PARIS – Renault SA will introduce a fuel-cell car powered by Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. technology this spring, but it has no plans to commercialize fuel cells at the moment.

Instead, it will push electric vehicles that extend their range by a system of exchanging batteries rather than recharging them.

The fuel-cell demonstrator, which may debut at the Geneva auto show, is aimed more than anything else at illustrating how the alliance between Renault and Nissan works, says Jerome Perrin, director-advanced projects for reducing carbon dioxide and protecting the environment.

Nissan is in charge of fuel-cell research, he says, and Renault won’t duplicate that effort. A Renault project for onboard reformulation of gasoline to make hydrogen for a fuel cell was dropped in 2006, Perrin says.

At a conference on the future of hydrogen in Europe and France, Perrin says California and Germany are making a mistake by building “hydrogen highways” – systems of hydrogen refueling stations to support demonstration vehicles that go long distances.

He says the approach in France, which will allow an EV market to develop more naturally based on economic considerations, makes more sense.

Fuel-cell cars cannot be sold profitably today, Perrin says, as they cost about €100,000 ($149,000) to make. On the other hand, lifetime costs per kilometer for an electric car that travels short distances at reasonable speeds can be less than its internal combustion counterpart.

In 2011, at about the same time Renault introduces an electric sedan in Israel, it will have a similar project in France for certain fleet customers. The Israel project represents a massive commitment to EVs by Renault, which plans to sell 10,000 or more per year through a partnership with a California company directed by an American-Israeli, Shai Agassi.

The government in Israel wants its economy to be independent of oil and is supporting Agassi’s Project Better Place with financial incentives to purchasers of EVs and with plans to use solar power to develop electricity. Cars powered by electricity made with fossil fuel – the standard in Israel today – don’t reduce CO2 from transportation.

Hydrogen produced for use in fuel cells has the same problem, Perrin says. He cites a European study of well-to-wheel energy use for today’s diesel-powered cars and fuel-cell vehicles that shows there is no CO2 advantage unless the hydrogen comes from something other than fossil fuel.

Erwin Perfornis, a manager at French hydrogen supplier Air Liquide, says 95% of its hydrogen today comes from centralized plants that reform natural gas, and only 5% from decentralized production from electrolysis of water.

Clean electric power from solar energy can make carbon-free driving possible, Perrin says. In Israel, he says, photoelectric cells covering 108-161 sq.-ft (10-15 sq.-m) generate enough electricity to power an EV 24,000 miles (15,000 km) per year. For the past 10 years, production of photoelectric cells has been increasing by 40% annually, Perrin says.

Renault believes the urbanization of the world’s population creates an opportunity for battery-powered cars. Some 50% of the world’s population lived in cities in 2006, but that will reach 70% by 2050, Perrin says. A study in France found urban drivers average only 19 miles (30 km) a day, well within the 62- to 93-mile (100- to 150-km) range of lithium-ion battery packs that are coming to market in the next several years, he adds.

While it takes overnight charging to completely refill a drained Li-ion battery, Renault and Agassi are developing a system of battery exchanges for Project Better Place in Israel that will allow a driver to “fill-up” in five minutes, about the same as it takes now for gasoline or diesel. In addition, Project Better Place plans to have 500,000 recharging sites in Israel.

Renault engineers are working on the best way to execute the battery swaps, while the battery technology itself is being engineered by a Nissan-NEC Corp. joint venture to manufacture Li-ion batteries for cars. Eventually Renault will have other sources, possibly including those from the French factory of the Saft Advanced Power Solutions -Johnson Controls Inc. joint-venture that has started production of 5,000 batteries annually.

In the future, an EV may have on board a small fuel cell that would operate as a spare battery to add 47-62 miles (75-100 km) of range should the Li-ion battery run down inopportunely, Perrin says. A small system like that, carrying just 2.2 lbs. (1 kg) of hydrogen fuel, would have packaging advantages.

The size of the hydrogen tank needed for 11 lbs. (5 kg) of fuel in a typical fuel-cell car – or 18 lbs. (8 kg) in the case of the BMW 7-Series that burns hydrogen in a V-12 engine – is one of the biggest headaches for designers of future cars, he says.