In most discussions around EVs and the future of transport the issue of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles comes up as the answer. But is it?
I believe that it isn’t the answer as such, but does have a role to play.
The advantages of hydrogen are usually stated as easy fast refuelling similar to our cars we are used to, with zero emissions because hydrogen is made by splitting water through electrolysis and leaves only water vapour at the exhaust.
It is true that a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) gives the experience most like a conventional car. You turn the key and drive it like a conventional car, and you fill it up at a fuel station like a conventional car. You also pay a lot of money for fuel like a conventional car…
But…..hydrogen has downsides too.
It is bulky and needs to be stored at high pressure.
The Honda FCX which was the first fuel cell car in public hands ran 5,000 psi pressure in the tank, around 350 times the pressure of our atmosphere. To do this and be crash safe its gas tank took up most of the boot space…and was heavy!
Hydrogen is very energy inefficient.
It takes about four times as much energy to refine and transport hydrogen as you will get from that hydrogen.
To make the switch most or all fuel stations will need completely refitting. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to dig up the forecourt, install the tanks and valves and pumps (much more expensive than the simple infrastructure for pumping petrol…) and install new fuel dispensers.
Fast chargers that can give an 80% charge in 20 minutes are around $50,000 each installed, a lot cheaper.
Hydrogen is expensive!
In areas where hydrogen fuelling stations are installed the running costs of a FCEV are similar or higher than running a petrol car, compared to battery electric vehicles at around 20% of the running cost of petrol. If we take up hydrogen in greater numbers the price won’t fall, it will be the new revenue stream for the existing oil companies and drivers will keep paying.
Hydrogen is not all that green…
Most people think that hydrogen comes from electrolysis of water, but that is the most expensive way to make hydrogen and only 1-2% of hydrogen is made that way. It is only viable where extremely pure hydrogen is needed and the expense can be recouped.
Approximately 95% of all hydrogen is produced by taking methane and breaking it down with high pressure steam into hydrogen and CO2. This is NOT a carbon neutral fuel!
The amount of electricity used to make hydrogen by electrolysis and drive a car 1km would drive a conventional electric car around 6km…
FCEVs are very limited in where they can go.
Unlike a petrol car or electric car, FCEVs need specialised refuelling infrastructure…you can’t bring along a “Jerry can” of hydrogen for a trip in the country, and an extension lead won’t be any help.
Battery electric vehicles use infrastructure which is available almost everywhere that people live or work…a regular power point. Highways between population centres can be fitted with fast chargers at a fraction of the cost of hydrogen fuel stations, and for urban use you can charge at home…something hydrogen won’t let you do.
So, where does hydrogen fit into the future of transport?
It is becoming clear that for small personal transport, it doesn’t. Battery electric vehicles are here now, and are steadily improving as well as getting cheaper. They are already around a third of the cost of FCEVs. Hydrogen provides no benefit at all for urban transport, and has downsides including the inconvenience of having to visit fuel stations instead of charging at home, as well as higher running costs.
For personal transport between population centres, the international experience shows that fast chargers along major routes are sufficient to allow long distance travel. Most journeys, even here in Australia, are short. Few people travel long distance often. The entry level EVs available on the market today can drive for an hour at highway speeds before needing a 20 minute fast charge, while the Tesla can go for almost three hours between fast charges. By then you will certainly want a coffee break!
There is a real future for FCEVs in heavy vehicles. An intercity B-Double truck would need several hundreds of thousands of dollars in batteries to have a realistic range, and would need serious power infrastructure to recharge quickly. Hydrogen fuel cells would work extremely well here. Bulky tanks are not an issue. Cheaper to build, more efficient solid state fuel cells can be used, as a ten minute warm up time is not a problem for a long haul truck like it would be for someone popping down to the shops…
Likewise buses could benefit from this technology. Highway buses operate only on major routes which would be the first places to get hydrogen fuelling stations, and city buses operate from a base depot and return there each night, where one hydrogen fuelling station can service the whole fleet. In the long term however, small battery packs combined with inductive charging at bus stops are looking like the solution for city buses. School runs can be done using battery powered buses available on the market today, and more school operators are taking up this option.
People are increasingly realising that for the vast majority of our personal transport needs, hydrogen is a distraction that is diverting attention from solutions which are right here right now, but that it has a niche role to play for specific applications where the advantages outweigh the downsides.
Battery vehicles are available right here, right now, at a cost that is coming down constantly. Battery technology continues to incrementally improve, and fast chargers are slowly being rolled out. The dream of an affordable fuel cell car is still “just around the corner” where it has been for twenty years, and would need a wholesale replacement of refuelling infrastructure to work, while battery cars work NOW. Plug in hybrids are here, and address the range issue for the minority of us who NEED to travel long distances away from a power socket.
Tens of thousands of people around the world are using what works today instead of holding out for a dream…