August 27, 2015

By Peter Gorrie  



Few Canadians understand fuel-cell vehicles.

Yet, after being told these machines are powered by mixing air and hydrogen, and their only emission is water, people overwhelmingly believe they’d help the environment, and most would consider owning one.

This is the headline result of a survey conducted for Hyundai Canada by the Ipsos polling firm, as the Korean automaker promotes its fuel-cell products.

Hyundai leases six fuel-cell-powered Tucson small SUVs to “real world” drivers in the Vancouver area, and about 70 more in the United States. The Canadians pay $529 per month, including fuel, for three years.

The company has developed several concept fuel-cell vehicles, including the Intrado, shown in Toronto last winter.

It’s not alone: Toyota is offering small numbers of its Mirai. A General Motors-Honda partnership claims to have halved the size and weight of fuel-cell stacks.

With this activity, Hyundai’s survey caught my eye. I’m skeptical of polls conducted for groups with a vested interest in the outcome. After all, questions can be worded and placed in order to produce any result.

Hyundai’s survey is classic in this regard. Most of the 1,500 or so Canadians from Ipsos’s national online polling panel indicated they know little or nothing about fuel-cell technology. They were told, briefly, about its main benefit; just water from the tailpipe. No surprise, then, that most gave it a thumbs up.

Still, the results merit a look. They reveal most respondents want a non-gasoline vehicle but are wary of battery power because of its long charging time and “hassle.” Almost by default, the majority declared fuel-cell technology the “wave of the future.”

But while survey respondents might be impressed by the five-minute refuelling time, it’s an advantage only if they could find a fuelling station. The Vancouver area has only one, which is why just six fuel-cell Tucsons are leased there. The rest of Canada has no publicly accessible stations.

These facilities create a chicken-and-egg dilemma: It’s not worth building costly infrastructure without vehicles to use it. But you can’t market the vehicles without infrastructure.

One survey question suggests the industry’s solution: It asks whether respondents “would like the government to provide more support for hydrogen fuel-cell technology.” Some 80 per cent said yes, although most offered only lukewarm support.

“The real determining factor is refuelling stations,” Hyundai says. The Tucson “ignites discussions between the public and private sectors on the infrastructure opportunity.”

A second impediment: The survey doesn’t mention a fuel-cell complexity that appears in a second study for Hyundai, compiled by Vancouver-based Offsetters. It concludes the current method of creating hydrogen fuel — extraction from natural gas — requires about five times more energy than refining gasoline.

Even so, fuel-cell vehicles are still 40 per cent less carbon intensive than gasoline burners. But that’s far from the 100 per cent advantage suggested in the survey.

Hydrogen can be extracted from water using electricity, and fuel cells would get a far greener environmental score if the fuel was produced from wind, solar, biogas or an other renewable source.

But we’re not there yet.

Then, there’s battery power. The survey doesn’t mention its carbon footprint. Meanwhile, it’s improving, with the next generation of electric vehicles expected to offer up to 300 kilometres of range.

Poll results notwithstanding, the fuel cell isn’t yet an unimpeded wave.