Hydrogen Hopes Hamburg Speeds Up Preparation for Fuel-Cell Cars

Many are banking on the idea that hydrogen-powered cars might be one of the best ways to clean up road travel. The German city of Hamburg is accelerating its support for the new technology. By doing so, it hopes to seal its reputation as a green frontrunner in Europe.

In 2011, Hamburg will become the second city to earn the title of Europe's "Green Capital." In keeping with its eco-aspirations, the German port city is backing hydrogen and fuel-cell powered cars. And it has big plans. In cooperation with companies like Daimler, Shell, Total and Vattenfall, the city wants to accelerate its drive towards the new technology. Starting in 2010, the city (and state) of Hamburg has pledged €2.25 million ($3.06 million) to support the plan. Daimler's Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche, meanwhile, said his company would invest "a double-digit million euro sum."

Over the past decade, Hamburg has sealed its reputation as a fuel-cell city. In 1999, Daimler set up a fuel-cell bus service called the "Christmas Shuttle," ferrying passengers to and from the city's numerous Christmas markets. Four years later Hamburg was one of 12 cities worldwide selected by Daimler as part of a plan involving 36 Citaro fuel-cell buses -- at a price of €2.45 million per bus.

"Of those cities, only Hamburg has remained faithful to the technology of the future," said a Daimler press officer. Local mayor Ole von Beust echoed his sentiments, speaking to the city's chamber of commerce earlier this week: "We want to become a region where you see that high-tech vehicles are out and about."

The city will become the first site in the world to be adopted by Mercedes' new generation of fuel-cell cars. Next year, Hamburg streets will be home to 10 new Citaro fuel-cell buses (up until now, it has had six) as well as 20 fuel-cell powered Mercedes B-Class models.

Fuel-Cell Cars Are Ready to Roll

The Daimler Chief stressed that the fuel-cell cars are now comparable to their conventional models. "They can travel up to 400 kilometers, and refueling only takes a few minutes," he said. But the question of filling up is key -- what is needed is a national network of hydrogen fuel pumps. Such a grid of thousands of pumps would cost around €1.7 billion, Zetsche estimates. "That can't rest on the shoulders of one person -- that requires cooperation," he said.

Hamburg is providing a preview of how such teamwork could play out -- with oil companies like Shell and Total working with energy firm Vattenfall. Altogether, according to their signed agreement, in the coming years four public hydrogen tank filling stations will be built in the city. Two, belonging to Total, are already up and running. Peter Blauwhoff, who heads the German Shell unit Deutschen Shell Holding GmbH, said that his firm was "investigating the construction of two public Shell hydrogen filling stations by 2014," too.

The energy company Vattenfall says it will continue to produce the new fuel using renewable energy sources, especially wind power.

But the question remains: When will hydrogen-fueled cars be mass-produced and affordable? Zetsche says that annual production of the new vehicles would have to reach 100,000 and that by around 2015, the vehicle prices could match those of conventional cars. If that happens, of course, a handful of hydrogen stations in Hamburg won't be enough to meet the demand.


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