A two-year-old project to run 51 hydrogen buses in the French city of Montpellier and its environs has been cancelled for being too expensive after elected officials realised that electric buses would be six times cheaper to run.

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The €29m ($33m) Montpellier Horizon Hydrogen project — which included the construction of a small solar-powered green-hydrogen plant — had been announced by EDF subsidiary Hynamics in December 2019.

Since then, it has been awarded €18m of funding, including €6.9m of grants from regional, national and European funds — with the most recent coming from the EU’s Connecting Europe Facility less than a month ago — and €8.9m of investment and loans from the French sovereign fund Caisse des Dépôts.

But Michaël Delafosse, the mayor of the Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole (an administrative region centred on the city of Montpellier), who was elected in June 2020, last week decided to cancel the project on the grounds of cost.

“Hydrogen technology is promising,” he told a meeting on 4 January. “But we were helped on the investment, not on the operation. However, it would be six times more expensive than with electric buses. So, for the moment, we are giving up on hydrogen buses; we will see in 2030 if hydrogen is cheaper.”

Julie Frêche, the vice-president of the Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole, who is in charge of transport, told the French business newspaper La Tribune that the operation of the hydrogen buses would cost €3m per year, compared to €500,000 with electric ones — or €0.95 per km versus €0.15.

She added that hydrogen buses were €150,000-200,000 more expensive to buy than their electric counterparts.

Hynamics — which was co-developing the project with the métropole — declined to comment, saying that it was in ongoing talks with Montpellier officials.

Green hydrogen is an inherently inefficient and expensive solution for road transport as it requires renewable electricity for electrolysis to create the H2, more power to compress the gas, which needs to be stored in large tanks, an expensive filling station is required to pump the stored hydrogen into a vehicle, where a fuel cell converts the H2 back into electricity.

It is much more efficient and cheaper to pump the renewable electricity directly into a vehicle battery.

Hydrogen advocates argue that fuel-cell electric vehicles are less heavy than battery-powered ones, can be charged more quickly and can run for more kilometres on a single charge.

China is currently the world leader in electric buses, with more than 500,000 on the country's roads.