It seems that these fuel-cell vehicles just won’t go away. I wrote about my recent test-drive in an adapted Hyundai.
Today we had a briefing on the Mercedes programme, and afterwards I did a quick spin in their test car, which felt a bit more solid and car-like than the Hyundai. But I’m amazed by the huge risks which the industry is taking — subsidised by the European Commission, so it’s risking our money as well.
Merc accept that there are various competing low-emissions technologies, including super-efficient diesels, diesel-electric hybrids, all-electric plug-in, hydrogen fuel-cell and so on. These fuel-cell cars are expensive, but they hope that production costs will eventually come down to those of hybrids, provided that the technology develops, and that challenging volume targets deliver economies of scale. And even then, hybrids aren’t that cheap to start with.
Meantime, a bet on fuel-cell technology implies a huge investment in hydrogen distribution infrastructure — an investment which is wasted if hydrogen fuel-cell car sales fail to take off. If I understood right, it’s this investment in infrastructure which will be 50/50 split with the EU.
This all has echoes (for those of us old enough to remember) of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and the white heat of the technological revolution, and infamously, governments “picking winners”, as though they would be better at it than the market. Events proved otherwise.
I was amused to see that the Merc fuel-cell expert had addressed the question of where the electricity comes from to generate the hydrogen (hydrogen is not strictly speaking a fuel — more a storage and transport mechanism for energy that came from somewhere else). He suggested using electricity generated by oil, gas, or renewables. Note the blinding omission — nuclear. Electrolysis of water is most efficient at high temperatures. Nuclear power plants can provide electric power and steam heat together, in a very efficient package — and it’s CO2-free (if anyone cares any more).
“Why omit nuclear?” I asked him. “Well we’re a German company!” he said. (Germany recently announced the closure of its nuclear programme — a decision that future German politicians will be obliged to revisit). And if Merc want to get the economies of scale they need, they’ll have to sell their fuel-cell cars in more countries than Germany.