Honda has been one of the leading proponents of automotive hydrogen fuel cells for more than two decades. It’s one of only three automakers to offer such vehicles to consumers in any appreciable numbers along with Toyota and Hyundai. Despite the company’s efforts to convince everyone that hydrogen is a better solution for zero emission vehicles than batteries, the world has not been convinced. Thus, like its development partner, General Motors, Honda is now targeting alternative markets for its fuel cells.
Honda and GM have been collaborating since 2013 on development of next-generation (now current generation) fuel cell systems and have established a joint production facility in Brownstown Township, just south of Detroit. GM is marketing its fuel cell stacks under the Hydrotec brand, but Honda hasn’t announced any special brading yet.
Honda isn’t entirely giving up on the automotive market, despite having discontinued its most recent hydrogen powered model, the Clarity FCV in 2021. The new generation fuel cell system is claimed to be less than 1/3 of the cost of the system in the Clarity, have more than double the durability and be able to start much more quickly in temperatures as low as -30 deg C.
Sometime in 2024, Honda will begin production of a new variant of the CR-V at the Ohio factory that recently ended production of the Acura NSX. Along with the new generation fuel cell, the CR-V will actually be a plug-in hybrid model. All FCVs utilize a small hybrid style battery (typically around 1.5 kWh) for regenerative braking to help improve efficiency and range.
However, the new CR-V will have a larger battery to provide an as yet undisclosed range that will probably be somewhere around 30 miles provided by plugging in. The fuel cell will act as a range extender for longer trips although the battery can also provide power for acceleration, allowing the fuel cell to operate in a more efficient steady state mode. Unless there is a sudden spree of building hydrogen fuel stations across the US, the CR-V will still be limited to sales in California like the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo.
Starting from mid-decade, Honda is also hoping to sell these fuel cells into three new markets, commercial vehicles, construction machinery, and stationary power stations. The commercial vehicle market is one that is already starting to develop with trucks in service from Hyundai and Daimler and products in development from Volvo, Nikola and Paccar in partnership with Toyota.
The heavy duty truck market may be well suited to fuel cells since they offer excellent range and save several thousand pounds compared to a battery with the same range. The challenge of course remains fueling, but since trucks tend to run on predictable routes, it’s possible to build out a viable fueling network with fewer stations than would be required for consumer vehicles. Honda already has a partnership with Isuzu to test fuel cell trucks in Japan starting in the next year and has begun tests in China with Dongfeng Motors. Honda is also looking for additional partners in North America.
Construction machinery is another interesting market where fuel cells would enable the equipment to run all day with no emissions, something that’s not currently possible with a battery powered vehicle.
Finally, stationary power stations are being developed as an alternative to fossil fuel powered systems that typically run on either diesel or natural gas. A demonstration system has already installed a 500 kW system to provide backup power for the data center at Honda’s US headquarters in Torrance, California. Since energy density is not so much of an issue for a stationary system, and battery storage systems are already being widely deployed, Ryan Harty, head of Honda Energy Systems addressed the question of whether fuel cells offer any cost advantage.
“Large scale battery systems are fabulous for relatively short duration energy storage for backup power applications. Once you start getting into the need for backup power in the eight hours and greater timeframe, there’s a crossover point where fuel cells and hydrogen storage make tremendous sense,” said Harty. The increasing cost of storage and duration is related to the hydrogen storage and not the mass of battery materials that you have to assemble. And so that’s really the key driver, is the longer duration backup power needs for data centers and critical infrastructure.”
Honda isn’t yet targeting a particularly large market for these fuel cells. In addition to however many CR-Vs it manages to sell, it’s hoping to sell about 2,000 fuel cell systems a year from about 2025 through the end of the decade. By 2030 Honda is targeting a launch of a next-next-generation fuel cell system that cuts the cost in half again from the current units and doubles the lifespan. With those systems, it aims to grow sales to about 60,000 units per year and then to a few hundred thousand annually by 2040.
These are potentially fairly lucrative markets but the timeline is long and it remains to be seen if hydrogen production costs can be reduced enough to make all of these goals achievable or if batteries become cheap enough that it just doesn’t matter.