Karen Thorp is driving the future – and has since 2007. That’s when the Los Angeles County prosecutor leased her first fuel-cell vehicle, a Honda FCX Clarity, a zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) that Honda and Toyota insist will appeal amidst rising gas prices, heightened environmental sensitivity and increasingly stringent clean-car rules.
Both companies, as well as Hyundai, plan to offer new consumer fuel cell cars in California on a limited basis, this spring for Hyundai, and by the end of 2015 for Toyota and Honda. But none of these companies plan to offer fuel cell vehicles in Canada.
The impediment is that there are no publicly available hydrogen fuelling stations in Canada. No car company here will commit to selling a vehicle that cannot be fuelled, outside select private or government research facilities.
The underlying irony is that the Greater Vancouver area is a hotbed of global fuel-cell research, dating back to when Ballard Power Systems pioneered the modern fuel cell in the mid-1990s.
Dozens of fuel-cell companies and research organizations are located in British Columbia as, according to the provincial ministry of jobs, it is home to 22 per cent of the world’s hydrogen and fuel-cell facilities, the largest share of any jurisdiction. In fact, 77 per cent of the world’s fuel-cell research and development expenditure happens in British Columbia.
There’s a small but growing Mercedes-Benz production facility that opened in mid-2012. The facility is staffed with a heavy contingent of former Ballard researchers who worked for the Burnaby, B.C.-based company before it decided to largely get out of the automotive fuel-cell business.
Klaus Berger, Mercedes-Benz’s vice-president of the firm’s fuel-cell division and manager at the Burnaby facility, estimates about half of the building’s staff is made up of former Ballard employees. “Many of them have worked much of their lives before with Ballard [on automotive fuel cells] … so we have a really good mixture of scientists, engineers, and technicians, and we built up here the core of that fuel-cell technology.”
Mercedes-Benz previously declared that it would bring to market a fuel-cell vehicle by 2015. But Berger says it will be 2017 before it will introduce a fuel-cell car to market.
Berger says Mercedes-Benz hopes to eventually offer fuel-cell vehicles for sale in Canada, while conceding that production costs have to come down, but insisting that the technology needs more support in this country – by governments, and auto companies themselves.
“It needs some more strong activities from our side and the government side,” he said, admitting that Mercedes-Benz Canada hasn’t been nearly as active as in Germany in lining up infrastructure partners. “It won’t be the entire country, but we hope we have it [fuel-cell infrastructure] done on the West Coast, and we hope to have it in Montreal and Toronto.”
While auto companies can try to partner with often-reluctant gas retailers to install pricey hydrogen filling stations, Berger says governments can help this along by mandating new retailer locations have at least one alternative fuelling station, or that a certain percentage of large retail chains must carry compressed hydrogen fuel.
Neither the Canadian government nor any province has proposed such laws.
Conversely, Honda has been selling fuel-cell vehicles in the United States since 2002.
“Nothing happens unless you commit to it,” said Thorp. Hers is one of about 20 extended research Clarity FCXs, and Honda pays for the hydrogen fill-ups for all owners, says Thorp, which typically cost $12-$15.
She normally drives 290 km before refuelling, while the EPA calculates the FCX can achieve 384 km on a fill-up.
Until the lack of a fuel-cell refuelling infrastructure and the high cost of the technology come down, Thorp is living in a distant future for most Canadians – even if Canadian research plays a key role in shaping it.
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