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driving concerns

A 2022 Toyota Mirai at a hydrogen fuelling station.Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

I know Toyota and Hyundai make hydrogen-powered vehicles, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one on the road. Why hasn’t hydrogen taken off the same way battery-electric vehicles have? Are they worse to drive? I like the idea of a hydrogen car that I can fill up quickly like a gas-powered car, without having to wait for 45 minutes or longer at a charger. – Kelly, Toronto

In most of Canada, hydrogen-powered cars are scarce – at least, so far.

Right now, there are five public hydrogen stations in the whole country – three around Vancouver, one in Victoria and one in Quebec City, said the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA).

“Being in hydrogen in 2022 is a bit like being in cellphones in 1982,” said Matthew Klippenstein, CHFCA regional manager for Western Canada, a Vancouver-based non-profit promoting hydrogen use. “You had the first cellphone networks going up, coverage wasn’t great, and every house was already wired for land lines.”

Hydrogen-fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) run on electricity created by a reaction between liquid hydrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere. Like battery-electric vehicles, they’re silent and don’t emit any carbon dioxide or pollutants. That said, the production of hydrogen fuel right now almost always involves the use of fossil fuels.

Chicken and egg?

An Esso hydrogen fuelling station in British Columbia.Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems Inc. created the first hydrogen fuel cell in 1986 and there has been talk of building a national hydrogen highway – a network of hydrogen stations – for decades.

However, most automakers and governments have focused on battery-electric vehicles and charging infrastructure for that type of vehicle.

Right now, there are more than 16,000 chargers at nearly 7,000 public EV charging stations, according to Natural Resources Canada. This is on top of the many Level 2 chargers that EV drivers have installed at home.

By the end of 2025, there should be three more hydrogen stations in British Columbia – and by 2025, there should be at least 11 more across Canada, including another station in Quebec and one in Edmonton, Klippenstein said.

Despite battery electric vehicles’ (BEVs) head start, Klippenstein said hydrogen can catch up if the infrastructure develops. “As the networks [of stations] grow, they become more useful for more people and you get this snowball of momentum.”

Getting more hydrogen stations built is a chicken-and-egg problem: People won’t buy hydrogen vehicles without stations to fill them at, and building stations might not make sense until more people drive hydrogen vehicles.

In the first quarter of 2022, 6.2 per cent of new vehicle registrations in Canada were battery-electric vehicles and zero per cent were hydrogen, according to market research firm IHS Markit.

Toyota said it has sold more than 250 Mirais in Canada – but just in British Columbia and Quebec – since it was introduced here in 2019.

Best of both worlds?

An 'H2O' button is pressed to purge water out the exhaust of the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV).Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

So, how do the cars themselves compare to EVs?

I’ve driven Hyundai’s Nexo SUV – Modo, a Vancouver car-sharing co-op has two in its fleet – and spent a week last month with the 2022 Mirai, Toyota’s hydrogen-powered sedan.

Both are quick, capable, comfortable vehicles that fill up pretty much like gas cars – the trouble is, there aren’t many places to fill them yet.

With the Mirai, I’d planned a 390-kilometre trip from Vancouver to Kelowna, B.C., where a promised hydrogen station is still under construction. Even if it were open, the Mirai’s dash showed a range of 400 kilometres on a full tank – even though Toyota advertises that it can go up to 647 kilometres.

If that 400-kilometre range reading was accurate, it would likely drop further on the steep climbs of the Coquihalla Highway.

Toyota said the range on the Mirai’s display is “very conservative.”

“Usually, if you don’t drive the vehicle aggressively, you can reach the advertised range,” said Romaric Lartilleux, Toyota Canada spokesman, in an e-mail. “A factory Mirai has officially set the Guinness World Records title for the longest distance driven by a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle without refuelling – with a total driving distance of 1,360 kilometres on one tank.”

Starting at $56,910 for the XLE trim – I drove the Limited, which was $78,951, as tested – the Mirai is a stylish, spacious sedan with plenty of power.

In practice, it’s a relief not to worry about having to charge. Sure, fast chargers can get most BEVs to 80 per cent in 40 minutes or less – and, on some cars, you can gain 100 kilometres of range with just a 10- or 15-minute top up. But, a hydrogen car gives you the best of both worlds – it fills up quickly yet produces no emissions while you drive it.

Green hydrogen?

Or at least it does in theory. When I tried to fill the Mirai at a North Vancouver Esso station before I returned it, the power was out to the whole block for the day. The nearest hydrogen station was in Burnaby, 15 kilometres away.

Power failures are rare, but it highlights the lack of stations.

So, how much does a hydrogen vehicle cost to fill?

“Right now, the hydrogen at B.C.’s stations costs $1.28 per 100 grams – that’s enough to travel 10 kilometres,” Klippenstein said. “With recent gas prices, this is about the fuel cost per kilometre of a vehicle somewhere between a Honda Civic [7 litres per 100 kilometres] and a Toyota RAV4 hybrid [6].”

Filling a hydrogen tank would cost just over $60, he said.

At B.C. stations, the hydrogen is green – no CO2 is emitted during its production. It’s produced locally by hydrogen electrolysis which uses electricity to produce hydrogen from water. While B.C.’s hydrogen is emissions-free because it uses hydroelectric power, just 0.1 per cent of worldwide hydrogen production in 2020 was green, according to global research and consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie. Canada is one of the top 10 producers of hydrogen in the world, but most of that hydrogen is grey, or dirty. It is produced by steam-methane reforming, where high-temperature steam is used to produce hydrogen from a methane source, such as natural gas. This process produces carbon dioxide. When that carbon dioxide is captured and stored, the resulting cleaner hydrogen is called blue hydrogen.

As the number of stations grows, Klippenstein expects some buyers to choose hydrogen-powered vehicles over BEVs. “[But] hydrogen electric vehicles aren’t going to replace BEVs any decade soon.”

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