During the second session of the 13th National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, the development of the hydrogen energy industry became a focus of discussion, as a number of deputies from relevant industries submitted practical motions in this regard.
According to their motions, the government should carry out strategic research on hydrogen energy, lift it to the national strategic level, and formulate a specific industrial development plan. Authorities should make unified plan for hydrogen refueling infrastructure and improve the form of subsidies for hydrogen refueling stations and technical innovation policies should be formulated in support of the hydrogen energy industry, with the focus on the core technology of hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles. A unified plan is also needed for infrastructure concerning hydrogen powered vehicles to promote the comprehensive development of the upstream and downstream industrial chains of the hydrogen energy industry.
Hydrogen cars and new energy utilization are the two pillars for China’s development of the hydrogen energy industry. In 2018, China’s GDP was 90.03 trillion yuan ($13.41 trillion), with the automobile and energy industries each exceeding 10 trillion yuan, which are expected to undergo complete changes with the development of hydrogen energy. However, currently, China’s hydrogen energy industry is far from challenging the two industries worth “20 trillion yuan.”
Among various kinds of hydrogen energy utilization, hydrogen vehicles are an important scenario, attracting great attention from industry players and investors. Frankly speaking, for the Chinese government and industry that have been working on electric vehicles for years, a shift to hydrogen vehicles may involve major interests and big industrial policy adjustments. It can be seen that the development of hydrogen vehicles will face opposition and challenges from the electric vehicle industry.
As regards China’s new-energy vehicles, hydrogen vehicles and electric vehicles are facing different bottlenecks. Problems with hydrogen vehicles are concentrated in technological issues, which mainly refer to core technology research and development or breakthroughs, as well as the industrial utilization of related technologies.
Meanwhile, the problems with electric vehicles are mainly on the market side, including market acceptance issues and environmental pollution. For instance, six years ago, car firm BYD launched an electric taxi fleet in Hong Kong, which was later suspended due to slow charging, lack of charging stations and short range. So far, Tesla is the only electric vehicle maker that has achieved large-scale market application in developed countries. But it also faces its own manufacturing difficulties and financial problems.
In the long term, hydrogen vehicles have at least three advantages compared with electric vehicles. First, a hydrogen vehicle could travel 500-600 kilometers with one fuel top-up, almost the same as a fossil fuel vehicle. Second, refueling a hydrogen vehicle only takes a few minutes, compared with the several hours of charging time for an electric vehicle. Third, hydrogen vehicles are truly non-polluting and emit zero emissions, with extremely low emissions even for the entire industrial chain. By comparison, electric vehicles’ industrial chain actually has high pollution and emissions.
Considering the above three aspects, the disadvantages of electric vehicles are obvious. From the perspective of practical use, the use of electric vehicles actually increases the burden on the society. The service life of the battery shortens with each use, and the cost of replacing the battery is almost equivalent to changing a car. As to the charging stations, the charging model takes too much time, meaning that the space utilization rate is low, which is why gas stations are unwilling to be changed into charging stations. Moreover, production of those batteries will face growing cost pressures in future as its excessive reliance on upstream resources is unlikely to change. Another critical problem is the recycling of used batteries, as it will be hard to rule out the hidden dangers of environmental pollution. With all these comparisons, it seems plain as daylight which kind of new-energy vehicle will be better for social development.
It is worth noting that countries like the US and Japan have been accelerating the push to develop hydrogen vehicles. At present, Toyota’s new hydrogen powered car, the Mirai, has been launched in Japan and Europe. In London, Mirai cars are used as taxis. Demonstration tests of the Mirai are also underway in the United Arab Emirates. In the US, due to government subsidies, hydrogen cars are sold even cheaper than Teslas. In fact, that specific market performance results from the hydrogen energy development strategy at the national level in the US.
In short, China should identify hydrogen vehicles as the main direction in the development of new-energy vehicles as soon as possible. Electric vehicles will eventually become a transitional product of new-energy vehicles, and hydrogen vehicles are the future. Although hydrogen vehicles will not completely replace electric vehicles for some time, the trend is set. Continuously pushing forward the development of the hydrogen vehicle industry is a major task that must be accomplished.