Almost half of all battery and plug-in hybrid vehicles sold this year will be sold in China. Thanks to government rules that restricted domestic car companies from buying batteries from foreign producers, Chinese battery maker CATL has become the world’s largest producer, overtaking rivals LG Chem and Panasonic. Based in Ningde, in southeastern Fujian province, CATL this year signed deals to sell batteries to BMW and Daimler and announced plans to build a factory in Germany.
Just as it was in batteries five years ago, China is a laggard in fuel cells, behind Japan and South Korea as well as the US and Europe. Toyota has consistently bet on the technology and launched its first fuel cell car, the Mirai, in late 2014, It sells for about ￡65,000. Hyundai’s Nexo fuel cell model goes on sale this year for a similar price.
To overcome that laggard status, Chinese companies last year began a concerted effort to acquire and integrate foreign technology. In May BYD announced it was working with the US Hybrid Corporation on a hydrogen-powered fuel cell bus to run in Honolulu airport. And in November Weichai Power, China’s largest state-owned diesel engine maker, spent $184m on a 20 per cent stake in Ballard. This month Weichai also paid ￡48m for a 20 per cent stake in UK-based fuel cell maker Ceres Power.
Phil Caldwell, Ceres chief executive, says the size of the Chinese market was too big for his company to ignore. The company plans to transfer its technology to Weichai and jointly invest in a manufacturing facility in eastern Shandong province. The fuel cells will initially run on buses using compressed natural gas before the hydrogen infrastructure is built, he says.
“While we talk a lot about these technologies in Europe the Chinese government is actually pushing ahead,” Mr Caldwell says. “They can create the market and create the demand and drive these technologies down the cost curve.”
Ballard says its joint venture with Weichai will aim to make at least 2,000 fuel cells a year for commercial vehicles by 2021 — the largest planned deployment to date. The company says the total cost for customers to buy and operate a fuel cell bus will be the same as for a battery-driven vehicle by 2020.
“If you look at the costs we’re [currently] at a premium [compared] to battery electric vehicles,” says Mr MacEwen. “What hasn’t happened yet in the fuel cell market is the power of volume. China is a market that has proven that with subsidies they will drive production capacity and volume and see significant cost reductions.”
Benny Oeyen, a former executive for General Motors in Shanghai, stands next to a fuel cell bus made by Feichi Bus in Yunfu and watches the water come out of the exhaust pipe.
“I think this is the answer to the energy challenge of mankind,” says Mr Oeyen, now head of market development for platinum group metals at Anglo American. “It’s no longer pie-in-the-sky PowerPoint presentations.”
The role of subsidies
All told, China will have spent about Rmb85bn ($12.4bn) on supporting fuel cell powered vehicles last year, in a mix of national and local subsidies. The technology received high-level support in October when Wan Gang, a former minister of science and technology who is considered the father of China’s push into electric cars, said “the next era belongs to fuel cell technology”.
While Chinese subsidies for battery electric vehicles are expected to be phased out by 2020 they will continue for fuel cells to at least 2025, according to some in the industry.
Powered by hydrogen
Estimated Chinese national and local subsidies to support fuel cell powered vehicles in 2018
Global fuel cell vehicle fleet by April 2018. The US leads the way with 4,500 (source: International Energy Agency)
Beijing’s target for fuel cell vehicles on the road by 2030. The US target for that year is 800,000 (IEA)
The money has helped China reach its annual target of 5,000 fuel cell vehicles two years early — around the same number of vehicles as California. Industry participants say China could hit a target of 2m fuel cell vehicles by 2030, about 5 per cent of the total vehicle fleet.
Under the current scheme, manufacturers of fuel cell vehicles are guaranteed to make a profit. They can receive as much as $30,000 from the central government per vehicle — provided it is driven at least 20,000km and meets minimum power requirements. They can also receive a local government subsidy that varies by region.
