Have you ever driven a fuel cell car? And have you ever filled up the tank of one at a hydrogen station? If so, you probably have made the same experience as I have: No fuel without a fuel card by the Clean Energy Partnership. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to test-drive a Toyota Mirai (see next H2-international issue) – and try out refueling too. Driving the car was a great experience; the technology has matured enough. But the question I ultimately had was how the issue of hydrogen refueling would be solved in the foreseeable future.
Can you really talk about market maturity if all drivers of fuel cell vehicles are required to complete a course in refueling first before they can fill up a tank on their own? And what may even be more important to ask is why this odd requirement from days past has not long since been dropped? You don’t have any special restrictions or need to participate in a refueling course with LPG and natural gas vehicles. Why isn’t the same true for hydrogen?
I went and asked H2 Mobility Germany about it. Their answer: “Unfortunately, [refueling] hasn’t been possible yet without a CEP card.” And the CEP said quite simply: “Things will certainly change during the further expansion of the infrastructure and the takeover of gas stations by H2 Mobility.” At least, they promised to take a look at introducing other methods of payment. Right now, the only option available is the H2 card, which is used to authorize and pay refills (by invoice).
Then, I contacted BeeZero, since their carsharing customers would certainly be impacted as well, at least that’s what I thought. But whoever rents a car from the Linde subsidiary in Munich, is offered a very special package deal. In BeeZero-speak, that means: “Currently, you need to receive instructions before being able to fill up a fuel cell vehicle yourself in Germany, a service that we are happy to provide for our customers.” On request, the business would also offer a “short introduction into refueling on-site,” but not all BeeZero drivers would need to go through the process (or the motions). In an extraordinarily friendly tone, I was told: “If you like to take a longer trip, we will be happy to offer you a course in refueling. That’s no trouble at all.”
Great! I ask: “And how do I pay?” The answer: “In Germany, you can only pay by CEP card.” Registered customers, who have completed a refueling course, will consequently receive one of these cards along with their car-share for the rental period. BeeZero will pay for refueling.
The situation is different in Austria. The card won’t be valid at stations in Bolzano or Innsbruck; you will have to pay out of pocket (cash or credit), but will get reimbursed by BeeZero (“included in our prices”). Additionally, BeeZero said it made sure “that there always are enough cars with a full tank available.”
The reason for the lengthy process is that officially, every fill-up is still being considered “industrial refueling,” and this kind of procedure requires instructions to be given. Expectations are that there won’t be any changes to it before the end of this year.
One factor why “industrial refueling” is still necessary and the tank cannot be filled up by just anyone is the correct gauging of the hydrogen amount, as was confirmed by H2 Mobility: “Official calibration is challenging.”
The refueling stations that are up and running today were approved individually and given a special operating license. This made sense, as each H2 station had a different design because of its status as a demonstration system to develop and test out new technologies. Meanwhile, however, this testing stage has been completed and the first “normal” customers want to fill up the tanks of their cars.
The signs of a new era of commercial availability had been there for a long time: Early enough, one could predict when carmakers – first from Asia – would put fuel cell vehicles on the market (see photo). That the drivers of these vehicles now need to stand at demonstration systems and are not allowed to refuel their cars without prior instructions simply means that several groups of industry stakeholders have missed the point at which to get involved: the operators of the gas stations, the gas companies, NOW (including the CEP) and politics. To put it another way: Toyota and Hyundai together were seemingly not able to make sure that the end of the central stage of the Clean Energy Partnership would see freely accessible and operational H2 gas stations in Germany.
Instead of debating the chicken-and-egg dilemma for years, it would have been enough if only one of the stakeholders had proved a bit of long-term strategical thinking and cleared the way in time. There were early warning signs one could have taken to heart (for example, see Metering: Hydrogen for the Energy Industry).
Now, the situation is comparable to a scenario in which Apple founder Steve Jobs had introduced iPhones to the market, but had told people after they had bought them that to charge the new devices, they would have to participate in a training course. This why one shouldn’t be surprised about the low sales of the Toyota Mirai in Germany.
Tesla has chosen a different path for marketing its electric vehicles: Instead of holding a lecture, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk promised all first customers free charging for life. That’s how it’s done.
Comment by Sven Geitmann