Navigant Research Blog

Fuel Cell Vehicles Set to Arrive – With Fueling Stations

— September 5, 2014

Heading into the 2015 launch of commercial fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) from Toyota and Honda (Hyundai’s  is already out), California and Japan appear to be leading the race to build infrastructure.  In the past 12 months, the governments in California and Japan have each made a firm commitment to support extensive re-fueling networks.  Japan set a target of building 100 stations by March 2016.  California has committed to providing up to $20 million annually in support of a 100-station network.

Those timelines are aggressive given that, up to now, hydrogen stations have taken 18 months or more to build.  In California in particular, the timeline for building a hydrogen fueling site has been very lengthy, 24 months and even more.  This is one reason that the state has lost its leading position as a first market for FCVs.  A year ago it looked like Europe was going to step up, with the United Kingdom announcing its own H2Mobility program to follow on the one that Germany established to develop and execute a hydrogen roadmap.  However, both of these programs are moving rather slowly.  By contrast, California secured a funding commitment from the state of up to $20 million per year in September 2013.  Now, the state is moving forward at a much faster pace.   In May, the California Energy Commission (CEC) announced awards for 28 stations, to be built by November 2015, for a total of around $46 million.

New Entrants

Of course, being first also means being a guinea pig for this market, which still faces a good deal of uncertainty in terms of potential demand; I’ll be outlining FCVs sales prospects through 2023 in my upcoming report, 2014 Fuel Cell Annual Report.  Participants in the buildout of California’s first nine stations learned some lessons that are now being implemented.  One of the most critical differences is that the CEC is using its funding to provide support for operations and maintenance in addition to station construction.  This represents a tacit admission that the stations will be a cost center for owners and operators for the first years of the market.  The CEC awarded $300,000 to four current stations to support ongoing operations.

Another striking difference with the new 28 stations is that only 3 of the 28 awards are going directly to industrial gas companies (IGCs).  In place of IGCs, new entities have sprung up specifically to build and manage retail hydrogen fueling; these entities were given 23 awards.  Startup FirstElement Fuel received awards to build 19 stations.  The company was launched with funding support from Toyota and IGC Air Products but is open to working with any IGC that wants to use a third party to operate a retail station.  The company plans to become an operator of hydrogen fueling networks, similar to electric vehicle (EV) charging network operators.  FirstElement secures a retail gas station where there is real estate available to add a hydrogen pump, and takes responsibility for the station once it’s up and running.  This removes risk from both the gas station owner and from the IGC providing the hydrogen.

Quite a bit of risk remains for the CEC in placing much of the responsibility for stations needed in 2015 on one company.  But the good news for the FCV market is that some early lessons learned are paying off in terms of new ways to tackle the problem of providing fuel to potential FCV drivers.

 

Helsinki’s Plan to Make Private Cars Obsolete

— August 12, 2014

Helsinki, Finland, has proposed a strikingly ambitious mobility on demand system that presents the logical extension of current innovations in passenger travel.  The city plans to create a subscriber service that would let users choose from, and pay for, a range of transportation options through their smartphones.  The options will include conventional public transit, carsharing, bikesharing, ferries, and an on-demand minibus service that the city’s transit authority launched in 2013.

The major innovation that makes this work will be an integrated payment system.  This part of the scheme may prove the most complicated to implement, but it is the final piece of the puzzle that makes this scheme truly transformative.  No longer forced to choose between the on-demand capability of private car ownership versus the eco-friendliness of shared transit, Helsinki residents will be able to easily get where they want to go, when they want to get there, without needing a car.

I’ve been using the phrase mobility as a service for this phenomenon, but it looks like the mobile phone companies may have claimed that moniker already.  Whatever the name, the concept is the transportation version of other businesses that are moving from selling a product to selling the service or utility the consumer wants from that product.  Planned obsolescence no longer makes good business sense, and consumers can benefit from constant improvements in technology.  This is most common in information technology (in cloud computing and storage, for instance), but it’s also happening in the energy sector – especially for clean technologies like solar, where leasing programs offer a way to overcome the upfront price premium barrier.