“With the current subsidies the producer of the fuel cell bus is making money from day one,” says Mark Sun, head of marketing in Asia for Anglo American Platinum, which is looking to boost demand for platinum through its use in fuel cells.
The subsidies have prompted a host of Chinese companies to start producing fuel cell vehicles, including the country’s largest car manufacturer, SAIC Motor, and its largest electric bus maker, Yutong Bus. Yu Yi, head of fuel cell research at SAIC, says that when the company reaches a target of 10,000 fuel cell vehicles the “costs can be reduced substantially”.
State-owned companies have also started to build hydrogen refuelling stations, with China Energy, the country’s largest power company, building one of the country’s biggest in the city of Rugao in eastern Jiangsu province.
The price of hydrogen is also heavily subsidised, often making it cheaper than diesel.
Fuel cells have a number of advantages for China. They can help reduce the country’s reliance on imported energy as well as raw materials. While lithium-ion batteries require a host of metals such as cobalt, lithium and nickel, most fuel cells only require platinum, of which there is an abundant supply, as a catalyst, at a level of around 0.5 to 0.6 grammes per kilowatt.
“In terms of resource adequacy, it’s a lot easier to see how you do it for fuel cells than for lithium-ion batteries,” says Paul Gait, an analyst at Bernstein. “If you go to the northern rim of the Bushveld [in South Africa] there’s enough platinum to electrify the entire auto fleet.”
China may also have a solution for being self-sufficient in hydrogen. While most hydrogen is created from fossil fuels such as methane and used in the refining and chemical industries, another method is to produce it using electricity to split water, a process known as electrolysis. This process is not an efficient use of energy, but it makes sense when the cost of electricity is free.
Beijing’s huge investment in renewable energy over the past decade has caused a lot of electricity to be wasted, since intermittent wind and solar power cannot be properly integrated into the grid. China can use some of that wasted energy to generate hydrogen cheaply, says Nick Ni, general manager of Nantong Angstrom Renewable.
It is estimated that around 150 gigawatts of renewable energy generating capacity is abandoned in China every year because it cannot be integrated into the grid. That could be used to power 18m passenger cars, says Ju Wang, deputy secretary-general of the International Hydrogen Fuel Cell Association. “China does not need to worry about hydrogen supply.”
Despite this optimism, fuel cells will face fierce competition from batteries, given the amount of money that is going into that sector. The global battery market is expected to increase 10-fold by mid-century to $500bn, according to Bernstein Research, with costs expected to fall to parity with petrol engines by 2023. That is without any government subsidy. Carmakers from Tesla to Daimler have also launched electric trucks that will compete with fuel cells.
“It gets more difficult for fuel cells — it’s not a matter of catch-up, it’s catching up with something that’s moving ahead of you all the time,” says Peter Harrop, chairman of consultancy IDTechEx. “China is backing all horses just in case.”
Sceptics also warn that China’s push into fuel cells could end up repeating its experience with electric cars, where government spending has created huge amounts of production without making sure there is real demand. There are more than 100 domestic electric vehicle makers in the Chinese market.
“Can we identify electric car and fuel cell producers that will survive the inevitable consolidation? At some point there will be a war of attrition, and I’m not clear how they are going to go about that,” says Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser at CSIS.
Mr Ma in Yunfu is hesitant when asked if he can survive without subsidies. “Subsidy dependence is hard to get rid of,” he says. Adding that if the whole experiment fails “the best fuel-cell vehicles are still scrap metal”.
But he insists that once his company can produce more than 100,000 fuel cells stacks a year, up from the current 2,000, its buses should be competitive against battery-powered rivals.
“I said to the Guangdong government, if you can purchase 100,000 vehicles I can give you a price 30 per cent lower than electric vehicles,” Mr Ma says. “Our target from the first day was to survive beyond government subsidy and support. Our goal is to keep costs down and completely commercialise.
“The government has given a promise to the world that we have to reduce pollution,” he adds.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019
? 2019 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Please do not copy and paste FT articles and redistribute by email or post to the web.