IRELAND is about to fall  behind its largest trading partner when it comes to the future of driving. With the UK government having just announced a £400 million (€478m) investment plan for hydrogen vehicle technology, the Irish Government has not yet invested in such technology.

The British plan, which ties together government departments, car makers, gas and electricity companies and others, is in reaction to the stated plans by several major car manufacturers – Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors among them – to have hydrogen fuel cell cars on sale by 2015.

Recent events have put the production of hydrogen powered cars in the fast lane. Disappointing sales of electric cars in Ireland, in the UK and in Germany, apparently largely due to people not being willing to invest money in cars with restricted ranges, has brought hydrogen’s potential back to the forefront. The British government’s €478m investment will, it hopes, have a nationwide network of hydrogen refuelling stations, or at least the beginnings of one, in place by 2015.

Because of the massive investment needed to create a national hydrogen fuelling network (Germany’s cost for doing so is estimated at €3bn to €4bn) it is an infrastructural investment that only a government could make, or even insist on.

The Department of the Environment, stated: “there is no large scale production planned and so the possible widespread availability of hydrogen cars is still some years away. It is likely that hydrogen may find application in the heavy vehicle market.”

Hydrogen’s appeal for car makers is easy to understand. The most abundant element in the cosmos is something we’re never going to run out of while fuel cells are a relatively simple technology and the only emissions are from heat and water vapour.

But there are difficulties to overcome. On the vehicle side, extreme cold and hot weather performance issues had to be dealt with, along with start-up times, efficiency issues and power losses. Then there’s hydrogen itself. Currently, there are very few ways of gathering, storing and transporting hydrogen that don’t end up causing more emissions than just drilling for, refining and burning fossil fuels, so a balance must be sought that puts more green credits in hydrogen’s account.

It’s an issue that the ESB is familiar with  as the company uses hydrogen to cool turbines in some of its power plants. Paul Mulvaney, head of ESB Electric Cars, downplayed the potential significance of hydrogen power for cars when we spoke to him about it.

“Hydrogen cars always seem to be five to 10 years away, and there’s a massive infrastructural investment needed. We see that there’ll always be a place for electric vehicles, and 95 per cent of the infrastructure is already there; the power stations, the transmission lines. All we need to do now is finish installing the charging points.

“Hydrogen has other disadvantages, and we actually have more experience with it than most, as we use it for cooling purposes in some power plants. It’s difficult to compress, transport and store, and it’s not as environmentally efficient as you’d think. People look at fuel cell cars and see just water vapour coming out of the back, but the fact is that to get hydrogen into the transport network, to separate it from water, you need a huge input of energy, from which there is a dramatic heat loss. It’s not as simple and straightforward as it seems.”

While there is a certain level of schadenfreude in the ESB downplaying hydrogen, given its investment in an electric car charging network, even the car companies are playing down hydrogen’s significance for Ireland. One senior industry executive said to us: “Unless there was an infrastructure in place, I don’t see anyone bringing hydrogen cars into Ireland.”

Ian Corbett of Toyota Ireland said: “We have had no indication from, or conversations with, the Government on hydrogen. They may have had conversations on it with others, but I think it unlikely as our national strategy seems too be built around EVs (electric vehicles) only. As yet, we have had no conversations with Toyota Motor Europe on hydrogen as it’s far to early. Toyota’s strategy is to have a range of environmentally friendly technologies on sale, from hybrids, plug in hybrids, EVs and hydrogen. A report by consultants McKinsey into future powertains in Europe concluded that over the next 40 years, no single power-train satisfies all key criteria for economics, performance and the environment. So whatever strategy Ireland develops it should not be around one single powertrain.”

Whatever the success, failure, potential or downfall of hydrogen power for cars is or will be, one thing is certain for now; Ireland won’t be taking part just yet!

Source: The Irish Times