More than 1 million hydrogen vehicles will be on the road by 2027 as the technology becomes an increasingly viable alternative to electric vehicles, according to a new report by UK-based Juniper Research.
And while the received wisdom is that hydrogen will find a niche in the commercial heavy vehicle market, Juniper predicts 60 per cent of sales will be to consumers.
"Significant investment by car manufacturers, including Hyundai, Toyota and BMW, will translate into an increasingly popular and available product over the next five years," it says.
"The consumer market will lead the hydrogen vehicles space, with consumer
vehicles accounting for over 60 per cent of hydrogen vehicles in service globally in 2027."
Fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity, emitting only water vapour, are nothing new. Toyota released its first Mirai hydrogen car in 2014, and a nascent global market runs to about 18,000 vehicles.
But it still hangs in the balance whether hydrogen cars will get beyond their current show-pony stage. Even so, there are now a handful on the streets of Auckland, demonstrating that they are a real, workable thing.
Toyota bought a small fleet of its Mirai cars to New Zealand for a pilot that involves eight organisations including Air New Zealand, Beca, Spark, Westpac, Z Energy and TVNZ, which will share four of the hydrogen cars on the Toyota-owned Cityhop platform.
The Mirai - not yet on sale to the general public here - costs from US$49,500 ($74,500) in the US. It's just the second hydrogen car to hit our shores after Hyundai's Nexo - which is also not for sale, but did make a star turn at Fieldays
Unlike recharging a lithium-ion battery-powered electric car, such as Tesla's Model 3, there's not a huge cost saving over petrol. A Mirai takes 5.65kg of hydrogen to fill up, at around $25 per kg, meaning a fill costs about $135. The hydrogen cell powers an electric motor.
But like a lithium-ion battery car, there are zero harmful emissions. You also get impressive range: the Mirai is rated at 640km but the record for a single trip is 1360km.
With the Cityhop scheme, refuelling costs are included in an annual fee paid by each of the participants.
The big advantage of hydrogen over batteries is that you can fill up at a hydrogen station in just minutes - roughly the same time as it takes to top up a tank with petrol or diesel. There's no equivalent of home charging when it comes to hydrogen fuel cells, so no wonder energy company Z is supporting Toyota's Mirai pilot.
"Our Cityhop fleet team collect the vehicles when they need fuel and take them to the gateway refueller located at the Ports of Auckland where they are filled with green hydrogen," says Cityhop's Ben Carter.
Toyota doesn't yet have a timeline for putting the Mirai on sale here. As with the early days of EVs, when public chargers were few and far between, it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation.
And unlike EVs, there's no "topping up" at home option. You have to go to a refuelling station to load compressed hydrogen from a pump that looks and acts like a petrol pump, beyond its oversize nozzle. The process takes about five minutes.
Even in the US, the only country outside Japan with serious Mirai sales, it's still very early days. There are only 49 hydrogen refuelling stations - 48 in California, and one in Hawaii.
Here, the situation is mixed.
Ports of Auckland has decided to throw in the towel on its hydrogen refueller, but its Japanese partner on the project, Obayashi, is taking over its operation from today, July 1.
"We reviewed the proposed Hydrogen Demonstration Project in December and made the decision not to continue with the joint venture, as we focus on our core business of port operations," the port said in its half-year report released in February.
The port has continued to run the refueller on an interim basis until Obayashi takes the reins.
Beyond the Mirai cars on the Cityhop trial, Emirates Team NZ launched two prototype chase boats powered by Toyota hydrogen fuel cells in April - although Ports of Auckland's PR opportunities around the pair will wane after they are transferred to Barcelona ahead of the next America's Cup.
More is happening at the big end of town, however.
Hiringa Energy, a New Plymouth startup run by former Todd Energy executive Andrew Clennett and its Japanese partner Mitsui, is spending $50m (including $19m in government loans) to build four hydrogen refuelling stations across the North Island - in South Auckland, Tauranga, Hamilton and Palmerston North - which are due to open this year.
And TR Group, which has signed an MOU with Hiringa, has received $6m in Government funding to buy 20 hydrogen trucks from US startup Hyzon Motors, which will be leased by TR Group to end customers. All going to plan, Hiringa hopes to see 1500 hydrogen vehicles on its network by 2026.
Refuelling the 50-tonne trucks (fully-loaded) will take 10 to 15 minutes - roughly the same as diesel, with up to 600km range.
They will join five hydrogen-powered trucks brought to New Zealand by Hyundai, one of which arrived in December, with the second due this month.
