LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's hydrogen fuel cell car fleet may hit top gear within five years, but only if there is enough investment in filling stations, the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Association (UK HFCA) told Reuters on Friday.
Fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity, with heat and water being the only by-products, with a number of car makers including Toyota, Ford, and Hyundai, pushing to commercialize the low-carbon hybrid fuel cell vehicle by 2015.
"Somewhere around 2015 to 2017 we'll be over threshold and I think we'll see a larger and growing fleet," HFC chairman Dennis Hayter said.
"It's all aligned with the rollout of the infrastructure. In order to get to a semi-ubiquitous availability of hydrogen, then yes, you're talking may billions of pounds, but it doesn't have to come at once."
Hayter said fuel cell cars only take minutes to refill with a range of around 250 miles range. Plug-in electric vehicles take hours to recharge with a range of around 100 miles.
Existing petrol filling stations could be converted, with hydrogen companies possibly leasing some of the pumps, while current hydrogen production capacity is seen as adequate for the next decade.
"You may find there's a deal to be made between the hydrogen gas and petroleum companies. Things are happening in the background and gradually a network is starting to appear," Hayter said.
"At present, the majority of hydrogen is derived from reforming of natural gas for industrial purposes such as refining and in chemicals.
"The quantities currently used and likely to be needed for transport in the next five to 10 years would still be minimal alongside hydrogen consumed for industrial use."
For the long term estimates of hydrogen costs, Hayter believes it will be competitive with petrol, or cheaper. Using U.S. hydrogen prices of $8 a kilogram, it would cost around $32 to fill up fuel cell car with a 250 mile range, he said.
"It's not comparing apples with apples, but if they're the long term costs, then it could be significantly cheaper but it depends on the fuel duty," Hayter added.
The UK HFCA is calling for hydrogen not to be taxed as a transport fuel, as petrol is, to help incentivize uptake.
Britain has around 30 hydrogen fuel vehicles, mostly buses and taxi in London, with two filling stations in the city and another four expected by 2012, the UK HFCA said.
Seen as a way to decarbonise the transport sector, Britain's former Labour government planned to subsidise low-carbon vehicle purchases from 2011, with a grant worth up to 5,000 pounds ($7,584).
Editing by William Hardy