The fuel cell – a slow performer?

Interview

The fuel cell a slow performer?

New umlaut study: Why hydrogen technology is not yet completely competitive. Patrick Wienert, Head of Hydrogen, provides an explanation in our interview.

If we look at the current volume of investment into battery technology by OEMs and suppliers, it is clear that the fuel cell is falling behind. Why is that?

The two technologies provide very good solutions for different areas of application. What’s more, in the context of mobility, the following rule of thumb applies: if you want to store a small quantity of energy and travel shorter distances, whilst being relatively independent of refuelling times, the battery may be the better option. Larger quantities of energy and a certain level of dependence on short refuelling times point rather to hydrogen and the fuel cell.

So is hydrogen better suited to freight transport?

There are also battery solutions in freight transport, but the batteries are still very heavy, use up a lot of space and are very limited in terms of range – for cold chain logistics, they are therefore pretty much unsuitable on account of the high additional consumption of energy.

How is demand developing in Germany?

In our consultancy business, we deal with some well-known players who are already preparing their technology for entry into the market. This will involve large-scale production of up to 35,000 Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) stacks and systems. A number of prestigious DAX companies are preparing for the roll-out of up to 10,000 fuel cell trucks by the year 2030, and companies such as IKEA and EDEKA are testing out fuel cell technology in their freight logistics. By the year 2030, there will be hundreds of times more registered fuel cell vehicles worldwide than there are today, bringing the total number to as many as 4.2 million vehicles.

What barriers to entry does the fuel cell face?


The technology is still facing a chicken and egg problem: Should we wait for hydrogen fuel stations and the provision of green hydrogen in the areas around the logistics hubs, or should we create the first 30 hydrogen trucks in order to start a larger pilot project – and by doing so incentivise fuel station operators to set up new fuel stations?

How can we solve this problem?

By working in close collaboration with a logistics expert, it is possible to implement all the elements in line with demand and at the same time. The planning, authorisation and set-up of a fuel station at a truck depot takes less than 24 months with the support of one of our umlaut teams. The main hurdle is the availability of vehicles and the current price of vehicles. The price of a 40-tonne diesel truck is currently around EUR 140,000. Converting the same model to the fuel cell costs between EUR 500,000 and 600,000; the battery version costs an estimated EUR 400,000 to 500,000.

How could the price be brought down?

The number of units being produced needs to increase. Many well-known manufacturers and vehicle converters such as Daimler Trucks, Iveco and Quantron are currently expanding their production capacity to satisfy the demand.
The biggest bottleneck in our projects is the supply of vehicles. I am currently looking at several projects where the partners would be happy to order trucks in four-figure numbers if only we could secure the supply.

The high prices will fall by 2030 with the expected increase in quantities. They are currently being offset by additional cost funding of 80% from the German government. With a head-start of several years, the price development of battery-powered electric vehicles is showing that we can definitely reckon with a dramatic reduction in prices.

What areas do we need to focus on for this development?

The set-up and establishment of the relevant companies and the further development of key technologies requires funding. This could also help to break through the monopoly chains in the supply chain. Some of the key components are only made by a few manufacturers worldwide and are therefore subject to particular market mechanisms.

Who is providing this funding?

The "National Organisation for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology" – abbreviated in German to NOW – has been contracted by the Federal Ministry for Digitalisation and Transport (BMDV) to smooth market entry for suppliers and OEMs wanting to get into the hydrogen market. Together with the Fraunhofer Society, umlaut was assigned the task of examining the market and, as well as determining the possible hurdles, establishing areas of potential where possible funding and subsidies would make it easier for many of the stakeholders to enter the market.

What approach did you take?

Together with the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology in Aachen, we analysed various well-known studies in regard to cost projections. Armed with these price projections, we then approached a number of German companies – OEMs and suppliers – who already work with fuel cells, either for mobile applications in cars and trucks or for stationary energy supply solutions. We asked them whether the projected price developments had indeed come about and what assumptions they are reckoning with for the future.

What is the study hoping to achieve?

It is above all intended to provide reassurance. The vehicle market as it stands has up to now been shared mostly between Japan with Toyota and South Korea with Hyundai. In Germany, companies such as Daimler have been carrying out research on the fuel cell since as far back as the 1990s. We hope that the NOW study will give German and European players the courage to continue investing in this market and to push ahead with scaling up the technology. By the year 2040, a fuel cell truck should no longer cost any more than a diesel truck does today.

When and where will the NOW study be published?

You can find the study (in German language) to be downloaded right here:

Many thanks for talking to us!