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COMMENT: Opel thinks outside energy box

By Simon Warburton | 8 April 2011

Recent catastrophic events in Japan that continue to make their effects felt across the world's supply chain, have also had a more direct impact on worldwide attitudes towards energy generation.

The acute problems faced by the Fukishima nuclear power plant have forced many countries to re-evaluate their energy politics - and perhaps nowhere more is this phenomenon present than in Germany which, according to a recent Opel electric vehicle briefing, is looking to decommission up to seven of its 17 nuclear plants.

But are the Germans looking to have their cake and eat it? The Federal government - which has just seen its influence eroded by sweeping Green gains following the tsunami that pulverised Fukishima - ambitiously wants one million electric vehicles on German roads by 2020.

So what's going to power that enormous step change in vehicle propulsion? At the Opel briefing at its Dudenhofen test track near Frankfurt - the automaker outlined why it believes it has the answer with its hydrogen fuel cell research and the Ampera - an electric car with extended range. You don't hear the word 'hybrid' at Opel - it's very much extended range.

And as Opel manager electric propulsion research Dr Rittmar von Helmolt also noted, that hydrogen power research, using one hundred HydroGen 4 vehicles operating as a test fleet in Germany, is up and running.

"The first hydrogen fuelling stations have opened in Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich," he said. "However, to provide fuel for several hundred thousand fuel cell cars from 2020, a network of hydrogen fuelling stations needs to be established in metropolitan areas and along highways.

"The investment would be around EUR3bn (US$4.3bn) for up to 2,000 stations - a comparatively small sum for the first nationwide network serving millions of emission-free fuel cell vehicles.

EUR3bn? For the economic powerhouse of Europe that almost alone is driving significant growth on the continent, it seems small beer indeed.

But at a time when German taxpayers are looking anxiously at Greece, Ireland and now Portugal in the Eurozone, any new drain on the public purse - however well intentioned may have to take a back seat before it finds further impetus.

Fukishima's meltdown has sent shockwaves around the world, but an unforeseen side effect could be that it provides some of that impetus necessary to kick-start programmes such as Opel's hydrogen testing. It's a big leap to equate nuclear power stations to hydrogen fuel and indeed the Ampera, but it is perhaps the thinking around alternative energies that is important.

Seven out of 17 nuclear plants being decommissioned is going to leave an awfully large energy hole - will Germany simply expect France and neighbouring countries to shoulder the nuclear risk on its behalf?

Opel thinks it has at least part of the alternative energy answer.