrastructure, technology pathways, station planning, and funding from prominent fuel cell vehicle development markets. Much of the data and analytical research are based on work in California, Europe, Japan, and Korea due to more extensive study and activity in these regions.

We conclude with several high-level reflections on the implications for public policy and investment strategies.

Fuel cell vehicle technology is progressing, opening up greater possibilities for low-carbon transport. Reductions in fuel cell cost, volume, and mass, and hydrogen storage cost have greatly contributed to enabling the initial fuel cell market entrants in California, Japan, Korea, and Europe. Fuel cell vehicle efficiency advantages, the ability to produce hydrogen from renewable sources, and fuel cell vehicles’ long-range and quick-fueling capability make hydrogen fuel cells a promising long-term option for a decarbonized transport sector. The use of hydrogen fuel cells for heavy-duty applications is relatively unexplored but could be especially promising as a zero-emission prospect where plug-in batteries will be more difficult.

Uncertainty about when low-cost hydrogen from renewable-energy sources will emerge is a key challenge for fuel cell vehicles. The cheapest source of hydrogen is natural gas, but renewable hydrogen pathways are necessary for fuel cells to become a prominent part of long-term climate stabilization scenarios. Hydrogen fuel that has a higher cost per energy unit than gasoline or diesel provides only a limited opportunity for an attractive consumer proposition. Greater investment into fuel pathways that demonstrate the ability to deliver renewable hydrogen to market at less than the cost of fueling a conventional, or hybrid, vehicle is a key to enabling the market. Government fuel standards programs that provide incentives to low carbon sources of hydrogen can assist in reaching this goal. Another promising opportunity is to explore synergies where temporary oversupply of solar and wind electricity can create opportunities for more inexpensive hydrogen.

Industry will need to bear a greater burden of hydrogen infrastructure investments over time. To address the public need for zero-emission solutions and the uncertainty about fuel cell market growth, the first few hundred hydrogen stations have been primarily publicly funded. As the market emerges in the tens, and eventually hundreds, of thousands of fuel cell vehicles, governments investing in hydrogen infrastructure will continue shifting to strategic cost-shared stations with industry that encourage and help develop commercially viable business models. Government plans in a number of jurisdictions are underway that could provide hundreds of millions of dollars to cover the first thousand hydrogen stations. Ideally public investments would continue to use competitive cost-sharing models to help develop and refine the best business cases for these stations.

The multifaceted nature of developing hydrogen infrastructure underscores the need for public-private consortia with regular collaboration. Such consortia play important roles in the deployment of hydrogen infrastructure in high-potential fuel cell vehicle markets like California, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Among vehicle manufacturers, hydrogen suppliers, energy companies, and government agencies, such consortia play a key role in planning the infrastructure rollout, standardization, learning from early station and market developments, and helping to identify and troubleshoot barriers in the transition. Furthermore, coordination across passenger vehicle markets, freight, and bus fuel cell applications appears to be an important opportunity for low urban emissions and higher daily throughput at early hydrogen stations.