French automaker Groupe Renault and U.S.-based Plug Power
The move is new evidence of growing momentum for a technology automakers once hoped would replace batteries as the power source for electric vehicles, only to fall out of favor due to concern over a lack of refueling infrastructure and safety surrounding the use of flammable hydrogen.
But Plug Power, headquartered in Latham, N.Y., outside Albany, has emerged as the leader in developing fuel cell systems, having deployed more than 40,000 such systems, and has built 110 hydrogen refueling stations.
That’s a big reason Renault decided to join forces with Plug Power as it looks to create fuel cell powered light commercial vehicles for business-to-business customers in Europe based on its Master and Trafic truck platforms.
The other reason, said Renault’s executive vice president of engineering, is that while the goal is to meet strict European emission standards with electric vehicles, batteries simply aren’t up to the task for vehicles Gilles Le Borgne calls “kind of big animals” carrying payloads of more than four tons with 20 cubic meter volumes.
“For those light commercial vehicles you really don’t have a solution with BEV because you would need a lot of battery on board, a lot of energy, more than 100 or 120 kilowatt hours and that doesn’t make any sense in terms of cost or in terms of weight,” said Le Borgne in an interview.
Indeed, while sentiment has grown fairly cold for using fuel cells in passenger vehicles, Plug Power CEO Andy Marsh says the technology is a perfect fit when it’s not feasible to wait around for a battery to recharge, which is why the B2B market is embracing it.
“Really folks have been realizing in very intense applications where you want your asset always working, fast charging, fuel cells can fill up in 5-6 minutes, can get twice the range and you also have greater density for packaging,” said Marsh in an interview.
The companies said the joint venture is expected to launch at the end of the first half of this year and will create an Innovation Center in France. The target is to capture more than 30% of the fuel cell-powered European light commercial vehicle market.
“This joint-venture project is fully aligned with our strategy to offer market ready H2 solution for LCVs,” said Renault CEO Luco de Meo in a release. “With Plug Power, we will build a unique end-to-end fuel cell value chain and offer turnkey solutions for customers including vehicles, refueling stations and decarbonized hydrogen delivery.”
Specifically, the JV will:
- Establish a “vertically integrated” fuel cell stack and system manufacturing center in France that will also provide hydrogen refueling stations.
- Create a hydrogen vehicle “eco-solution company” offering to customers vehicles, hydrogen and hydrogen fueling stations.
- Commercialize fuel cell LCVs in Europe later this year with a pilot fleet
“It will be a full holistic service we offer our customer,” said Le Borgne.
For Plug Power, the deal with Renault comes less than a week after announcing a $1.5 billion investment in the company by SK Group, a South Korean business group. In the Jan. 6 announcement, the companies said they are forming a “strategic partnership to accelerate hydrogen as an alternative energy source” in Asian markets and are forming a joint venture by 2022 to support those markets.
SK is making its investment in Plug Power through the purchase of about 51.4 million shares of common stock.
Terms of the deal with Groupe Renault are not being disclosed at this time, according to a spokesman.
It all amounts to new energy for fuel cells—not as competitor to batteries, but as an additional and necessary source of electric power more suitable for certain applications says Plug Power’s Andy Marsh, because “when I look at the world, the world is going electric.”