By Patrick Haverman (UNDP)-- In November when I took part in the 2nd International Fuel Cell Congress in Rugao in Jiangsu province, I was not only surprised by the national and international participation and interest but also by the progress achieved and the announcements made during the conference.
Transportation is one of the leading contributors to global C02 emissions. As we seek to remedy the effects of greenhouse gases (GHG) and climate change, we must look to all forms of solutions, keeping an open mind on new innovations and the paths they could lead us. New technologies can be transformative, some even disruptive, to current markets and industrial sectors. This of course brings with it challenges to reform and action. Yet tackling these challenges, such as the GHG emissions from transportation, can have a large positive impact on people’s health and livelihood.
Fuel cell vehicles (FCV) can be this type of transformational technology. Since 2003, UNDP has been working with the Global Environment Facility (The GEF) project, including the demonstration of Fuel Cell Busses during the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. As for the FC technology, there are challenges involved, in particular with the hydrogen infrastructure needed to bring the economies of scale returns for the automakers and lower costs for consumers. Yet they are challenges worth tackling; the rewards of cleaner skies and healthier populations are too important.
While there are alternatives to fuel cell vehicles (or fuel cell electric vehicles; as all have a battery as well), namely its main competitor of Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV), it is important to explore all technologies available. Some key components can be used in both technologies, reducing R&D and production costs for both. Moreover, having two parallel technologies emerge simultaneously allows consumers a choice, while also driving innovation. UNDP has its first Hydrogen Economy Pilot City in Rugao, the same city where I spoke at the Fuel Cell Vehicle Congress last month. Elsewhere, hydrogen refueling stations and unit production lines have already begun operating. China predicts it will have 10,000 units on the road and 100 refueling stations by 2020. And that is just the beginning.
France, Germany, India, Norway, the Netherlands, and the U.K. have established individual target dates for prohibiting the sale of fossil fuel cars, some as early as 2025 and 2030. China has joined this list of countries looking to prohibit the sale of new fossil fuel cars and will only allow new energy vehicles; so far it has not set a date for the change.
Currently China is the largest producer of electric vehicles, at roughly 40% of the market. Its domestic sales reached more than 300 thousand BEV units in 2016, and while it may only be a fraction of the 28 million total vehicles it produced, the number of electric vehicle on the streets climbs each year. Electric motorbikes and low-speed EVs (four wheeled mini-cars similar to golf carts) saw combined sales of more than 27 million units (link to IEA report). Indeed, the population in China is already getting used to plugging in instead of finding petrol.
Now both Volvo and Ford are looking to introduce electric or hybrid vehicles into the growing EV market in China, and during the Rugao conference, Great Wall Motors made a very ambitious announcement of launching a complete line of FCEV vehicles which should be roving around the streets of Zhangjiakou (to start with) for the next winter Olympic Games. From the summer of 2008 to the winter of 2022 a lot of progress will have been made, with modest contributions by UNDP.
As more hydrogen refueling stations are being built, and charging stations for BEVs become more common, the two technologies will continue to spread. It is not inconceivable to imagine a future where internal combustion engines are a thing of the past.