The European Parliament has called on the EU's executive to introduce measures to support the roll-out of a Europe-wide filling-station network for hydrogen-powered cars and develop common standards for the vehicles across all member states.
MEPs almost unanimously adopted a report on Wednesday (3 September) drafted by members of the centre-right European Peoples' Party grouping in the parliament on hydrogen-powered vehicles.
The legislative report was adopted with 644 votes in favour, two against and 11 abstentions.
MEPs believe a key support measure would be the development of common EU standards for the experimental transport concept.
Without such common standards, member states may grant approvals for such vehicles on a one-off basis without having to develop new laws. Thus there is a risk that every member state could draw up its own approval conditions, resulting in distortion of the single market, argue the euro-deputies. This would lead to high costs for manufacturers, create safety risks and also considerably impede the spread of hydrogen technology in the EU.
British Socialist MEP Arlene McCarthy said: "At a time when petrol prices in Europe have doubled and with ever growing concern about the effects of climate change it is clear we need new hopes for future fuels."
"With the adoption of EU-wide criteria, the European Union can establish itself now ahead of global research and ensure investment security for market access of this future technology," said the report's authors, centre-right MEPs Malcolm Harbour of the UK and Anja Weisgerber of Germany.
Furthermore, a common EU framework could point the way forward for standards worldwide.
"By setting minimum standards, the European Union could now also provide guidance for global licensing in this sector," added the two MEPs in a statement.
The report was welcomed by the commission, suggesting the body will indeed move ahead with the development of such supports.
Enterprise and industry commissioner Gunter Verheugen said: "Setting common standards will ensure high safety for citizens and will boost the competitiveness of European manufacturers."
The commissioner called on member states to support the idea.
'Hydrogen cars aren't zero-emission vehicles'
However, environmental campaigners are sceptical that hydrogen is the panacea that MEPs believe it to be.
Dudley Curtis, of clean transport campaigners Transport & Environment said: "For at least thirty years, the car and oil industries have been promising the world hydrogen cars as a solution to all the world's problems," pointing out that the cars each cost a million euros to produce at the moment.
"The parliament should be concentrating on the job at hand: making the current generation of petrol and diesel cars much more fuel efficient."
Jeroen Verheuven, of green group Friends of the Earth, described how hydrogen cars are not as clean as MEPs think: "This is presented as if hydrogen cars are zero-emission vehicles, when the reality is very different."
"Hydrogen is in fact the by-product of fossil-fuel production, and if you use coal-fired power plants to separate the hydrogen, then this is not very clean at all."
"Commissioner Verheugen drives a BMW that is powered by hydrogen, but it's a huge car, very inefficient. That's the key—energy efficiency."
"These plans dovetail very nicely with all the loopholes in the legislation covering CO2 emissions for cars, in which so-called zero-emission vehicles count as three cars in working out the average emissions of a car manufacturer's fleet of vehicles.
Doubling of energy generating capacity
MEPs however, said that ultimately, hydrogen-powered vehicles should use only hydrogen produced as far as possible from renewable energies.
But the production of hydrogen is incredibly energy-intensive.
The UK's Tyndall Centre, a climate change research institute, has found that in order to replace current transport fuels with hydrogen via electrolysis from renewable electricity would require a doubling of the electricity generating capacity of the country.
If only renewable electricity were used for making hydrogen, it would mean that additional fossil fuels would have to be used elsewhere to replace the lost renewables.
This means that to produce genuine carbon-free hydrogen for cars it would be necessary to eliminate the use of all fossil-fuelled electricity while at the same time doubling the amount of electricity produced.