Hydrogen cars: what are the prospects in Switzerland?

The hydrogen car could, in the medium term, play a role in the energy transition. It is highly energy-efficient, emits no local pollutants and can contribute to a massive reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector… provided that the hydrogen is of renewable origin. In addition, the fuel cell is more suitable for large cars and even commercial vehicles (buses, trucks). It therefore appears to be very complementary to the electric car, the latter being aimed more at the small urban car market.

In the context of mobility, hydrogen is used to power a fuel cell. It is an electrochemical device that produces electricity and water from a fuel, in this case hydrogen. It took decades to develop this technology, but fuel cells are here today. Worldwide sales of fuel cells have reached almost 70,000 units in 2013, of which around 2,700 will be in transport applications (buses, elevators, commercial vehicles). Today, fuel cell manufacturers are targeting the automotive sector as a priority, given the foreseeable expansion of this market and the need for this sector to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Fuel cell cars are currently not widely available, and the majority of them correspond to a model developed by Toyota and marketed in 2015. Development conditions seem much more favourable today. On the one hand, fuel cell technology is much more mature. On the other hand, some 125 public hydrogen refuelling stations have already been deployed in Europe, including two in Switzerland. Hundreds more are to be built by 2030 as part of the European H2Mobility project, in which Switzerland is participating. Similar programs exist in the USA and Japan.

The crucial issue with fuel cell vehicles is the origin of hydrogen. Today, the industry (oil, metallurgical, agro-food, etc.) uses 3 million tonnes of hydrogen each year, produced entirely from coal and natural gas. If hydrogen for cars were to come from the same fossil sources, it would be difficult to justify the massive deployment of this technology, since the desire to decarbonise transport is precisely one of the main arguments in favour of fuel cell cars. Hydrogen for transport will in any case have to come from renewable sources in the long run - or it will not exist.

However, there is a very promising potential synergy between the supply of hydrogen cars on the one hand, and wind and solar power generation on the other. During periods of surplus production of this renewable electricity [→ Q11], one way to harness it is precisely to use it to electrolyse water. Electrolysis involves passing an electric current through the water to dissociate it into its two molecular components, oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2). In this way, the hydrogen that the fuel cell car so badly needs is recovered. The fuel cell will use this hydrogen to produce electricity and water. We are talking about renewable hydrogen, since the electricity used is renewable. This process is usually referred to as “power to gas” [→ Q74].

There are still many obstacles to the spread of fuel cell cars, first and foremost their prohibitive price. Vehicle safety is also a major challenge because hydrogen is a highly flammable gas. Moreover, hydrogen will require the development of specific distribution and refuelling infrastructures, which are also very costly. The development of hydrogen mobility on a large scale is likely to require joint and coordinated actions between two traditionally separate industrial sectors: car manufacturers and gas companies. This will be closely arbitrated by regional and national governments, which will have to set the framework conditions for the market to develop. In this context, Switzerland will not be able to go it alone, but will depend on the European Union’s willingness to promote this technology [→ Q89].

So it’s going to take some time for things to fall into place. Nevertheless, many scenarios envisage tens of thousands of hydrogen cars on the roads worldwide by 2020. The International Energy Agency even expects a global automotive market share of almost 15% in 2050 in its scenario to keep global warming below 2 degrees.


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