Hydrogen cars: Shell closes filling stations, has the experiment failed?


Having opened its first hydrogen fuelling station in Britain to huge fanfare in 2017, Shell has quietly closed all three of its UK locations due to a lack of demand from motorists.

The oil giant said the technology had ‘reached its end of life’ and it will now be concentrating on creating hydrogen refuellling sites for larger vehicles rather than passenger cars.

Just two hydrogen fuel cell cars have been sold to Britons – two generations of the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo – but fewer than 500 have been bought in total, with most of these registered to businesses.

Shell pulls the plug on hydrogen filling stations for passenger cars in Britain: The oil giant confirmed it has closed its three fuelling sites in Cobham, Gatwick and Beaconsfield

Shell and its hydrogen partner in the UK, Motive, confirmed last month that its hydrogen filling stations in Cobham, Gatwick and Beaconsfield had been closed.

In a statement released by its hydrogen station partner Motive, which is a subsidiary of the UK electrolyser manufacturer ITM Power, it said: ‘The sites are not performing satisfactorily and the footprint available is too small to accommodate upgrade for larger vehicles and future technology which has led us to taking a decision to close the sites. 

‘We have invested over £2million per year to sustain our small stations but have taken the decision that it is not sustainable to continue to make this investment.’

It added that it will ‘focus on large vehicle refuelling’ and that the closure of the Shell-branded sites is a ‘reflection of their small footprints’ that are not suitable for trucks.

Shell and its hydrogen partner in the UK said the hydrogen fuelling station technology had 'reached its end of life'

Shell and its hydrogen partner in the UK said the hydrogen fuelling station technology had ‘reached its end of life’

In a statement released by Shell's hydrogen station partner Motive, which is a subsidiary of the UK electrolyser manufacturer ITM Power, it said: 'The sites are not performing satisfactorily'

In a statement released by Shell’s hydrogen station partner Motive, which is a subsidiary of the UK electrolyser manufacturer ITM Power, it said: ‘The sites are not performing satisfactorily’

Shell will now focus on refuelling sites for large hydrogen vehicles, with fuel cell technology most likely to decarbonise HGVs and big trucks in the future

Shell will now focus on refuelling sites for large hydrogen vehicles, with fuel cell technology most likely to decarbonise HGVs and big trucks in the future

The three sites were opened between 2017 and 2019 and coincided with the availability of the Toyota Mirai – Britain’s first hydrogen fuel cell electric car.

However, it proved far from popular.

Starting from £66,000, the family saloon had a range of 300 miles and emitted only water vapour from its exhaust pipe that was so clean you could drink it – but it was almost three times as expensive as petrol or diesel equivalents, and nearly double that of some battery-electric rivals.

The Mk1 Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell saloon arrived in 2015

A second-generation Mirai followed in 2020

Shell’s three hydrogen sites were opened between 2017 and 2019, coinciding with the availability of the Mk1 Toyota Mirai (left) – Britain’s first hydrogen fuel cell electric car. A Mk2 Mirai arrived in 2020

While the Mirai Mk2 offered an improved 403-mile range and slightly more attainable price tag of around £50,000

While the Mirai Mk2 offered an improved 403-mile range and slightly more attainable price tag of around £50,000

Just 158 examples of the first-generation Mirai were sold in Britain between 2015 and 2020. Just 51 second-gen Mirais are believed to be registered in the UK

Just 158 examples of the first-generation Mirai were sold in Britain between 2015 and 2020. Just 51 second-gen Mirais are believed to be registered in the UK

By the time it was replaced with the second-generation Mirai in 2020, it had accrued just 800 sales in Europe, of which just 158 were in the UK.

The Mirai Mk2 offered an improved 403-mile range and a slightly more attainable price tag of around £50,000 – and Hyundai also introduced its near £70,000 hydrogen-cell Nexo SUV. However, demand for the vehicles failed to materialise.

In fact, fewer than 500 examples of each have been registered in Britain in the last seven years – 209 Mirais and 275 Nexos.

Hyundai is the only other major car maker to have a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle on the market, though the Nexo isn't cheap at a smidge under £70,000

Hyundai is the only other major car maker to have a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle on the market, though the Nexo isn’t cheap at a smidge under £70,000

A Hyundai Nexo on display showcasing the hydrogen fuel cell technology under the bonnet

A Hyundai Nexo on display showcasing the hydrogen fuel cell technology under the bonnet

With battery-electric vehicle sales booming in recent years, hydrogen fuel cell passenger cars simply haven't caught on with the public

With battery-electric vehicle sales booming in recent years, hydrogen fuel cell passenger cars simply haven’t caught on with the public

As well as the green benefits, refuelling of hydrogen fuel cell cars takes far less time than charging the batteries of more conventional electric vehicles – taking around just three minutes.

Yet, the unit cost of hydrogen gas means it is more expensive than charging using electricity. In fact, the cost is almost on par with filling a tank of petrol. 

With battery-electric vehicle sales booming in recent years, hydrogen fuel cell passenger cars simply haven’t caught on with the public, and this is now being reflected by the winding down of the refuelling infrastructure.

In total, there are now just 11 hydrogen filling stations available in Britain – and one in Ulster – in contrast to over 36,000 public charging points for battery-electric cars.

According to glpautogas.info, Three of Britain’s remaining H2 stations are in London and there are none further south than the capital. In terms of heading north of London, England has just two – one in Sheffield and the other linked to Teesside International Airport. 

