French carmaker Renault announced it would unveil its hydrogen concept car on May 19th at the ChangeNOW summit to be hosted between the Grand Palais Ephémère and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, expecting 400 delegations from 120 countries.
It looks like Renault is carefully following the hydrogen path for the passenger car of Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, and BMW, who are among the few advocates today. But in the case of Renault, it’s still guessing whether it will go for its in-house Hyvia fuel cell technology or opt for burning the hydrogen in a combustion engine.
Cool lovers of hydrogen
In general, European carmakers are cool lovers of hydrogen as a solution for passenger cars, which is seen as rather suitable for heavy trucks and buses. Battery electric cars (BEV) provide better energy efficiency, and (green) hydrogen is expensive. But soaring fossil fuel prices are increasingly closing the gap with ‘green hydrogen’. Meanwhile, rising battery material costs for BEVs cast the hydrogen car in a better light.
It remains to guess what the hydrogen concept of Renault – that from the teaser images seems to be some crossover look-alike of the Megane-E – will actually offer. When CEO Luca de Meo first mentioned in February at the presentation of the financial results 2021, doubt about the technology used for this new concept was created.
“Unprecedented concept-car, with a hydrogen engine, embodies the decarbonization trajectory of the Group, and the Renault brand as well as their progress in terms of circular economy, recycled, and recyclable materials,” the press release stated. However, especially using the term ‘hydrogen engine’ stirred up speculations Renault meant a hydrogen internal combustion engine (ICE).
BMW experimented with the latter extensively some decades ago in a special seven series, and burning hydrogen is still seen as a viable alternative for aviation and ships. But with energy losses on combustion engines being as high as 70%, this isn’t the most efficient way of using energy.
Energy efficiency calculated
According to NGO Transport & Environment calculations, losses in making the ‘green hydrogen’ by electrolysis from 100% renewable electricity amount up to 52% (well-to-tank). When burnt in an ICE, further losses would leave a total efficiency of 21% well-to-wheel. However, burning e-fuels made of 100% renewable energy would only be 13%.
When using fuel cells to convert the hydrogen into electricity in a car, up to 50% of the energy is lost again, without counting further losses in AC/DC conversion and efficiency of the electric motors. According to T&E, the fuel cell car has a well-to-wheel efficiency of 22% overall. However, the battery-electric vehicle remains the best option, with 73% overall efficiency.
Hydrogen light commercial vehicles
So what’s Renault going to do? According to some French sources, the choice has been made for fuel cell technology for the concept to be unveiled on May 19th. That would make sense, as Renault has the knowledge in-house with its Hyvia daughter.
Hyvia is a joint venture between Renault and American fuel cell manufacturer Plug Power. In March of this year, it started serial production of fuel cells in its factory in Flins, Yvelines in France. The Flins factory near Paris will produce some 1 000 fuel cell systems annually.
With the 50/50 joint venture, Renault and Plug Power want to capture a 30% share of the EU market of hydrogen-driven light commercial vehicles (LCVs). In addition, Renault intends to offer a line of hydrogen-fueled utility vehicles from the Summer of 2022. The first three fuel cell vehicles brought to market by Hyvia are based on the Renault Master platform. So why not a passenger car too?