“Hydrogen: It’s the fuel of the future — and it always will be.”

By Zach Shahan, EV Obsession

“Hydrogen: It’s the fuel of the future — and it always will be.” That’s the longstanding joke about hydrogen fuel cell cars, and it’s probably the best way to sum up the story.

But this isn’t a short summary. This is the article I intend to reference every time I feel I need to respond to an article or comment about hydrogen fuel cell cars. It is still going to be a summary (of my favorite hydrogen fuel cell car articles, information, and quotes), but it will be a much more thorough summary than that.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car Costs Relative To Performance

No doubt about it: people expect a certain level of performance, comfort, and convenience when they buy a car, with the overall quality of those based to a large degree on how much they pay. There are common phrases people use that argue that everything comes down to money. Of course, for most of us, everything doesn’t come down to money, but many decisions are made according to what you get for a certain amount of money (and how that compares to other things you could get for the same amount of money). And this is fundamentally why hydrogen fuel cell cars are always the cars “of the future” — they simply can’t compete with other cars, cost-wise, and they very likely never will.

Yes, there is always room for scientific breakthroughs, but the bottom line is as Elon Musk has put it: current lithium-ion batteries offer better results than the theoretical best hydrogen fuel cells. More specifically, “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… 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.”

I guess this is a good time to note that cars utilizing lithium-ion batteries and cars utilizing hydrogen fuel cells are electric vehicles. They are simply equipped with different energy storage mechanisms and drivetrains.

Looking at the red horsepower bars in this chart (also below), you can see that Toyota’s coming Mirai fuel cell car has even less horsepower than conventional hybrids despite costing much, much more (and note that Toyota is massively subsidizing the price of the Mirai in order to keep the price “low”). The Tesla Model S, on the other hand, has jaw-dropping performance for a similar price.

hydrogen fuel cell car performance

Credit: Julian Cox

In other words, the performance you get per $1,000 of car is much worse with a hydrogen fuel cell car than either a gasoline car or a battery-electric car.

As Dr Joe Romm summarizes, “It is very safe to say that FCVs are the most difficult and expensive kind of alternative fuel vehicle imaginable. While R&D into FCVs remains worthwhile, massive investment for near-term deployment makes no sense until multiple R&D breakthroughs have occurred. They are literally the last alternative fuel vehicle you would make such investments in — and only after all the others failed.”

But What About The Environment? And Efficiency?

If your concern is efficiency or protecting the environment, things don’t get any better.

While hydrogen is abundant, it still has to be obtained from somewhere, produced. Theoretically, it could be obtained by splitting water via electricity generated from solar or wind power. However, commercially, that’s not how we get it. Financially, it makes much more sense to get hydrogen via natural gas reformation. In other words, hydrogen means: “let’s stick with fossil fuels.”

The overall effect is that hydrogen fuel cell cars aren’t even as efficient or environmentally friendly as conventional hybrids like the Toyota Prius. Again, see how they compare in this chart (also below). Also note that battery-electric vehicles, even plug-in hybrids, are much “greener” even on today’s grid, and the electricity grid is getting greener and greener every day. “The hydrogen car is more like one third as efficient as the EV,” Dr Joe Romm (who used to oversee and promote hydrogen funding in the US Department of Energy) writes. “Put in more basic terms, the plug-in or EV ‘should be able to travel three to four times farther on a kilowatt-hour of renewable electricity than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle could’!

hydrogen fuel cell car efficiency

Credit: Julian Cox

If you care about efficiency, clean air & water, or a livable climate, that chart shows pretty clearly what type of car you should buy or lease. And that’s the key reason why I’m a huge fan of battery-electric cars and started EV Obsession.  But if you want another source, here’s a chart from the Advanced Power and Energy Program at UC Irvine:

hydrogen fuel cell cars vs battery electric cars mpg

And note Dr Joe Romm’s addendum: “The two best cases for FCEVs in the chart — a hydrogen pipeline system from central station renewable generation and onsite renewable generation and electrolysis — are wildly implausible for many decades to come, if ever.” Case closed.

Convenience? Who Needs Convenience?

