Hydrogen Cars and Buses Seize the Spotlight at Beijing’s Winter Olympic Games

Source: By Bloomberg News • Posted: Monday, February 14, 2022

Much as EVs were showcased during the 2008 Summer Games, fuel cell vehicles are in focus.

A Farizon hydrogen bus at a the Olympics Village in Zhangjiakou.

A Farizon hydrogen bus at a the Olympics Village in Zhangjiakou. Source: Farizon/Farizon

When Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, it used the global spotlight to showcase the then-emerging technology of electric vehicles.

Since then, EVs have moved from the fringe to the mainstream. China is the world’s biggest EV market, accounting for just over half of global sales in 2021. Worldwide, sales are forecast to top 10 million this year, and EV leader Tesla is the world’s most valuable automaker.

Hydrogen cars haven’t really caught on the way battery-powered vehicles have, even though they too offer the advantage of producing no tailpipe emissions — aside from water. Just under 9,000 hydrogen vehicles were sold in China between 2015 and 2021, a tiny fraction of the 302 million vehicles on the road.

But now, more than 1,000 hydrogen vehicles are traversing the streets of Beijing and Zhangjiakou, the mountainous region about 220 kilometers (136 miles) northeast of the capital, where ski jumping and snowboarding events are being held.

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The vehicles include more than 800 buses from automakers including Beiqi Foton, Geely and Yutong. Toyota’s hydrogen-powered Mirai cars and Coaster vans are also running through the Olympic venues, ferrying athletes and Olympic staff. There are specially designed hydrogen trucks offering services like ski waxing to help competitors maintain their gear, while four of Geely’s hydrogen vehicles have been used as catering vans offering food, hot coffee and milk tea to Olympic workers.

Compared to EVs, whose batteries can drain faster in cold weather, hydrogen-powered vehicles are better suited for wintry climates like Zhangjiakou, where temperatures during competition have plummeted to a bone-chilling 0 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 17 degrees Celsius). Refilling a hydrogen car takes only minutes, much faster than charging an EV.

While a lack of hydrogen filling stations has been a factor hindering the acceptance of fuel cell-powered vehicles in countries like neighboring South Korea, more than 30 such facilities were set up in the two cities to help meet the goal of making these Winter Games achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

And while most global automakers, from Volkswagen to Ford to General Motors, toss tens of billions of dollars toward pivoting to battery-electric vehicles, you can’t underestimate the ability of the Chinese state when it throws its political and administrative power behind a new industry.

By the end of last year, 16 provincial governments, including Tianjin, Shandong and Zhejiang, had put in place strategies to develop hydrogen vehicles. In December, city clusters in Hebei and Henan won central government approval to trial the operation of hydrogen vehicles, joining Guangdong, Shanghai and Beijing — areas that have robust auto industries.

The use of hydrogen vehicles at the Olympics could herald what’s to come in the future. EV 100, a top think tank for the new-energy vehicle sector, predicts the number of hydrogen vehicles in China will climb to 30 million by 2050. If that turns out to be right, it seems the playbook of developing the EV industry will be copied in coming years, with the first steps being taken right now.