Share, Don’t Buy

Globally, carsharing membership has grown around 28% since 2010, with Europe as the leader in this sector.  Navigant Research’s report, Carsharing Programs, forecasts that global carsharing members will surpass 12 million in 2020.  The rise of on-demand ride services, such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, are also transforming the way city dwellers use taxi services.  Taking on the highly regulated taxi business, these companies face considerable opposition, but at this point, it will be hard to put the genie back into the bottle. Bikesharing and even scooter share services are also spreading.  Today’s young urban dwellers expect to be able to use an array of transportation options to suit an array of needs, at the touch of an app.

Helsinki’s program has the potential to tie into other transportation innovations, such as the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) – more carsharing programs are deploying EVs as a selling point for their service – and autonomous vehicle technology.  Wireless charging would also support schemes like Helsinki’s by ensuring that shared EVs are recharging when parked, rather than relying on the driver to remember to plug in.

Faced with dwindling demand in mature markets like North America and Western Europe, automakers are exploring a range of new services to offset lower demand and to gain a competitive edge.  Farsighted companies will look to begin selling mobility as well as vehicles, changing transportation as much as the IT and energy sectors have changed.

 

In California, High-Speed Rail Takes Its Time Arriving

— August 5, 2014

California’s proposed high-speed rail (HSR) line between Los Angeles and San Francisco is stirring controversy – not surprisingly – for a $68 billion infrastructure project that will take until 2029 to complete.  The concerns over the project’s cost-to-benefit ratio cross party lines.  While California Republicans have lined up against Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal, so has his own lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom.  The state successfully beat back a legal challenge to the project’s funding plan, but more legal challenges loom.

The HSR debate also ties into the broader question of whether the United States can accomplish big things anymore. Congress’ inability to find a serious, long-term solution to the dwindling Highway Trust Fund is just one example of this problem – one that also results in less money to support any state’s big idea.

Writing in support of the HSR, James Fallows of The Atlantic makes a key point: “Big infrastructure investments are usually under-valued and over-criticized while in the planning stage.”  One obvious comparison is Boston’s Big Dig. That was also enormously ambitious project with a huge price tag that took more than a decade to complete.  It had massive cost overruns, becoming the subject of constant complaints in Massachusetts.  Today, visiting Boston since the Big Dig’s completion, it’s clear why the expense and hassle was worth it.  The city was knit back together after having been split apart by a major road running through its heart.  In place of the old elevated highway is a greenway that invites pedestrians and connects with bike-sharing stations.

Easier Than Flying

It’s worth noting that the Big Dig was a huge infrastructure project designed to undo the effects of another ambitious infrastructure project, one that had unforeseen, and disastrous, consequences.  Moreover, the Big Dig plan was based on known demand, since it essentially took traffic from above ground and moved it into tunnels.  This central purpose removed much of the uncertainty about new infrastructure projects that can keep politicians and planners up at night.

That uncertainty lies at the heart of the debate over high-speed rail. A major new passenger rail project, in a country that has largely abandoned rail travel for cars and planes, is a leap of faith.  The most apt comparison for the California HSR is Amtrak’s Boston-New York-Washington corridor.  In 2012, Amtrak reported that it had captured 75% of commercial passenger travel between New York and Washington, D.C.  The success of the train is not due to its being cheaper – tickets can be as much as $145 one way – but more to the convenience and ease of trains compared to air travel.

HSR Plus Autonomous Vehicles

A key factor in that convenience is that, unlike airlines, the trains deposit passengers into the downtown of each city and connect to local transit services. This multimodal connectivity will be key to the success of the California HSR, whether it means connecting to public transit or to nearby carsharing services like City CarShare and DriveNow in downtown San Francisco.

