Are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles green or not? That all depends on where the hydrogen is sourced from, and right now most hydrogen fuel comes from natural gas, though in an ideal world fueling stations could pull hydrogen from the sun. Well that ideal world already exists in the U.K., where Honda installed its first solar-powered hydrogen fueling station.
The station was installed at Honda’s Swindon assembly plant, which currently builds the Honda Civic and CR-V for the European market. Despite having a Honda FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle at the ribbon cutting, the hydrogen fuel is actually earmarked for a pair of Briggs 2.5t Yale 80v forklifts, which replace their standard lead-acid batteries with hydrogen fuel cells. The sun-and-water derived hydrogen fuel is pumped 300 meters from the station to the factory, powering the zero-emissions forklifts as they make their way through the facility. It’s a nice effort, though mega-retailer Wal-Mart recently committed $50 million to hydrogen fork lifts, so it’s comparatively small potatoes.
Honda has promised to bring its second hydrogen fuel cell vehicle to market next year as it phases out the long-serving Clarity. Toyota and Hyundai are also primed to begin deliveries of hydrogen fuel cell cars (Hyundai, in fact, has already started deliveries), though the all-important hydrogen fuel infrastructure is still lacking in most places. Honda’s solar hydrogen station is more demonstration of what’s possible eventually, rather than what to expect in the near future, though it’s had a publicly-accessible hydrogen station at Swindon since 2011.
Unfortunately for hydrogen fuel cell advocates, the technology still remains prohibitively expensive; the average hydrogen station costs up to $1.5 million per pump, and the Toyota FCV will cost buyers about $70,000 before any incentives are applied. The fuel itself will actually cost more than gasoline, at least initially (about $50 for a full tank), meaning drivers will have to fork over a huge premium price for hydrogen’s sole benefit; faster refueling. There are other barriers to hydrogen adoption as well, including dwindling government support in the EU; conversely, Japan is offering as much as $20,000 off each hydrogen car sold.
But if companies like Honda can pull free hydrogen from the sun, then maybe hydrogen fuel cell vehicles stand a chance in a volatile new car market.