PARIS -- Renault Group will form a joint venture to develop, build and sell long-range fuel cell electric vans in Europe with Plug Power, a US company that just received a major investment from Korean battery maker SK Group, driving its market capitalization above $25 billion.
The 50-50 joint venture is expected to close in the first half of the year, the companies said Tuesday. It will be based in France, with an as-yet-undetermined number of employees, said Gilles Le Borgne, Renault's head of engineering.
The joint venture aims to provide "turn-key fuel cell vehicle solutions," including supplying hydrogen, fueling stations, R&D, and sales and services, the companies said.
The first projects will be “midpower” hybrid hydrogen/battery electric vans based on the Renault Trafic and Master, the automaker's medium and large commercial vans, in which electric motors are powered both by a fuel cell stack and a midsize battery pack.
"If you can't sell your customers an end-to-end approach, you could have a problem, because they are not used to hydrogen," Le Borgne said.
The vans will have a range of 500 km to 600 km (310 to 370 miles), Le Borgne said in a joint interview with Plug Power CEO Andy Marsh. He declined to give a potential price.
The existing battery-electric variant of the Master has an effective range of about 120 km (75 miles).
Renault currently has fuel cell variants of the Master and the small Kangoo van, with several hundred units of the Kangoo on the road in Europe, with a range of about 350 km (217 miles). Renault had worked with Symbio, a joint venture of Michelin and Faurecia, on those vans, but Le Borgne said that future Renault hydrogen vehicles would come out of the new venture with Plug Power.
The joint venture is aiming to capture at least 30 percent of the fuel cell van market, which in the future could be as large as 500,000 units globally, he said. PSA Group, which currently has the largest share of the European van market (Renault is No. 2), also says it is exploring hydrogen fuel cell vans.
Initial sales will focus on fleet buyers whose vans run regular routes and would install fueling stations at centralized depots, Le Borgne and Marsh said. "We won't have a big network of fueling stations in the short term," Le Borgne said. "We want to be very realistic."
There are no current plans to expand the joint venture to passenger cars, "but we never say never," he added. The companies are not planning to sell the vans in the US.