Despite a “clear concerted effort” to push the deployment of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) around the world, they are still not commercially viable today, and will become more expensive to operate over the next year, according to a new report from UK analyst IDTechEx.

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And the longer it takes for FCEVs to become commercially viable, the harder it will be for them to compete against “rapidly improving battery powertrains”, the company says in its study, Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles 2022-2042.

IDTechEx explains that FCVs have two advantages over BEVs — longer range and faster refuelling.

“The range and refuelling advantage of FCEV could be particularly critical for the viability of zero-emission heavy-duty truck and bus operations, where there is a high daily range requirement, long operating hours, and the need for operational flexibility,” the company says.

But it adds that FCEVs “are currently expensive to buy, expensive to operate, and the hydrogen fuel and refueling infrastructure is not widely available to support them”.

“And although fuel-cell powertrains hold a range advantage today, the continued wait for a point of viable commercial deployment means rapidly improving battery powertrains are eroding this advantage.

“The long-range niche for fuel cell vehicles will continue to shrink the longer the wait for infrastructure and cost-effective, low-carbon hydrogen fuel.”

IDTechEx points that although battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and hydrogen cars came onto the market at roughly the same time, more than three million BEVs were sold worldwide in 2020, compared to less than 10,000 FCVs.

And it adds that while the challenges for FCEVs are considerable, “many governments around the world are now offering an unprecedented level of support for the development of zero-emission vehicles, with several major economies including Japan, Korea, Germany and China backing efforts for an extensive transformation away from fossil fuels to a wider hydrogen economy”.

It also points to plans by the US and the EU to subsidise production of low-carbon hydrogen.

“However, at this stage, neither the cheap renewable energy generation resource required to produce cheap green hydrogen nor the carbon capture and storage technologies required for blue hydrogen have been demonstrated at a scale that can deliver low carbon hydrogen with a pump price competitive with diesel, petrol, or electric charging,” the Cambridge-based company adds. “Development efforts are likely to take considerable time and require significant investment.

“Today, the hydrogen fuel used in transportation is primarily grey hydrogen produced by steam methane reforming of natural gas... 2023 is likely to be a difficult year for fuel cell vehicles, with high gas prices worldwide leading to high grey hydrogen prices.”

Nevertheless, IDTechEx believes that hydrogen-powered buses and trucks are likely to have long-term advantages over battery-electric options, particularly when they need a long range and fast refuelling.

“Whilst this segment of the automotive industry is also facing tightening legislative requirements to reduce exhaust emissions, BEV solutions are potentially less feasible in these applications, with the weight and cost of the lithium-ion battery required to deliver the daily-duty cycle prohibitive.

“These applications therefore offer a market segment where fuel cell vehicles could offer the only viable zero-emission solution.”