Social Acceptance of Hydrogen Technologies: HYACINTH Project
Date: May 8th 2017
Author: Tadej Auer, RCVT
Among the alternative technologies to generate low-carbon heat and electricity and to replace fossil-fuel based powertrains, residential fuel cell micro-CHP and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) are receiving support towards commercialization. Home fuel cells offer some important benefits over other low-carbon heating technologies, and cost reductions and financing mechanisms for the purchase or installation are bringing the technology close to commercialisation in several countries (Dodds et al., 2014; Ammermann et al., 2015).HFC applications might benefit from a public willingness to take up more efficient heating and transport systems, or the public may prefer other alternatives or even incumbent, fossil fuel or combustion-based technologies that might be perceived as safer, cheaper, more effective and easier to control (Dodds et al., 2014). As markets for hydrogen and fuel cell technologies develop, citizens will react in different ways to energy policies and local infrastructures deployed in their countries, regions and cities, and end-users will decide whether fuel cells fit their particular circumstances.
The Hyacinth Project, funded by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH-JU), has worked to increase the understanding of cross-country differences and similarities in public and stakeholder awareness and attitudes in relation to HFC applications. The primary aim of Hyacinth has been to assess levels of awareness, understanding and acceptance of FCH technologies in the general public in various EU countries with different levels of market penetration and government support. Specifically, the project has aimed at examining public attitudes towards residential fuel cell units and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles in Belgium, France, Germany, Norway, Spain, Slovenia, and United Kingdom.
During 2015 and 2016 to assess the levels of public awareness, understanding and acceptance of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies and applications. The design of the questionnaire also aimed at building a predictive model for the acceptance of FCH technologies based on segmented responses to FCH technologies, including factors known to be relevant in this context. The questionnaire included items specifically developed by the research team and drawing partly on a technology acceptance model describing the causal links among the attitudinal elements that directly and indirectly affect technology acceptance (Huijts, Molin and Steg, 2012).
Nationally-representative samples of approximately 1000 adults from each country took part in the online survey. The sample consisted of panel members who had agreed to participate in online market and social research. The samples were representative for the age and gender groups in each country and had an approximate distribution regarding region and education.
Hydrogen and fuel cell technologies
- The results of the study show that levels of public awareness about hydrogen and fuel cell technologies in the context of energy production varies across the seven countries. More than 40% of respondents report having heard of HFC technologies in the context of energy production. Levels of public awareness are higher in Germany and Norway (50%) and lower in Spain (29%). Only around 6% of respondents consider themselves familiar with the technology.
- Despite this, the European public tends to provide a neutral to positive initial evaluation of HFC technologies as a potential solution to energy and environmental challenges. The data show that almost 6 out of 10 respondents (57%) evaluate HFCs as a good or very good solution to energy challenges. There are small but significant differences in the initial evaluation of HFC technologies across the seven countries.
Residential fuel cell units
Figure 2. Global evaluation of residential hydrogen fuel cells in the seven countries (% of respondents that consider them a very bad-very good option)
- The level of public awareness of residential fuel cell units specifically is significantly lower than awareness of about hydrogen and fuel cell technologies in general, in all of the countries studied. Only around 25% of respondents report having heard of this application. The level of awareness ranges from 32% in Germany to 20% in Norway. Fewer than 5% of respondents consider themselves knowledgeable about this specific application.
- More than 60% of participants report feeling somewhat or very much interested in the technology, 54% report feeling somewhat or very much hopeful about it (hope, anxiety and aversion relate to risk perceptions), 15% report feeling somewhat or very much worried about the technology and 11% report feeling somewhat or very much averse. There are small but significant differences across countries in relation to home HFCs. Mean interest is slightly higher in Spain and Slovenia than in Belgium.
- Regarding the evaluation of the consequences of home fuel cells, the consequences evaluated as the most positive are the propositions that fuel cell home units: “will reduce the cost of producing energy”, “would reduce CO2 emissions” and “would reduce the need to purchase electricity from the power company”. The “house space requirements” and the “potential risks” are, on average, rated as not important consequences. The “initial capital costs” is rated as a negative-neutral consequence.
- Generally, respondents provide a positive evaluation of home HFCs (average of 3.7 in a scale of 1 to 5). Around 60% respondents consider the technology a good or very good electricity and heating system.
- There is a higher level of acceptance in Germany, Spain and Slovenia (71% in the three countries), and a lower level in France (55%), Norway (58%), Belgium (60%) and UK (60%).