Hiringa Energy plans to expand its network to the South Island through 2023, and will have more than 24 stations across the country in the next four to five years, Clennett says.
All going to plan, Hiringa hopes to have 1500 hydrogen vehicles on its network by 2026.
Worldwide, Hyzon delivered 87 hydrogen trucks last year. It claims they offer the same power as diesel, but with zero emissions and "near-silent" driving.
Hydrogen trucks cost more than diesel models, but their makers pitch them on the basis of ultimately lower running costs. In the meantime, Hiringa says the $6m government subsidy on the HR Group order for 20 should neutralise the up-front price premium, meaning they can charge similar freight rates to diesel-powered trucks.
Hyzon plays its cards close to its chest when it comes to its pricebook, but Southland-based transport group HW Richardson, which is looking at options to convert 10 of its 1300-strong fleet to hydrogen by early 2023, recently told BusinessDesk that a hydrogen heavy truck would cost it $1.2m; an electric model would be $800,000 and the diesel equivalent $300,000.
HWR also wants to help push things along by building its own hydrogen refuelling network in the South Island, with the first filling station opening in April next year.
The two largest truck makers - Daimler Truck and Volvo - are both betting on hydrogen fuel cells over lithium-ion batteries.
While hydrogen is pricier than diesel today, a Daimler study predicted hydrogen trucks could be cheaper to run by 2027. It says it will begin mass manufacturing in 2025.
Trucking operators work their capital hard, with vehicles on the road for as many hours of the day as possible.
With consumers and cars, it's a different story. The likes of Cityhop aside, sedans and SUVs sit idle for long periods between commutes, or trips to the supermarket.
If hydrogen does take off, New Zealand could be in a good position to take advantage.
While there's no shortage of hydrogen (it's the H in H2O, or water), electrolysis is required to split water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms, then compress the hydrogen for a refuelling station. If you use coal- or gas-fired plants to power that process, you're not getting any closer to zero emissions. But with 90 per cent of our power coming from hydro or geothermal generation, New Zealand is well-positioned to produce so-called "green hydrogen".
Here, things are starting to happen. In December Halcyon Power, a 50/50 joint venture between Tūaropaki Trust and Japan's Obayashi, began green hydrogen production near Taupo at a plant that uses geothermal power to electrolyse water.
It aims to produce some 180 tonnes of hydrogen this year.
But that could pale in comparison with a plan - still at the whiteboard stage - to convert our largest power station for hydrogen production.
In July last year, Meridian and Contact asked for expressions of interest to convert the 800MW Manapouri hydroelectric power station into the world's largest production facility if the Tiwai Point aluminum smelter is closed in 2024.
There's no guarantee that Manapouri will actually be freed up in two years' time. Negotiations between smelter ower Rio Tinto, Meridian and the Government have a history of gamesmanship and going into overtime.
Nevertheless, in February Contact and Meridian appointed two Australian companies, Woodside Energy and Fortescue Future Industries, to enter "final stage negotiations to become lead developer" of a green hydrogen plant they claim will create "thousands" of jobs and add $800m to this country's GDP.
Fortescue - the world's fourth-largest iron ore producer - was founded by Australia's second-richest person, Dr Andrew Forrest, whose net worth is A$30.7 billion according to the AFR Rich List 2022.
In May last year, Forrest met Southland councils and talked to government officials about fitting Tiwai Pt into his ambitious global plans.
It's not all open arms. Meridian has had to push back against criticism from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, that its plant will be inefficient. But wheels are turning.
The big spend-up
More than $200b has already been committed by governments and the private sector around the world to support the development of hydrogen economies, say Meridian and Contact. They quote estimates that global demand could increase more than sevenfold to 553m tonnes by 2050.
Juniper sees the investment in hydrogen production for heavy vehicles trickling down to the consumer market - to the point where consumer vehicles account for the majority of hydrogen vehicle sales in just five years' time.
The research firm says that while today's hydrogen fuel cells power electric engines, hybrid hydrogen/petrol vehicles could help smooth a mass-market transition to hydrogen.
It also notes that in 2021, Toyota showcased its new hydrogen-powered combustion engine technology in the GR Yaris, plus an experimental, hydrogen-powered Corolla Sport. The company has also produced prototype hydrogen buses.
It's still very early days, and it will be a few years before we can get a good handle on whether it's a case of "fool cells", as electric car pioneer Elon Musk puts it, or whether hydrogen fuel cells will give today's EVs a run for their money. But one thing's for sure: the EV takeover is no dead cert.