Now, we’ve already seen that the performance and environmental friendliness of hydrogen fuel cell cars don’t even match current conventional hybrids, but if you want to pretend that they are better because they are “zero-emissions vehicles,” then let’s have a look at one more factor influencing consumer choice and satisfaction. The biggest trump card hydrogen fuel cell cars (and gasmobiles) theoretically have over battery-electric cars is that you can fill up their tanks and then drive for hundreds of miles, and that you can fill up their tanks in a matter of minutes.

Theoretically, this makes hydrogen and gasoline cars “more convenient.” Ironically, I think convenience is the #1 or #2 biggest selling point for battery-electric cars, the #1 or #2 benefit that will spur the EV revolution on. (The other benefit is this one.) With a battery-electric car, you generally plug in when you get home and then go inside, spending all of a few seconds “refueling.” When you leave in the morning, you leave on a “full tank” (full battery). With hydrogen fuel cell cars and gasmobiles, when you run out of fuel, you need to go and find a refueling stations, and then wait there as your car refuels (generally while sucking in some harmful fumes). It’s one of the things electric car owners dread when they have to drive a gasmobile from time to time.

And note that there are almost no hydrogen fueling stations out there (12 in the US, according to the US Department of Energy), while there are already tens of thousands of battery-EV charging stations… plus all of those home and work electricity outlets and EV chargers.

So What Do Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Have Going For Them?

Honestly, very little. I think the biggest thing they have going for them is that the technology sounds cool. It sounds cool to say that oxygen is going to mix with hydrogen to propel your car forward, and out will just come water vapor.

Of course, if you are an auto company that would like to delay any significant changes to the dominant technology, or if you are a natural gas company that doesn’t want to see fossil fuels staying in the ground where they are most beneficial to humanity, than hype of a future about hydrogen fuel cell cars is very valuable. It has been going on for decades, and it can go on for several more decades, all while we suffer the effects of burning oil and natural gas. The media and much of the public have picked up on the messaging and is running with the idea as if it is the coolest thing since sliced bread… and they have been for decades.

Luckily, we do now have a cost-competitive alternative that is much cleaner, offers superior performance, and offers much greater convenience — 100% electric cars. And even stepping-stone plug-in hybrids generally offer those benefits over conventional gasmobiles(and hydrogen fuel cell cars). So hopefully this is the last article I ever feel compelled to write about hydrogen fuel cell cars. 😀

I’ll just end with some great Elon Musk lines (first accumulated here):

  • Hydrogen fuel cell cars “are extremely silly.”
  • “Hydrogen is an incredibly dumb” fuel.
  • “Fuel cell is so bulls**t, 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.”
  • “There’s no need for us to have this debate. I’ve said my peace on this, it will be super obvious as time goes by.”

#NeverHydrogen — Hydrogen Car Cons Too Large

Originally published on CleanTechnica.

One of our wonderful regular commenters, “neroden,” recently dropped a very interesting link into the comments of an article about Hyundai’s apparent shift in focus to battery-electric cars. As he prefaced it:

There’s actually a long list of problems with fuel cell cars.

From someone who actually built fuel cell cars: http://ssj3gohan.tweakblogs.net/blog/11470/why-fuel-cell-cars-dont-work-part-1

It is a long piece, and it’s only Part 1! Admittedly, it would be nice if the author updated it to match the current market — it was published in February 2015 and is dated in a couple of parts. But the key points are the same nonetheless, and they aren’t changing. These key points are laid out in bullet points at the beginning of Part 1Part 2, and Part 3:

First of all, HFC cars are perceived to be a good bridge between fossil fuels and full electric because:

  • You can still fill up like you do with a gasoline or diesel powered car
  • The mileage you can get out of hydrogen is perceived to be more adequate than what you get from batteries
  • Hydrogen fuel cells are thought not to wear out as quickly as batteries (or conversely, batteries are thought to wear out very quickly)
  • Hydrogen as a fuel is perceived to be a relatively small infrastructural change from gasoline and diesel
  • Hydrogen is perceived as a cleaner solution than gasoline, diesel or natural gas

In reality,

  • You cannot fill up like you do with gasoline or diesel. It is actually pretty ridiculous how hard it is to fill up a HFC powered car
  • You won’t even go 100 miles on current tech hydrogen tanks that are still safe to carry around in a car
  • Fuel cells wear out crazy fast and are hard to regenerate
  • Hydrogen as a fuel is incredibly hard to make and distribute with acceptably low losses

