The debate over hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles rages on, and Renault Group just added some fuel to the fire. The auto maker’s Hyvia electric vehicle venture is kicking into high gear with an initial delivery of 50 hydrogen fuel cell vans to the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region this year, towards a near-term goal of 400 light-duty and 80 heavy-duty fuel cell vehicles. The later-term goal is 1,000 vehicles in all, which leads to the question: Where’s the hydrogen?

Here’s The Hydrogen

The answer is easy. The hydrogen is already on its way. The Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region is the host of the Zero Emission Valley project, which is billed as “the largest renewable hydrogen-driven mobility project in France.”

The project is supported by a public-private hydrogen infrastructure venture called Hympulsion, formed in 2019 under an agreement between the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes regional council, Michelin, and the leading energy firm ENGIE, with support from the Banque des Territoires and the Crédit Agricole and EU funding, too.

If you caught that thing about “renewable hydrogen,” that is a key point. The primary source of the global hydrogen supply is natural gas along with gasified coal, neither of which is renewable.

Hympulsion is working on a different track, consisting of green hydrogen produced from water in electrolyzer systems. Green hydrogen is a new industry and it currently accounts for a negligible fraction of the hydrogen market. However, in recent years it has been growing in all directions as the cost of renewable energy and electrolysis systems continues to drop (see more CleanTechnica green hydrogen coverage here).

The Hympulsion website notes that the infrastructure plan for Zero Emission Valley includes 11 electrolyzer systems capable of producing enough green hydrogen for up to 1,100 light-duty commercial hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The company also lists a goal of 18 distribution stations on its website, though a Renault press release mentions 15 fueling stations.

As for the hydrogen itself, the Hyvia startup is a 50-50 joint venture between Renault and the US green hydrogen producer Plug Power, which seems to be getting the last laugh in the area of hydrogen mobility, at least for now.

Where Are All The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles?

For those of you new to the topic, fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles but their primary source of power is a fuel cell, not a battery pack. Fuel cells generate electricity on-the-go through a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, with ambient air providing the O2. The only emission is water.

If that sounds expensive and complicated, it is. The key advantage is that fuel cells can be recharged in a few minutes, just like a gasmobile. Fuel cell fans also draw attention to cold weather performance and longer range.

Fuel cell vehicles have yet to gain much traction here in the US, but they are catching on elsewhere around the globe with an assist from public subsidies, and France is among those elsewheres.

Hyvia has already pilot tested its signature Renault Master Van H2-Tech fuel cell van in Europe. The new vehicle almost flew under the CleanTechnica radar, except our correspondent Jacek Fior had an opportunity last November to chat in person with David Holderbachem of Hyvia, along with representatives from Renault.

The conversation revolved around turnkey solutions for hydrogen vehicles. Earlier today Hyvia released many more details about the soup-to-nuts Renault Master Van H2-Tech package, which is designed to shepherd the vehicle through its useful life, from financing to support services, all the way through to resale.

Hyvia is already aiming beyond France to the European market at large, banking on the demand for light duty commercial vehicles to grab a quick foothold.

About Those Fueling Stations…

Even with the hydrogen fuel supply lined up, 15 (or 18) hydrogen fuel stations seems like a rather small number to provide for a new fleet of hydrogen vehicles in the sprawling, busy Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

With longer range and faster refueling times, fuel cell vehicles could get by with a somewhat smaller charging station network than a fleet of battery-electric vehicles would need, but that remains to be seen.

In any case, a couple of solutions are already in hand. Mobile hydrogen fueling stations are one way to fill gaps in the fuel station network.

Another way is to shrink electrolyzer systems down to the size of a parking space, and transport them to convenient locations.

Hyvia is focusing on the second option, leveraging the scalability and transportability of electrolyzer systems to offer fleet owners their own on-site green hydrogen equipment under the proprietary name Hywell.

The Hywell system can produce 1000 kilograms of green hydrogen daily, which Hyvia estimates is sufficient for a fleet of 20-25 vehicles.

“Adapted to the needs of rapid deployment of light and intensive H2 mobility, the HYWELL™ station’s mission is to accompany the successive phases of decarbonisation of professional fleets,” Renault enthuses.

“The HYWELL™ station can be deployed quickly and easily on the most constrained installation sites thanks to its Compact & Plug & Play architecture,” they add.

What Do The Fleet Owners Say?

Whether a vehicle is hydrogen fuel cell or battery-powered, the focus on fleets is significant because of the potential for the rapid, large scale adoption of zero emission vehicles. That can go sideways for some fleets (see: Hertz), but others can benefit from the opportunity for on-site hydrogen and/or battery charging stations.

The Postal Service, for example, has committed to buying 66,000 battery-electric delivery vans in the coming years, to dovetail with plans for installing charging stations at hundreds of new postal hubs.

Earlier this week, Fleet News features editor Andrew Ryan
touched base with the Association of Fleet professionals for some insights.

“Some fleets are starting to ‘take hydrogen seriously’ as a zero-emission fuel option because of issues encountered in running electric vans, says the Association of Fleet Professionals,” Ryan reported.

“These issues include the range and payloads of the currently-available vans, while poor towing ability is also a concern.”

Ryan takes note of some new activity in the van space that has “sparked the renewed interest in the fuel,” including the Vauxhall Vivaro-e Hydrogen in the UK, and a trial of the First Hydrogen van in Wales, where the utility Wales & West has also been looking into extracting hydrogen from wastewater.

Though AFP notes that fleet managers are still taking hydrogen with a hefty grain of salt, interest does seem to be percolating in the van space.

“Some fleets in some applications are finding that the range and payload of the electric vans available so far remain unsuitable for their needs,” AFP chair Paul Hollick explains. “There are also operational issues ranging from poor towing ability through to practical difficulties such as charging out of hours.”

The availability of big government incentives is still the main driver for early hydrogen fuel cell adopters, but that’s nothing new in the zero emission vehicle field.

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