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Hyundai will have sold only 10 Nexo FCVs by the end of 2019 and only in the Vancouver area.

Hydrogen-powered cars might make a lot of sense, but there are only two public filling stations in Canada: one in Quebec City and one in Vancouver. A third is planned for Montreal and a half-dozen more for B.C.’s Lower Mainland. But outside those areas, without being able to refuel, they’ll literally go nowhere.

Compare that with the almost 12,000 existing gas stations across the country and the challenge of selling hydrogen cars – known as fuel-cell vehicles, or FCVs – is obvious. Each pump at a hydrogen fuelling station costs at least $1-million to build and install. With only a handful of FCVs on the road, because there’s no infrastructure to fuel them, those new stations will lose a lot of money before they become profitable.

But somebody’s got to bite the bullet – and it might be Hyundai.

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“Hyundai Motor Company is preparing for a hydrogen-powered society,” says Kim Sae-hoon, vice-president of Hyundai’s fuel-cell division. “It’s possible that we’ll build our own infrastructure if we have to.”

If Hyundai does this, it’s likely to begin at home in South Korea – don’t expect an investment in Canada any time soon. It’s dipping just a toe in the Canadian market. It will have sold only 10 Hyundai Nexo FCVs by the end of this year, with two of them used by the Modo car-sharing co-operative, and only in the Vancouver area.

In Quebec, Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. of Canada Ltd. announced a partnership earlier this year to build the Montreal fuelling station; this will help fuel the 50 Toyota Mirai FCVs the Quebec government last year agreed to purchase and the Clarity FCVs that Honda is considering for import. Even then, however, they’re relying on government funding for much of the infrastructure. As Toyota’s corporate vice-president Stephen Beatty is fond of saying, his company is in the business of selling cars, not selling fuel.

Hyundai may be taking this a step further, however, with its publicly announced “FCEV Vision 2030.” It expects to build half a million road-ready fuel-cell vehicles by 2030, as well as another 200,000 industrial vehicles, including trucks and forklifts. By that time, it expects the global market to be two million hydrogen-powered road vehicles, and it wants to supply a quarter of them.

Hydrogen advocates see a future in which FCVs can produce electric power from their fuel cells while parked.

“We will expand our role beyond the automotive transportation sector and play a pivotal role in global society’s transition to clean energy by helping make hydrogen an economically viable energy source,” said Chung Eui-sun, executive vice-chairman of the Hyundai Motor Group. “We are confident that hydrogen power will transcend the transportation sector and become a leading global economic success.”

Hydrogen advocates see a future in which FCVs can produce electric power from their fuel cells while parked. One Nexo can produce about 10 kilowatts of electric power, which means a city with 100,000 FCVs can, theoretically, produce the same amount of power as a nuclear power station. “Just imagine,” Kim says. “Your car could earn you money just for being parked.”

Hydrogen critics, however, point out that it can be wasteful to create the gas if demand is too high, and expensive if demand is too low. The cheapest hydrogen is usually extracted from water and it needs high-temperature steam to do so, which is often heated by burning fossil fuels. It can also be created by self-contained electrolysis units that have almost no environmental impact, but they’re costly to build and install.

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These self-contained units can be placed directly at a filling centre, but if additional hydrogen needs to be brought in – which is likely if more than just a few cars fill up in a day – then transportation costs are much higher than for gasoline. Hydrogen must be pressurized into a liquid and will evaporate naturally over time, adding to the challenge.

Yet, hydrogen is also valuable as a means for storing reusable energy. When excess power is created, there are only a few ways to store it without just losing it. Most commonly, excess power is stored in batteries, but batteries are expensive. (You can also store it on an industrial scale by pumping water to a high place, creating pressure in the pipes for later use, or even by compressing air in a tunnel – although only in Germany, Kim says, because caves there are primarily salt and salt doesn’t leak air.)

Storing that power in compressed hydrogen, however, can be very cost effective. All those vehicles plugged into the grid during the day to generate power can also be used to store power while they’re plugged in at night.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of a fuel-cell vehicle is that it creates no carbon emissions while in use – just clean water. It combines hydrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere in its fuel cell stack, to create electricity through an electrochemical reaction. Because the oxygen is pulled through a high-performance air filter that removes even microparticulates, the car actually cleans the air around it as it drives.

The poor air quality of most Asian cities means they will probably place higher priority for building up their hydrogen refuelling infrastructure than Canada will, but Kim points out that in Germany, the cost of providing 400 hydrogen fuelling stations is about the same as building 50 kilometres of Autobahn.

“This really isn’t about the cost; it’s about the political will,” he says. “The money is there – we spend the same amount on chocolate for Valentine’s Day. In Korea, we think electricity is free, and clean. It’s not. We have to change the way we think before we can make any real change, and it’s the same everywhere in the world.”

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