Governments around the world are dedicating taxpayer money to hydrogen projects, and these are invariably presented as using green hydrogen (produced by electrolysis using renewable energy). Hydrogen detractors often warn that, once these projects are funded, green hydrogen, which isn’t yet available at any scale, will prove impractical, and boosters will quietly switch to grey hydrogen (produced from fossil fuels).
Something along those lines appears to have happened to a project in Switzerland, where Hyundai backed out of a deal to provide hydrogen to fleet operators at a fixed price, and now plans to sell the fuel cell trucks not in Switzerland, but in Germany, where they can be fueled on government-subsidized grey hydrogen.
In 2020, Hyundai announced plans to deliver at least 50 of its Xcient Fuel Cell heavy-duty trucks to Swiss fleet customers—the automaker spoke of rolling out as many as 1,600 Xcients by 2025. As part of the deal, Hyundai, in partnership with the Swiss company H2 Energy, would provide clean hydrogen, generated from Swiss hydropower, to customers at a fixed price for eight years. The zero-emission trucks would be exempt from Switzerland’s heavy road tax on commercial vehicles, and the tax savings would bring the cost per kilometer almost to parity with legacy diesel trucks.
Now the company has canceled the project, citing a lack of available green hydrogen and fluctuating energy prices. Hyundai Switzerland CEO Beat Hirschi confirmed to the trade magazine trans aktuell that it will no longer sell the Xcient Fuel Cell truck in the country. The 47 vehicles that have already been delivered may continue operating, but their owners will have to buy hydrogen (of whatever color is available) at market prices. “With the extremely volatile energy prices, we cannot offer eight-year fixed terms,” said Hirschi.
Don’t worry about Hyundai—the trucks that were to go to Switzerland will now be sold in Germany, where they can run on grey hydrogen (produced from fossil fuels) and still benefit from generous government subsidies. “France, Holland and Denmark are also markets that are looking for solutions and we are very confident,” Hirschi added.
Even before the abrupt cancellation, there were warning signs. According to trans aktuell, delivery of the trucks had been repeatedly delayed, their range turned out to be closer to 300 km than to the promised 400 km, and the network of H2 fueling stations was slow to materialize.
It hasn’t been a good week for hydrogen fans.
Shell has closed down all its hydrogen stations in the UK, saying “prototype tech had reached its end of life.” (The oil giant still says it wants to build “multi-modal hubs for heavy-duty trucks.”).
The German state of Baden-Württemberg announced that it will no longer consider hydrogen-powered trains, after a study it commissioned found that hybrid-electric powertrains—or good old-fashioned overhead wires—would be far more economical. The state’s transport agency listed a litany of drawbacks of fuel cell trains: costly filling stations; low efficiency; high energy consumption; high cost; insufficient range; and limited availability of green hydrogen. For one particular line, the report predicted that the cost of operating a hybrid train would be 81% lower than that of a fuel cell train.