The rise of autonomous vehicles is frequently cited by key opponents as evidence that the HSR is a 20th century idea whose time has passed.  While Navigant Research’s 2014 Autonomous Vehicles report suggests that long-distance, inter-city travel is a possible model for self-driving cars, it projects they’re most likely to be used for passenger travel in carsharing services as well as in fleets as an alternative to taxis for local travel within the city.  In this scenario, autonomous vehicles will actually support the high-speed rail line by making carsharing easier and ubiquitous in urban centers while the HSR meets city-to-city travel needs.

 

Japan Doubles Down on Fuel Cell Vehicles

— July 13, 2014

Two recent announcements out of Japan have dramatically cut the price that Japanese drivers will pay for a fuel cell car.  Toyota unveiled its completed design for the fuel cell vehicle (FCV) it will put on the market in 2015.  More importantly, the company revealed the price would be around ¥7 million, or $70,000.  This is a big drop from the $100,000 price tag floated, alarmingly, a few years ago.

A day earlier, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe called for subsidies of FCVs beginning next year.  A part of the government’s economic growth strategy, these incentives reflect the hydrogen energy roadmap adopted by Japan’s trade ministry.

As described in my Fuel Cell Vehicles report, I’ve long said that the two impediments to fuel cell cars taking hold in the market are cost and infrastructure.  Automakers like Honda and Daimler have already shown that the technology works, resolving early issues such as cold-start capability.  FCVs will also deliver on the key performance characteristics that make them intriguing, as compared to battery electric vehicles: range and refueling.  The Toyota FCV will have a 420-mile range and refuel in 3 minutes.

The Post-Fukushima Strategy

For longtime fuel cell technology followers, I am stating the obvious.  The potential benefits of fuel cells in transportation have been well-understood for years.  Honda, General Motors (GM), Daimler, Hyundai, and Toyota have all shown they can make cars that meet those performance targets.  Nevertheless, in the U.S. media, the perception persists that fuel cells were made obsolete by the successful introduction of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs).  In Navigant Research’s recent white paper, The Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Industries: 10 Trends to Watch, I noted that the U.S. media would continue to tie these two technologies together – and would misunderstand the rationale for pursuing them both.  Sure enough, this article asserts that the Japanese government’s goal is to crush Tesla.

Not quite.  The Japanese government’s plan is to promote technologies and fuels that will help ensure the country never has another experience like the Fukushima disaster in 2011.  The Japanese government also wants to grow the economy by supporting domestic industries.

The Market Will Decide

To take a phrase from President Obama, Japan has taken an “all of the above” approach in pursuing these two goals.  Nissan and Toyota have done well in the PEV market.  But fuel cells offer an alternative for consumers who may find that a plug-in car doesn’t meet their driving needs.

Japan has also made a huge commitment to fuel cells that provide residential power.  The country’s residential fuel cell program has supported the deployment of over 42,000 combined heat and power (CHP) fuel cells in Japan.  Manufactured by Toshiba, Panasonic, and Eneos Celltech, these residential units are sold through gas companies like Tokyo Gas.  After Fukushima, when the plant’s backup diesel generators were rendered useless and employees scavenged car batteries to power monitoring equipment, the Japanese government set a requirement that the fuel cells be capable of starting up when the power is off.  While these fuel cells employ a different technology from automotive fuel cells, the CHP program demonstrates both Japan’s commitment to pursuing whatever technology the country believes will support its energy resiliency (utilizing domestic expertise) and its willingness to support that technology in its early market introduction.

Japan has already committed to building 100 hydrogen fueling stations in key metro areas.  The country’s energy companies are partnering in that effort.  Note that the Japanese government is also supporting the automaker deployment of 12,000 charging stations in Japan.  Again, it’s not an either/or prospect for Japan.  The announcement on the FCV subsidies will put the cars at a price point where they might have a chance in the market.  If the infrastructure is in place to make fueling reasonably convenient, then it will be up to consumers to decide whether FCVs will succeed in the market or not.  Success will be measured over many years, not in 18 months.

 

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