Time to drop the idea that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are green

hydrogen hype
Screen capture US DOE

There have been books written about the "hydrogen hype," and Lloyd wrote about it way back in 2005, yet the hype continues. Julian Cox recently tore down the idea that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are green. Let's take a quick look at his key points.

First, however, let me make one other important point: hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are currently much more expensive than battery electric vehicles, and they will remain so for at least the next couple of decades. They are not going to be competitive on the mass market any time soon, yet a massive amount of government funding goes into their research and development, as well as for very uncompetitive vehicles and unneeded infrastructure.

That seems absurd enough as it is, but what's really absurd is that this investment is being made in the name of the environment, despite the fact that cost-competitive battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are much greener and will remain much greener as far into the future as one can imagine. In fact, Julian Cox makes the case that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are dirtier than conventional gasoline and hybrid vehicles!

Basically, you get less in the way of emissions reductions than you get in power reduction. The red bars in the chart below are for the percentage of well-to-wheel CO2 emissions reductions compared to a 50 MPG Toyota Prius. The car on the far left, with considerably more emissions per mile than a Prius, is the National Renewable Energy Agency average for a FCV. The car on the far right is a Chevy Spark EV (a battery electric vehicle).

© Julian Cox

Julian gets deep into the numbers, but I'm going to try to focus on only the overarching points and key quotes. This first one is quite clear and says enough all by itself:

"Hydrogen is a fossil fuel. 95% of US production is from natural gas, most of the remainder from the gasification of coal, and it will not change for the better."

US DOE/Screen capture

You may ask: But couldn't hydrogen be created using renewable energy? We've seen numerous stories about that, right?

Yes, in theory, but the point is that creating hydrogen via electricity is extremely inefficient and doesn't compare with today's batteries. The efficiency for hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles is about 18-20% while it's about 77-80% for battery electric vehicles. Furthermore, it doesn't compete with the creation of hydrogen from natural gas, which is why you see the figure above.

"Hydrogen is locked by the force of economics to natural gas and natural gas is increasingly locked by the same force to the practice of on-shore hydraulic fracturing of shales. Hydrogen is the Hydro in fossil HydroCarbons and hence hydrogen cannot be extracted from the ground without simultaneously extracting and disposing of carbon as CO2. Re-capturing the carbon (sequestering CO2) costs about the same as the resulting hydrogen fuel and hence it is simply released to the atmosphere."

Unfortunately, numerous environmentally oriented policies and programs have essentially been hijacked and allow FCVs and related infrastructure to compete for the same funding that BEVs and BEV infrastructure are eligible for, resulting in watered down or even counterproductive efforts to deal with global warming.

"The process is significantly more carbon intensive per unit of energy than coal. Mistaking fossil hydrogen from the hydraulic fracturing of shales for an environmentally sustainable energy pathway threatens to encourage energy policies that will dilute and potentially derail global efforts to head-off climate change due to the risk of diverting investment and focus from vehicle technologies that are economically compatible with renewable energy," Julian summarizes.

US DOE/Screen capture

I remember major auto companies advertising over a decade ago about the "clean" hydrogen cars they were working on. We're yet to see these cars come to the mass market, and we're also yet to see anyone making the hydrogen for these cars from clean sources. What is generally emphasized is that the cars' emissions are simply water vapor, but even that is something. Imagine all the cars in your city emitting water vapor, and consider what that might do to your local climate.

And you've also got this point, which Lloyd pulled out of a report in 2005: "Fuel cells wear out at least five times faster than internal combustion engines. If I buy a new car, I expect it to last, say, 10 years, which equates to about 3,000 hours of driving time. If my fuel cell only lasts 1,000 hours, you can see that's not very practical."

Julian and Lloyd aren't the only ones calling out the propaganda regarding FCVs. Tesla Motors CEO and Chairman Elon Musk, who could have invested in a FCV company and taken it over if he thought FCVs were the solution to gasoline cars, recently said: “Fuel cell is so bullshit, it’s a load of rubbish. The only reason they do fuel cell is because…, they don’t really believe it, it’s something that they can…, it is like a marketing thing – but the reality is that if you took a fuel cell vehicle and you take the best case for a fuel cell vehicle in terms of the mass and volume required to go a particular range as well as the cost of the fuel cell system, and then you know, if you took the best case of that, it does not even equal the current state of the art of lithium ion batteries and so there is no way for it to become a workable technology.”

Ford has also come out and admitted that FCVs aren't really any greener than gasoline cars: “Currently, the most state-of-the-art procedure is a distributed [on-site] natural gas steam reforming process. However, when FCVs are run on hydrogen reformed from natural gas using this process, they do not provide significant environmental benefits on a well-to-wheels basis (due to GHG emissions from the natural gas reformation process).”

If Ford is willing to admit this, I hope the rest of us are as well. And I hope we will move away from funding FCVs and FCV infrastructure with money dedicated toward tackling global warming.

Tags: Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles

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