August 21, 2014 1:00 pm JST

Honda aims to turn fuel-cell cars into household 'power plants'

HIROSHI KOTANI, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO -- Honda Motor is making progress toward its goal of turning fuel-cell vehicles into a source of household electricity, opening up the possibility of a hydrogen-powered society in the not-too-distant future.

     Fuel-cell vehicles are said to be the most environmentally friendly cars, as they are powered by the electricity generated by hydrogen and oxygen and do not emit any carbon dioxide.

Driving homes

Honda has been carrying out a vehicle-to-home project in the Yahata Higashida district of Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, where it is using the FCX Clarity, a fuel-cell sedan, to supply electricity to a model home.     

     The FCX provides power for air conditioners, lighting, TVs and other appliances inside the house through a main cable plugged into a connector set up next to the vehicle's parking spot. Only a few vibrations can be heard when the system is in use, and the only byproduct is water, which drips from the car's tailpipe. The project, which began in April 2013, is investigating the impact of the setup on the car as well as the possible energy-saving benefits for the home.

     Fuel-cell vehicles generate electricity by combining hydrogen, which is stored in a fuel tank, with oxygen. The electricity then powers the motor to propel the vehicle.

     Honda has been working to tap the electricity generated by the fuel-cell cars for external use, effectively turning each vehicle into a small power station. "We want to demonstrate the value unique to fuel-cell vehicles," said Masanori Okabe, a senior researcher at Honda R&D, the research arm of the automaker.

     The key to this value is hydrogen. The FCX stores high-pressured hydrogen gas, the equivalent of 45,000 liters at a normal pressure of one atmosphere, in its 171-liter tank. When the tank is full, it can generate 60 kilowatt-hours of electricity, enough to keep the average household supplied for six days.

     Electric vehicles are also capable of supplying electricity to households, but "the amount of electricity they can produce is a third of fuel-cell vehicles due to limited battery technology," Okabe said. Honda sees fuel-cell vehicles being particularly useful for supplying electricity during the middle of summer and winter, helping to reduce peak-hour load on power grids.

     At one point during the project, the FCX supplied 28.8kwh of electricity to the model home within less than six hours on one sweltering day in August last year. "We have found supplying power does little damage to the vehicle and does not shorten its life span," Okabe said.

A little further to go

Honda is planning to install power-supply functions in all FCX models, which will hit the market in 2015. With the project well underway, the company's research team has built up significant confidence.

     But there are also several hurdles to be cleared. The most urgent task is to build more hydrogen stations. Toyota Motor has set the price of its first fuel-cell model, which will be rolled out by next April, at around 7 million yen ($68,000) without options. To make the cars widespread, lowering prices is a must. "It took more than 15 years for hybrid vehicles to gain ground," Okabe said. "For fuel-cell vehicles to catch on, it may take longer."

     Nonetheless, expectations for fuel-cell vehicles are growing. The idea of using them as a back-up power generator or battery charger at schools and other facilities used as emergency shelters has been proposed.

 

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