But the vehicles that the European Commission has touted for their low emissions are years away from capturing anything more than a niche market.
Sales of hydrogen vehicles in Europe are expected to reach 100,000 by 2015 and 1 million in 2020, and could gain a 25% share of the total EU passenger car market in 2050, says a recent McKinsey & Company report. Today, Europe accounts for one-third of the more than 50 million automobiles manufactured each year across the world.
The Commission is expected to soon roll out new proposals to promote hydrogen and other alternative fuels and transport to reduce vehicle emissions, building on last year’s transport White Paper, which outlined a roadmap for Europe's future transport system.
Road transport accounts for one-fifth of the EU’s carbon dioxide emissions and is a leading contributor to poor urban air quality.
Industry supporters are eagerly awaiting those plans, arguing that more public involvement is needed to ensure success even in times of austerity.
“We would like to raise our voices significantly to say that we believe that part of the solution to the European rebound lies in effectively investing in those long-term, long-tail solutions”, said Pierre-Etienne Franc, board chairman of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership.
Robust but infrastructure remains an issue
Hydrogen fuel cells have a number of advantages, according to Commission reports and the industry. The cars are powered from a hydrogen fuel cell that works as a self-contained charger for an electric motor, giving automobiles more power and a longer range than battery-powered electric vehicles while producing little pollution.
For automakers, existing vehicle models can be modified to accommodate hydrogen tanks and cells, reducing design costs. Many of the leading manufacturers have already produced hydrogen prototypes.
Despite earlier concerns about safety - hydrogen is highly flammable - manufacturers say tanks meet or exceed the safety standards of natural gas and petroleum tanks.
One leading challenge is that hydrogen fuelling infrastructure doesn’t exist in much of Europe, meaning that most sales will be for business deliver fleets, taxis or urban dwellers with access to filling stations.
Both Germany and Britain have pushed plans to develop hydrogen filling stations, joining similar initiatives in Japan, South Korea and the United States. But across much of Europe, plans for hydrogen stations - like charging points for battery-powered cars - are skimpy.
Franc’s Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking is promoting infrastructure investments to prepare for demand when cars enter the consumer market. Hydrogen is easily stored and supplies in the Europe are plentiful.
The emerging industry is also counting on European leaders to provide incentives - much like those given to renewable energy - for consumers to buy hydrogen vehicles when they start to enter the market over the next decade.
Fuels still king of the road
Despite the promise of electric propulsion, the internal combustion engine has a long road ahead of it. A recent report by the European Petroleum Industry Association says diesel and other liquid fuels delivery considerably higher energy density per unit consumed compared to hydrogen and natural gas - meaning fossils fuels are more efficient for heavy-duty and long-distance hauling.
The association also notes that the cost to operate an electric vehicle today is more than four times higher than a diesel-powered car - about 7€ per 100 kilometres for a diesel vs. more than 30€ for an electric car. Innovation and better aerodynamics will improve fuel economy and reduce emissions in road transport in the years ahead, the report says.
Hydrogen supporters acknowledge that while their vehicles are planet friendly, hydrogen production and transport are not entirely pure.
“If you are looking for 100% green hydrogen, which only is produced from renewables, then this is not yet in place,” said Thomas Brachmann, senior engineer at Honda Research and Development Europe in Germany.
“But the expansion activities in each country in reducing CO2 also leads to introduction of more and more renewable sources so renewable energy can then generate the hydrogen.”
Hydrogen vehicles also operate at double the efficiency of combustion engines, so even if hydrogen production is not entirely green, “we already have a dramatic advantage”, Brachmann said.