Road vehicles of the future will increasingly move away from fossil fuels – but the speed of the transformation will depend on research into batteries and fuel cells, and the speed at which automakers commercialise vehicles that use them.
A Friends of Europe Café Crossfire on 27 March debated this topic, which has enormous stakes for the future of European industry. Vehicle manufacturing is one of the biggest employers in the EU, and changing the industry’s core technology has the potential to trigger upheaval. Although the market for electric vehicles, that run off either batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, is still small, it has started to grow fast, and the list of countries planning to ban internal combustion engines is expanding rapidly.
Requirements for success include advances in battery and fuel cell technology and the ability to generate cheap renewable energy. Otherwise, the batteries or fuel cells will often be charged using power generated by fossil fuels, lessening their contribution to a reduction in greenhouse gases. “The trajectory to the future is clear,” said Greg Archer, Director of Clean Vehicles and Energy at Transport and Environment (T&E). “We believe electro-mobility will predominantly be battery-powered but will also feature hydrogen. The shift is coming because we are producing very cheap renewable energy that will power our vehicles.”
Though battery-powered cars have been fastest to market, renewable hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to overcome some of batteries’ weaknesses – in particular their limited range. Fuel cells could also help overcome a major weakness of renewable energy: its dependence on the weather. This makes it necessary to store energy to use when the sun doesn’t shine on photo-voltaic cells and the wind doesn’t blow on wind turbines. “Fuel cells store energy on a large scale, which manages the intermittency of renewables,” said Michèle Azalbert, CEO of ENGIE’s Business Unit dedicated to renewable hydrogen. “With a fuel cell, you can fill the tank in five minutes for a range of 500 km, so you get the autonomy required.”
However, there are signs that China and Japan could pull ahead in the technology thanks to the investments they are making in vehicles, batteries, renewable hydrogen fuel cells and recharging infrastructure. “We need to invest there to avoid a situation where we are lagging behind in electric batteries,” said Jean-François Aguinaga, Head of Unit for Surface Transport at the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation.
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