The most abundant element in the universe is the next big thing in zero-emissions transportation, and has been for about a quarter of a century.
Indeed, in the mid-1990s, Burnaby, B.C.-based Ballard Power Systems began aggressively touting hydrogen fuel cells as the “green” solution for the 21st century. Ballard. Remember Ballard?
Looking back, many believe Ballard in the 1990s was more a stock play than a serious scientific, engineering and industrial effort. The pitch was that fuel cells represented the mass transportation solution that would save the planet. The reality was something else entirely.
I was there. I wrote the stories that quoted Ballard’s leadership and technology experts. They painted a full-colour picture of the hydrogen economy of the future. They described what it was like to drive a fuel cell prototype car and how the company would ramp up production. Ballard, I was once told, would become the Intel of the auto industry – with every car wearing a label, “Ballard Inside,” much as you see with so many computers today.
Without hesitation, we were told that Y2K would usher in fuel cell technology capable of powering everything from suburban minivans to taxicabs, delivery trucks, buses, and even forklifts. Daimler came on board with equity. So did Ford Motor.
Both ramped up demonstration vehicles powered by fuel cells – a Ford Focus compact sedan, for instance, and a Mercedes B-Class wagon, the latter embarking on something of a world tour designed to establish fuel cell credibility. I drove them all. Hydrogen was the future and this clean transportation future was just around the corner. Ballard, Daimler, Ford and others all had us dreaming of a a world in which the only tailpipe emission would be water.
Ballard’s stock soared. Investment analysts swooned. Investment banks and some investors cashed in. Then came the crash and with it, general confidence in hydrogen fuel cells – both in the financial marketplace and in the marketplace of ideas. In the early 2000s, Ballard shares were trading near $200. By the end of the decade, you could buy a piece of Ballard for less than $1.50.
Here in 2020, however, there is renewed interest in fuel cells and even in Ballard. As of this writing, Ballard shares are trading at more than $19. A much-diminished Ballard has survived, with forklifts, buses and stationary power plants central to its portfolio.
Yet there are also carmakers, credible ones, again touting hydrogen fuel cells. Toyota Motor, Honda Motor and Hyundai Motor are still drinking the hydrogen Kool-Aid. Hydrogen, they argue, remains the long-term solution for decarbonization, which in turn will end the growing and potentially terminal threat of human-induced climate change.
The appeal today – as it was a quarter century ago – is straightforward enough: a fuel cell vehicle has electric motors to turn the wheels. It’s an EV (electric vehicle). The electricity comes from hydrogen which is pumped on board in liquid form, in a process much like any of us use to refill our gasoline-powered cars and trucks. The electric motors get their juice when hydrogen mixes with oxygen in an electrochemical reaction that creates electricity inside the fuel cell. The only emission is the water that dribbles out of the tailpipe. Range: 400 km or more per tank.
Yes, we’ve seen this movie before. A quarter century ago, we were told by Ballard and others that here in 2020 we would have a world of dealer ships stuffed with fuel cells cars. It was going to happen. And then the whole thing unravelled. With hindsight, it’s hard not to be cynical – to feel played.
In fact, Daimler has wound down its Burnaby, B.C. facility, conserving cash for an expanding battery car/hybrid product plan. As have others in what once was the fuel cell development capital of the world – a Burnaby industrial park. Ford had moved on to the Mustang Mach-E. And Tesla has become the darling of the green car movement, though most legacy automakers have also embraced battery-electric vehicles, backed by billions in investment.
And yet we find that in 2020, the fuel cell dream lives on, principally championed by Asian automakers. On the street, you can find a few thousand early adopters driving fuel cell cars, though they are very expensive and hydrogen filling stations are few and far between.
Fill-ups. They have been a very big problem since the beginning. In the Greater Vancouver area, there are three public hydrogen stations – on the North Shore (newly opened), another on the south side of the south of the City of Vancouver and a third out in the suburbs, in Surrey. In California, where fuel cells were aggressively championed by former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, there are some 60-odd hydrogen stations for the entire state.
The green space that once looked like it could be dominated by fuel cell cars, has instead been taken over by EVs, with California’s Tesla at the forefront. Tesla is now the second-most valuable car company in the world, behind only Toyota.
Toyota and Hyundai, however, stubbornly argue that the long-term future of green transportation is hydrogen, not battery cars, and certainly not battery-electric rigs using very hot (literally) lithium-ion chemistry which requires extensive on-board cooling and an elaborate network of charging stations that often rely on dirty or dangerous sources of electricity – coal-fired power plants and nuclear generators.
Toyota’s fuel cell flagship, the Mirai, while it’s been available to just a relative handful of owners since its launch in 2015, will, according to reports, be reinvented with a second-generation model, perhaps as early as 2021. The Washington Post reports that Toyota’s plan is to produce 30,000 second-generation Mirai’s per year, versus no more than 3,000 a year now.
The Mirai, then, goes from a demonstration vehicle to a real-world production model produced, sold and serviced by the world’s richest, biggest and most profitable automaker. With Toyota – and Hyundai to a lesser extent – championing hydrogen in a very public way backed by massive investments, it’s impossible to dismiss the fuel cell initiative as merely a replay of a stock play from the 1990s.
There’s more. The vision of Toyota and the Japanese government, as The Financial Times points out, is to put millions of fuel cell cars on the roads by 2050. The showcase for Japan’s push for a hydrogen economy was supposed to be the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, since postponed to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Hydrogen, as both a primary source, and more importantly, a carrier of energy, must become cheaper and more easily affordable,” declared prime minister Shinzo Abe at last year’s Davos economic summit, according to The Financial Times. “My government is aiming to reduce the production cost of hydrogen by at least 90 per cent by the year 2050, to make it cheaper than natural gas.” Japan intends to decarbonize its economy, trading hydrogen for fossil fuels and nuclear power – the latter deemed unacceptable in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in the spring of 2011.
Toyota says it is fully onside with the hydrogen plan, though the automaker is also accelerating its hybrid and plug-in EV program. What makes this intriguing is this: Toyota and others can count on the Japanese government to support the fuel cell initiative, backstopping the drive to more hydrogen filling stations and such. And some other jurisdiction, notably California, are on board, too. California officials say they expect to see 1,000 hydrogen stations in the state by the end of the decades, reports The Post.
Based on my most recent drive of the Mirai, the next-gen ride should have broad appeal for early adopters in the green space who want to jump on the hydrogen bandwagon. Based on Toyota’s track record, there seems little chance that a full-on production version of the Mirai will turn out to be a problem-plagued and prone to catching fire. Toyota’s brand reputation is rooted in reliability, consistency and profitability.
Toyota, then, is not Ballard in 2000, nor is it Tesla in 2020. That’s does not guarantee than the Mirai and its siblings will be the next “new new thing.” But only a fool would bet against a steadfast global car company with $100 billion in the bank, legions of loyal owners around the world and a 50-plus-year reputation for taking the long view.