Aberdeen and Edinburg also have hydrogen refuelling locations and there’s one on the Orkney Islands.  

What’s the future for hydrogen-powered vehicles?

There isn’t much life in the future of hydrogen fuel cell cars, according to the latest reports.

In its Energy Transition Outlook 2022 paper, Norwegian risk management firm DNV estimates that by 2050 just 0.01 per cent of the world’s passenger cars will run on hydrogen.

Norwegian risk management firm DNV estimates that by 2050 just 0.01% of the world's passenger cars will run on hydrogen

Norwegian risk management firm DNV estimates that by 2050 just 0.01% of the world’s passenger cars will run on hydrogen

It says: ‘Fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) propulsion is much less efficient, more complicated, and thus more costly, than that of battery electric vehicles (BEVs).

‘For these reasons, major vehicle manufacturers are focusing almost exclusively on BEV models for passenger transport which will lead to a global share for BEVs of 85 per cent of new car sales in 2050, versus only 0.01 per cent FCEVs.’

DNV’s long-term outlook instead echoes those of other experts that hydrogen will likely become the solution to decarbonise larger vehicles, such as HGVs and heavy trucks.

‘We project hydrogen to play only a minor role in road transport, namely for heavy-duty long-distance trucking,’ it said. 

While Hyundai’s Nexo SUV might not have been a huge success story in terms of sales, the Korean manufacturer has already launched the world’s first mass-produced commercial truck.

The XCIENT Fuel Cell has been available in Switzerland since 2020 and it plans to build around 2,000 each year with plans for it to be sold in China and the US.

The brand is also trialling ‘Elec City Fuel Cell’ buses in Munich, which have a range of  500km (311 miles).

Hydrogen is far from dead as a transport fuel: Hyundai is already trialling hydrogen-powered buses in Munich

Hydrogen is far from dead as a transport fuel: Hyundai is already trialling hydrogen-powered buses in Munich

The Korean vehicle maker also has the XCENT Fuel Cell - a long-range HGV that's been on sale in Europe since 2020

The Korean vehicle maker also has the XCENT Fuel Cell – a long-range HGV that’s been on sale in Europe since 2020

Ineos Automotive - the new car maker owned by billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe - recently signed a deal with Hyundai to develop hydrogen technology to use instead of heavy batteries in its utilitarian models

Ineos Automotive – the new car maker owned by billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe – recently signed a deal with Hyundai to develop hydrogen technology to use instead of heavy batteries in its utilitarian models

Billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe also sees a future for the tech. His Ineos Automotive brand partnered with Hyundai in November 2020 to help drive fuel cell development to use in its utilitarian vehicles, having already ruled out batteries due to their weight.

JCB is also ramping up its hydrogen efforts, with the British manufacturer of heavy industrial and agricultural vehicles putting plenty of backing behind its own projects.

The company, with its headquarters in Stoke-on-Trent, has invested £100million into the production of super-efficient hydrogen internal combustion engines, unveiling its first hydrogen-powered digger – a green-and-white liveried backhoe loader – during the parade for her late Majesty the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations in London this year. 

And it’s also fair to say that not all auto makers have fully turned their backs on hydrogen power for passenger cars.  

JCB has invested million of pounds into hydrogen technology. It wants to offer greener hydrogen combustion engines for use in its industrial and agricultural vehicles. Pictured: A hydrogen-powered backhoe loader unveiled during the Queen's Jubilee celebrations this year

JCB has invested million of pounds into hydrogen technology. It wants to offer greener hydrogen combustion engines for use in its industrial and agricultural vehicles. Pictured: A hydrogen-powered backhoe loader unveiled during the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations this year

BMW is another car maker that is still working on hydrogen technology for passenger cars. Pictured: the iX5 Hydrogen

BMW is another car maker that is still working on hydrogen technology for passenger cars. Pictured: the iX5 Hydrogen 

BMW announced in August that it is pushing ahead with its plans for a hydrogen fuel cell iX5 SUV, joining forces with Toyota to tap into the technology from the Mirai.

‘As a versatile energy source, hydrogen has a key role to play on the road to climate neutrality. And it will also gain substantially in importance as far as personal mobility is concerned,’ explained chairman, Oliver Zipse, earlier this year. 

‘We think hydrogen-powered vehicles are ideally placed technologically to fit alongside battery-electric vehicles and complete the electric mobility picture.

‘By commencing small-scale production of fuel cells today, we are demonstrating the technical maturity of this type of drive system and underscoring its potential for the future,’ Mr Zipse added.

French car maker, Alpine, last month revealed its Alpenglow concept road and racing car using hydrogen technology, which it says it is still considering for future models.

‘A hybrid hydrogen internal-combustion engine is environmentally-friendly and comes with the inimitable driving pleasure that this technology provides, including the sheer might, weightlessness and enthralling soundscape,’ it said in a statement.

Its parent group, Stellantis, also has a range of hydrogen-powered light commercial vehicles available through a number of its brands, including Citroen and Vauxhall. 

French car maker, Alpine, last month revealed its Alpenglow concept road and racing car using hydrogen technology, which it says it is still considering for future models

French car maker, Alpine, last month revealed its Alpenglow concept road and racing car using hydrogen technology, which it says it is still considering for future models

Vauxhall's Vivaro e-Hydrogen. The  hydrogen fuel cell van has a 249-mile range and refuelling takes only three minutes

Vauxhall’s Vivaro e-Hydrogen. The  hydrogen fuel cell van has a 249-mile range and refuelling takes only three minutes

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