Hydrogen golf cart put through its paces at UWC as part of HySA initiative

11th March 2013 By: Irma Venter - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

South Africa’s first hydrogen-fuelled prototype golf cart is currently undergoing testing in the Western Cape.

The cart is being put through its paces by the Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) Systems Competence Centre, based at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), in partnership with golf cart manufacturer Melex. The trial aims to measure the fuel cell’s efficiency and cost benefits compared with the university’s existing fleet of diesel and battery-electric campus vehicles.

The national Department of Science and Technology’s HySA strategy aims to develop and guide innovation along the hydrogen- and fuel-cell value chain.

Melex Electrovehicles sales director and shareholder Stuart Elliot says the trial started earlier in March and will wrap up by the end of May.

The centre modified a Melex battery-electric golf cart to run using a hydrogen fuel cell.

Elliot says Melex became involved in the trial as the company has already spent quite some time investigating alternative battery or hydrogen technology that could expand its range of road-legal light commercial vehicles.

“We have been in business for 19 years selling and supporting electric vehicles all over sub-Saharan Africa. We were the first company to launch an electric golf cart in South Africa and the first to homologate and register an electric golf-utility vehicle for road use in South Africa – this was mid-2012,” he explains.

“UWC is a large customer of ours and they introduced us to HySA.”

Melex has homologated four street-legal electric carts and shuttles, and is also in the process of homologating a 14-seat electric bus, sporting an 84 km range.

Elliot says the Melex road-legal electric vehicles, aimed primarily at the shuttle and light commercial vehicle markets, produce several benefits compared with petrol and diesel utilities, such as a 78.78% reduction in fuel costs a month, a 40% reduction in emissions, and a cut in yearly operating costs of 54.11%.

The fuel-cell unit could produce even more benefits, he believes.

Elliot says the hydrogen fuel-cell cart produces 1.5 kW at 48 V, which charges the battery set directly and, in doing so, increases the range of the cart before recharging is required.

“The only issue will be around the production cost of the fuel cell, but this is under our and HySA’s control and we will be able to be competitive,” he adds.

The one requirement Melex has of a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle is that it must be able to return to home base at night without requiring any infrastructure along the way, such as recharging points, notes Elliot. (The test unit must also be able to carry two people and a 220 kg load).

“Hence our requirement for a range of 150 km as a minimum. Our road legal units can do 50 km at 50 km/h at present.

“We will just need to increase the amount of hydrogen carried on board if the range is not achieved.”

The cost of a current on-the-road Melex battery electric vehicle is around R150 000.

“The fuel cell, at present, could double that. But, due to the local manufacture of the cell and government incentives to do so, we will be able to price it competitively and the total cost per kilometre, including charging/hydrogen, fuel cell and maintenance will be kept under R1/km. Currently, a one-ton bakkie costs around R3/km,” explains Elliot.

While there are also safety concerns around the storage of hydrogen and the refuelling process, Elliot says those risks are mitigated by housing all the infrastructure in a controlled environment on the customer’s site.

Melex does not currently manufacture its vehicles locally, but plans to change this.

“At present we only customise the vehicles locally. After the trial we will begin the first steps towards local manufacture,” says Elliot.

“Another part of the HySA project is to manufacture lithium batteries locally and the plant is set up and ready. We should be able to offer locally-made lithium units by around September this year,” he adds.

“Lithium increases the range of the vehicle by about 10%, but its main attraction is that you can do short charges at any time to increase your range, whereas the conventional lead-acid batteries we use at present require a full eight hours charge, typically at night.”

Elliot says Melex has been growing sales at around 20% a year for the last five years, mainly owing “to the low cost and flexibility of electric vehicles. We have grown because of the fuel price increases and corporates seeing the cost benefits of going electric”.

“Our range includes 4x4 off-road units, 4x2 farm utility vehicles, 4-, 6- and 8-seat shuttle units, as well as 10- and 14-seat buses,” he adds.

The company’s current client list includes Transnet, the Ports Authority of South Africa, Sun International, University of Johannesburg, as well as the One and Only resorts.

Melex has already expanded to Namibia, Mozambique, Angola, Rwanda, Tanzania, the Seychelles, as well Sao Tomé and Principe.

“We are looking at investment to grow our African business,” says Elliot.

Laying out the company’s five-year plan, he says Melex would like to open branches in Gauteng, Port Elizabeth and Durban.

“We currently have 20 dealers countrywide.

“We also need to forge solid relationships in Africa and start local manufacture of all our units as soon as we can.

“We don’t believe there will be much of a market for an electric passenger vehicle in the near future due to range and charging infrastructure issues, hence, our thrust is the commercial sector where reducing costs count.”