On February 6th of 2003, George W Bush gave a speech in which he touted the benefits of a hydrogen economy. Far from being farsighted or progressive, it may well have been one of the worst examples of greenwashing in our lifetime. The gist of the speech was that we should avoid raising fuel economy standards and deploying clean technologies such as electric cars and renewable energy and instead pursue a transition from fossil fuels to a hydrogen economy.
What was unstated, was that hydrogen was (and is to this day) manufactured using fossil fuels, and that building infrastructure for a hydrogen economy would literally take decades and cost trillions of dollars. In effect, what was really being implied was, let’s not do anything that would diminish the profits of the fossil fuel companies in the short or medium term (as CAFE standards or deployment of renewable energy might) and let’s get behind something that would not truly be possible or practical in our lifetime (or any other lifetime).
Fast forward to Japan in 2014. In June of that year, the government of Japan officially announced a policy of converting the nation to a hydrogen economy, calling it a Strategic Road Map for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells.
While George Bush’s 2003 pronouncement could be looked upon as a distraction, or in fact a deflection in an effort to protect fossil fuel interests from a more immediate threat of public policy diminishing profits and market share, Japan’s public policy put into effect in 2014 has thus far had deeper and more severe repercussions that are still resounding today and may well continue to impact the country negatively for years to come.
Lost in all of the optimism and the panacea of a new hydrogen age is the cold fact that hydrogen in not something that exists in nature, and to this day is created using natural gas. In fact, the separation of hydrogen (the so-called reforming of natural gas) requires combustion. This immediately refutes the very notion that hydrogen is a clean energy source — in addition to being a secondary energy source, it also requires the burning of fossil fuel for its very creation. The end result of a hydrogen economy would be the use of large amounts of energy and the release of carbon dioxide.
In addition, the transport of hydrogen requires it to be liquefied, meaning it would have to be in turn refrigerated to a temperature of negative 253°C so that it could be stored in tanks during its transport. This process too would require the use of a significant amount of energy and the release of carbon dioxide.
To this day, the issue of leakage through pipe seams due to the small size of the hydrogen molecule has never been resolved. This is yet another illustration of the many logistical issues involved in both the storage and distribution of hydrogen, since even as of 2018, no form of leak-free containment has been found.
The need to have a massive and costly buildout of infrastructure remains one of the most glaring problems of a supposed transition to a hydrogen economy. The cost of a single hydrogen fueling station is likely to be over $2 million. This is in contrast to the relatively modest $50,000 cost of deploying a high-speed battery-electric car charging station. Another factor here is the reality of putting into place an all-new infrastructure from scratch versus building off of an already existing electrical infrastructure that exists in every developed nation.
The fact that every building, garage, and lamp post in the US is already electrified means we simply have to add one final component to the existing and established network.
Another allure of hydrogen fueling is based on familiarity with the process. A significant demographic of people who are comfortable with the idea of tanking up with gas are invariably enamored with the idea of tanking up with another type fuel, as opposed to what they perceive as enduring the long charging times to fuel an electric car. Very recent developments of quicker high-speed charging and the move to battery chemistries that can handle this will likely allow pure electric cars to achieve the equivalent of filling up in 15 to 20 minutes in the next few years and will likely diminish the perception of EVs requiring long charging times. But it’s also important to remember that the vast majority of charging is done while the driver is busy in other matters of life — sleeping, working, relaxing, etc.
Both Toyota and Honda have made long-term multi-billion dollar investments in their respective hydrogen car programs, as seen by the Mirai and Clarity. We can see here the inherent downside of a consensus-based corporatist culture that seems both unwilling and unable to adapt to the dynamics of a marketplace that is now increasingly viewing the electric car as not only viable but increasingly accessible to the average person.
Many of us who applauded both Toyota’s and Honda’s forays into hybrid vehicles just before the turn of the century have been greatly disappointed by both automakers’ clear reluctance to enter the plug-in car segments, especially when knowledge gleaned from hybrid systems and electric motors should have been a decided advantage in transitioning to developing pure electric drivetrains for a new generation of vehicles.
Toyota’s introduction of an all-electric RAV4 in the late ’90s using NiMH batteries and its resurgence in 2012 with lithium-ion batteries in conjunction with Tesla never amounted to more than a few thousand units sold as compliance cars for the California market.
Honda also marketed an EV version of the Fit as a compliance car, selling about 1,100, primarily in the West Coast markets. An all-electric version of the Clarity is available for lease only in California and Oregon, with a 90-mile range rendering it to the margins at a time when most automakers are aiming for 150 to 200 miles as a new range baseline. While a revised version of the Fit with a more impressive 186-mile range seems likely for the Chinese market, it appears we will still be waiting until after 2020 for any type of pure electric product stateside from either of Japan’s two biggest automakers.
We now know that the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan is supposed to be a showcase for the planned move to a hydrogen economy. The fast developments in the battery EV sector globally contrast with continuing issues that prevent any likely near-term mass adoption of hydrogen. While the likelihood of a policy change before the Olympic Games is unlikely in a society where saving face is almost reflexive, we can only hope that Japan’s big two will not simply hedge their losing bet on a hydrogen future, but also embrace the now evident all-electric future in transportation with the same verve they displayed with hybrids during the first decade of this century.