Peter Clayton, a 52-year-old English tourist, has just turned the ignition key of the boat he rented for a family ride on the Loire side canal, in Digoin (Saône-et-Loire). But no noise escapes from the small rear trunk housing the engine.

"You can only hear the water," says the one-day pilot, wearing a cap and dark glasses on his sun-drenched face.

"It's like slipping," confirms his wife Tammy, 49. "We rented 2-3 thermal boats but this one makes no noise. It's a good experience and it's good for the planet," Tammy added between chatting with a French friend, Sabrina Blond, 41.

"We have zero nuisance. We only hear the birds," she says, gazing at the landscape of trees and meadows, as the small 8.5-metre boat, available for rent for only a few weeks, passes by.

At sea, the first hydrogen yacht was launched in 2020 off the Mediterranean by Hynova, in La Ciotat (Bouches-du-Rhône).

A hydrogen-powered river tourism boat docked in Digoin (Saône-et-Loire) on May 17, 2023 © OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE / AFP

But on fresh water, the global movement of decarbonization by hydrogen remains timid: the first boat was launched, in August 2019, for a public shuttle service on the Erdre, a river crossing Nantes.

Multiple freight transport projects are underway, the most advanced of which is a hydrogen barge to deliver Paris.

"Three times more expensive"

For river tourism, only Les Canalous, the first river boat rental company in France, based in Digoin, has jumped into the water.

"It's true that it's daring because the return on investment, we are far from it," admits his boss Alfred Carignant, listing the obstacles encountered.

Alfred Carignant, boss of the river tourism company Les Canalous, on May 17, 2023 in Digoin (Saône-et-Loire) © OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE / AFP

The cost, first: a hydrogen boat costs "three times more" to build, according to him. And hydrogen "fuel" costs 30 euros per day of transport, against about 8 for electric and 15 for diesel.

"The problem with hydrogen is refuelling: it must be transported by trucks" from its production sites, generally far from the canals, which increases its cost and cancels its "zero emissions" advantage, explains Philippe Cauneau, transport engineer at Ademe, the ecological transition agency.

The hydrogen powering the Canalous boat is produced with wind turbines, and therefore green, but it comes from Vendée, more than 500 km away.

"Transporting one kilo of hydrogen over 100 km by road generates 2.5 kilos of carbon," says Cauneau. To lower the environmental cost and the price, "at about 3-4 euros per kilo of hydrogen against 10 currently, we must be on a production within a radius of ten km," he explains.

Alfred Carignant, boss of the river tourism company Les Canalous, shows the hydrogen engine of one of his boats on May 17, 2023 in Digoin (Saône-et-Loire) © OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE / AFP

"When will hydrogen be produced directly on the edge of the canal?" dreams Mr. Carignant, recalling that hydrogen is produced from water.

"There is no hydrogen producer if there are no users. But users want to be reassured about hydrogen diffusion. It's the dog that bites its tail," says Christelle Boutolleau, CEO of Europe Technologies, a Nantes company specializing in alternative boat engines, involved in the Canalous project.

"It's like when you went from horses to cars. In its early days, too, the automobile coughed," she explains. "We are in a pioneering phase."

© 2023 AFP