The lack of fueling stations is one of the bigger—and more expensive—challenges that stand in the way of the widespread adoption of hydrogen-powered cars. In geographically massive places like the United States, it seems like an impossible task.
In Japan, hydrogen cars have at least a fighting chance, thanks largely to a push by automakers Toyota (TOYOF), Nissan (NSANY), and Honda (HNDAF). Japan’s three biggest automakers announced Wednesday they will cover up to one-third of the operating costs for hydrogen stations run by infrastructure companies. Support will be capped at about 11 million yen (about $90,000) per station.
The joint effort was initially announced in February, but with little detail. This is the first time the companies have made specific financial commitments towards hydrogen infrastructure. The companies said they will also work to encourage new companies to enter the hydrogen supply business.
All three automakers are working on hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars, hence their willingness to invest in even a diminutive hydrogen station network. Toyota launched the Mirai in late 2014. The car, which the EPA says has a 312-mile range, will debut in the U.S. market (just California) this fall. Honda says it will bring a fuel cell vehicle (FCV) to market before April 2016 and Nissan has plans for one in 2017.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are zero-emission vehicles that emit water vapor and warm air as exhaust—although the production of hydrogen may produce emissions, depending on the source. The most common way to produce hydrogen is through steam reforming, when high-temperature steam is combined with natural gas. Hydrogen can also be produced from water through electrolysis, which is expensive and energy intensive. It is also possible to use wind or solar power to make hydrogen.
Japan has 74 hydrogen fueling stations planned or constructed, which is leaps and bounds above the 12 public hydrogen fuel stations in the United States. Still, the hydrogen stations are rarely used and the infrastructure companies face difficulty operating the facilities, according to the three companies.
Their plan is to give medium-term support to these infrastructure companies (until about 2020) in tandem with government measures. Under the plan, about 100 stations will be constructed initially.
By then, the automakers predict that an advanced hydrogen fueling station network, coupled with the availability of several brands of hydrogen-powered cars, will lead to widespread adoption in Japan. Whether California (and the rest of the world) will see a similar push any time soon remains to be seen.