Together with biofuels, hydrogen has been identified by the Commission as one of the main candidates to replace oil in transport uses and reduce Europe's oil dependency.
However, after the early enthusiasm, sceptics were quick to point to the "illusions" of the hydrogen economy:
- Like electricity, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. In other words, the hydrogen economy will only be as clean as the original energy source it is made from (coal, nuclear, natural gas, or renewables);
- a hydrogen-based transport system requires a network of fuelling stations that will cost vast sums of money to set up. In a study published in December last year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said trillions of dollars will be needed to develop infrastructure before the widespread use of hydrogen (EurActiv 2/12/05);
- fuel-cell batteries that convert hydrogen into electricity through a chemical reaction have limited efficiency and storage capacity with power losses being made in the hydrogen-electricity conversion process, and;
- fuel-cell batteries are still highly expensive (around €10,000 for a medium-sized vehicle), due to the materials used in their manufacture. These include platinum and Nafion, an acid membrane used in the electrolyte of fuel cells.
Public and private R&D efforts have therefore focused on reducing the cost of fuel cells, increasing their storage capacity and on finding ways to build up new infrastructure at the cheapest cost.
At European level, a Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform (HFP) was launched in 2004 to accelerate research and deployment of hydrogen technologies. Led by industry, the platform brings together public and private researchers as well as public authorities and the financial community.
In March 2005, the platform presented a Strategic Research Agenda to direct research and to encourage public and private investment in targeted R&D programmes (EurActiv 17/03/05). The programme targets commercialisation of vehicles in 2015 but many think that they will not become competitive before 2020 at the earliest.
Several EU-funded pilot projects have also been launched to show the viability of hydrogen fuel cells in public transport. Called "Clean Urban Transport for Europe" (CUTE), the EU programme helped power 27 hydrogen-fuel cell public buses in nine European cities, from Amsterdam to Barcelona. The project, the results of which were presented in May this year (EurActiv 11/05/05), showed that improvements still needed to be made in areas such as:
- Design, construction and operation of safe hydrogen supply chains and refuelling stations;
- efficient production and use of tonnes of hydrogen, and;
- infrastructure optimisation.