Additionally,

  • Hydrogen fuel cells have bad theoretical and practical efficiency
  • Hydrogen storage is inefficient, energetically, volumetrically and with respect to weight
  • HFCs require a s**t ton of supporting systems, making them much more complicated and prone to failure than combustion or electric engines
  • There is no infrastructure for distributing or even making hydrogen in large quantities. There won’t be for at least 20 or 30 years, even if we start building it like crazy today.
  • Hydrogen is actually pretty hard to make. It has a horrible well-to-wheel efficiency as a result.
  • Easy ways to get large quantities of hydrogen are not ‘cleaner’ than gasoline.
  • Efficient HFCs have very slow response times, meaning you again need additional systems to store energy for accelerating
  • Even though a HFC-powered car is essentially an electric car, you get none of the benefits like filling it up with your own power source, using it as a smart grid buffer, regenerating energy during braking, etc.
  • Battery electric cars will always be better in every way given the speed of technological developments past, present and future

You missed a couple points under what fuel cells have going for them.

1) Possibly more range.

2) The financial kickbacks from government are significantly more than they would get for a BEV because the oil lobbyists have already greased the politicians. This may be the only reason companies like Toyota are pushing hydrogen.

3) And then as you have already noted, the oil industry loves hydrogen because it uses more of their dirty fuels. Possibly more than they are currently selling to the ICE segment.

Toyota Mirai CleanTechnica

Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car, by Kyle Field for CleanTechnica.

I’ve written my own debunking of the legitimacy of hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Physicist Joe Romm, PhD, who oversaw oversaw $1 billion in R&D, demonstration, and deployment of low-carbon technology in 1997 as acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy under President Bill Clinton, has written several articles and an entire book on why hydrogen cars are overly hyped, not competitive with battery-electric carsincredibly dumb, and (obviously) not a winning strategy.

The author of the piece above was involved in the first international hydrogen racing championship, and as you can see if you read his articles, knows a lot about the technology.

Elon Musk, another vocal HFCV critic, is a physicist by training and was interested since college, at least, in advancing sustainable transport. He specifically went the route of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) rather than HFCVs because of inherent, huge advantages for BEVs. As he has noted, the theoretical limit for HFCVs isn’t even as good as current-tech BEVs…. As he stated last year:

  • Hydrogen fuel cell cars “are extremely silly.”
  • “Hydrogen is an incredibly dumb” fuel.
  • “Fuel cell is so bulls**t, 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.”
  • “There’s no need for us to have this debate. I’ve said my peace on this, it will be super obvious as time goes by.”

EV expert Julian Cox wrote an article for us a couple years ago on why hydrogen cars are simply not green. The article got a lot of attention and was referenced widely (including by Joe Romm and some mainstream media outlets), but the message doesn’t seem to have broken through to many people in the “green” and “cleantech” community. Furthermore, hydrogen fuel cell cars continue to get subsidies from governments … which is both a waste of money and counterproductive. Sure, keep investing a little bit in R&D, but don’t take away from the cash that should go toward battery-electric vehicles in order to quickly decarbonise transportation and help stop global warming.

IEA-summary-of-progress-update

Anyone peddling HFCVs at this point is either not connecting key dots or knows what the situation actually is and is simply engaging in corrupt, unethical behavior.

I hope this will be my last piece on hydrogen fuel cell cars. I hope….

Other recommended reading:

1. Tesla Trumps Toyota: The Seven Reasons Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Stalled

2. Tesla Trumps Toyota: Why Hydrogen Cars Can’t Compete With Pure Electric Cars

3. Tesla Trumps Toyota Part 2: The Big Problem With Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

4. Tesla Trumps Toyota 3: Why Electric Vehicles Are Beating Hydrogen Cars Today

5. Elon Musk Is Right: Hydrogen Is ‘An Incredibly Dumb’ Car Fuel

6. Nissan & Renault’s Carlos Ghosn & VW’s Rudolf Krebs Slam Hydrogen Transportation At Auto Shows

7. Time To Come Clean About Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars — #FAIL, In Depth