- Respondents generally express a preference for HFCs relative to more traditional technologies such as gas boilers but also a preference for renewable systems, specifically for solar thermal, relative to HFCs.
- Support of public funding for HFCs is generally high in the seven studied countries, and higher than personal acceptance. More than 7 out of 10 respondents agree with providing subsidies to home HFCs.
- The price the fuel cell is the most relevant reason for not installing a fuel cell at home (73% of respondents), followed by the perceived lack of maturity of the technology (45%). Other issues raised include not being the owner of the residence, already having other electricity and heating system installed, the suitability for various types of homes, potential installation problems, safety and lack of information.
Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV)
- Public awareness of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) is higher than that for residential fuel cell units. Around 45% of respondents have heard a little bit about FCEV and 15% report knowing a little about fuel cell cars. There are significant differences across the countries. Norway and Germany are the countries with higher levels of awareness of FCEVs (passenger cars or buses).
- Regarding the evaluation of the consequences of FCEVs, the three consequences evaluated in the total sample as the most positive are the propositions that: “they will reduce the need for petroleum”, it “would produce lower CO2 emissions than convention al cars” and the “price of hydrogen” (79%,). The “range” and “safety issues” were, on average, rated as unimportant consequences. The “need for new infrastructure” and the “price of fuel cell material” were rated as negative consequences.
- Respondents generally express a preference for HFCs over conventional cars and compressed or liquefied natural gas cars. However, battery electric cars and hybrid (battery and fossil fuel combined) cars are preferred options compared to hydrogen fuel cell electric cars. There are significant differences across countries in their preference for alternative cars. Germany is the only country where the percentage of respondents who consider electric cars a worse option than HFCE cars is higher than the percentage that considers electric cars a better option.
- Almost 80% of respondents are in favour of the substitution of conventional buses for hydrogen fuel cell buses, though with significant differences across countries.
- Finally, less than 5% of respondents are aware of the existence of a hydrogen refuelling facility in their city. Generally, a hydrogen refuelling station is considered by the average respondent to have more benefits than costs. Respondents generally support the siting of hydrogen refuelling stations.
A model of public acceptance of HFC applications
Finally, a number of independent variables have an indirect effect on acceptance of home HFC and FCEV. The acceptance of both applications is influenced by the global attitude towards the applications, which in turns, is influenced by familiarity, positive affect, negative affect, the perception of benefits and costs and the preference for alternative technologies. Perceived benefits play a more relevant role in the acceptance of home fuel cells, whilst the preference for alternative technologies (conventional cars) plays a more relevant (though negative) role in the acceptance of hydrogen fuel cell cars. Trust, having a pro-technology belief and environmental self-identity have a positive but small effect on acceptance of both residential HFC units and FCEVs.
Younger participants tended to report higher values in some of the variables, whilst older participants reported higher values for other variables. Educational level, size of residence and income were positively associated to almost half of the studied variables. Briefly, male respondents with university degrees living in cities with more than one million inhabitants and living comfortably with current income had, on average, the most favourable profile of acceptability.
The results help to improve understanding of public acceptance of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, through cross-national research. As markets for hydrogen and fuel cell technologies develop, public and consumer acceptance will likely play a role in the success of hydrogen fuel cells, both in the residential and the transportation sectors. Future research will provide the evidence needed to examine the trends of public acceptance of HFCs and attempt to document and explain some of the observations in this study.
Across the full group of countries investigated, there are as yet no strong signals that HFC technologies have moved from their niches into the mainstream sectors of fuel supply, mobility, heat or power. However, stakeholder perceptions do vary in this regard between countries: expectations are to some extent associated with differing levels of government investment in R&D programmes, with Germany and Spain being at opposite poles in this regard.
Overall, while the stakeholders questioned have a strong positive appraisal of HFC technologies, they perceive cost and limited regulatory, political and commercial support in addition to competition from other technologies as key, inter-related obstacles. Consequently, again despite the perceived benefits of HFC technologies, stakeholders generally view these as likely to be realised in the medium to long term rather than near term.
Despite this, HFC technologies are also perceived as offering some realistic, specific niche potential in the shorter term, specifically for uninterruptible power, auxiliary power and high power demand uses, such as fork lifts and heavy goods vehicles. Moreover, lack of public support is not to be expected to become a major challenge if the framework conditions for the technologies develop in a supportive way.
Tadej Auer, Director of the Hydrogen Technology Development Centre, Ljubljana, Slovenia, one of the partners in the project Hyacinth, FCH JU
*For more information about research findings, please see the full report, available online at hyacinthproject.eu.
This article is available also in Slovene.