One more reason you’ll be driving electric vehicles and plugs in soon — not hydrogen fuel cell cars

Fueling stations for fuel cell cars — even ones that generate hydrogen from fossil fuels and emit large amounts of greenhouse gases — cost 1000 times what charging stations for electric vehicles and plug in hybrid electric vehicles cost.

There are countless reasons hydrogen fuel cell cars are not going to achieve significant market penetration or be a major contributor to reducing CO2 or oil use for many decades, if ever (see “The Last Car You Would Ever Buy “” Literally” and links below).

One of those reasons is the incredible cost of charging stations — especially relative to the competition (see “California Hydrogen Highway R.I.P.“).  Two news items that recently popped up in my inbox underscore this fatal flaw.  On the one hand, Energy Daily reports:

NU Developing Charging Stations For Plug-In Electric Vehicles

Northeast Utilities announced last week it is in the initial stages of developing an electric charging infrastructure for plug-in electric vehicles….  Two NU operating companies, The Connecticut Light & Power Co. and Western Massachusetts Electric Co. are proposing to build a network of 575 charging stations over the next two years.

The plan calls for a mix of home-based, workplace and publicly accessible sites in the utilities’ existing service territories. The companies are collaborating with New England-based Environment Northeast, the Greater New Haven Clean Cities Coalition and the town of West Hartford, Conn., on key aspects of the project, including location of stations and results monitoring. NU said it was asking DOE for federal funding of $693,750 which is 50 percent of the project’s total estimated cost of $1.38 million.

So this is about $2400 per charging station.

Then I got this astounding press release last week, “Fill ‘er up: Prof awarded $2.1M to build hydrogen fueling station at UCLA.”  Somehow UCLA thinks this is a positive news story about hydrogen.  You be the judge:

Vasilios Manousiouthakis, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been awarded $2.1 million in grant funding to build a state-of-the-art hydrogen fueling station on the UCLA campus.

A $1.7 million grant from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and a $400,000 grant from the state’s Mobile Source Air Pollution Reduction Review Committee (MSRC) will go toward the construction of one of the largest hydrogen fueling stations in California, with a capacity to produce 140 kilograms of hydrogen a day for use in hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Memo to CARB:  Hydrogen is dead, folks.  Get over it and move on!  In the throes of the greatest recession since the Great Depression, with serious air quality problems remaining in Los Angeles, this has got to be the least effective use of your money.

“The grants will enable UCLA to achieve a number of its long-term goals for promoting sustainability, both on campus and in the greater Los Angeles region,” said Michael Swords, executive director of Strategic Research Initiatives at UCLA. “The development of this hydrogen fueling station will also provide our students with a state-of-the-art learning and research facility where they can study and evaluate the logistics of hydrogen generation, distribution and supply “” all of this while also providing a much needed boost to the development of the ‘hydrogen highway’ here in California.”

The station, which will be available for use by the public, will be run by UCLA Engineering’s Hydrogen Engineering Research Consortium (HERC), which Manousiouthakis directs. The consortium was established in 2005 after UCLA partnered with DaimlerChrysler Corp. and global energy company BP to help demonstrate elements of the hydrogen economy infrastructure.

“The goal of HERC is to accelerate the onset of the hydrogen economy through the development and demonstration of technologies for the production, storage, transportation and use of hydrogen,” Manousiouthakis said. “The new UCLA hydrogen fueling station will prove to be another milestone achievement in our efforts”….

Major energy providers and automotive manufacturers view hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles as the most sustainable mobility solution in the long term. Manousiouthakis, a systems engineering expert who focuses on the development of novel hydrogen production methods, believes that hydrogen production based on the reforming of natural gas “” a process that involves the endothermic transformation of natural gas and water into hydrogen and carbon dioxide “” is the most economical route for hydrogen production today.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles generate minimal to no pollution and emit 50 percent less greenhouse gases and 90 percent less volatile organic, smog-forming and toxic emissions than today’s gasoline-powered vehicles, even when powered by hydrogen produced from natural gas.

Not.  First off, there are any commercial hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, so this claim has no basis in fact (see L.A. Times: “Hydrogen fuel-cell technology won’t work in cars.” Duh.).  Second, if we are talking about new cars, then the correct comparison is not between some imaginary, nonexistent commercial FCV and some lousy gasoline-powered vehicle.  If you compare a FCV to the Toyota Prius on a full well-to-wheels lifecycle analysis, and I have, then even crediting this imaginary commercial FCV with pretty good performance, it simply doesn’t have substantially lower GHG emissions run on hydrogen from natural gas than the current Prius.  And the next generation Prius looks to be even better.

And the truly appropriate comparison is between the imaginary commercial FCV and a very soon-to-be commercial plug in hybrid.  The FCV running on hydrogen from natural gas probably has more than double the life-cycle GHGs as the plug in when it is running on electricity from the California grid.

“With this station, we aim to show that methane reforming-based stations essentially provide an answer to the question of hydrogen infrastructure,” Manousiouthakis said. “The proposed fueling station will demonstrate that we can effectively utilize the existing natural gas infrastructure to deliver hydrogen on-site. We won’t have to build new pipelines for hydrogen.”

And how would spending $2.1million for one fueling station running on natural gas possibly show that the infrastructure problem for hydrogen cars is not significant?  Talk about an ivory tower perspective.

The current environmental outlook for California is grim, and change is critical. California’s air pollution is among the worst in the world, and, according to HERC, if the state were a country, it would be world’s fifth-largest producer of global warming emissions. More than 60 percent of the state’s air pollution comes from mobile sources.

That’s why CARB’s money shouldn’t be wasted on hydrogen fueling stations, particularly ones that run on fossil fuels.

The grants from CARB and MSRC are part of a statewide initiative to help defray the costs of expanding and improving California’s network of natural gas and hydrogen fueling stations. CARB in particular is helping to advance Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “hydrogen highway” initiative to promote the creation of a hydrogen refueling network.

The hydrogen highway is never going to be built because it makes no sense and the state has no money anyway.

The only thing keeping the hydrogen dream on life support now is federal R&D. But after some $2 billion spent this decade on this relatively pointless exercise by the Bush Administration, it’s time to pull the plug.

I repeat, it is time for President Obama and Energy Secretary Chu to drastically scale back the federal hydrogen fuel cell vehicle program, to a small basic research program focused on long-term breakthroughs in hydrogen storage, fuel cells, and renewable hydrogen. This could free up some $1 billion in Obama’s first term alone for more important R&D and more urgent deployment efforts (see “An introduction to the core climate solutions“).

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18 Responses to One more reason you’ll be driving electric vehicles and plugs in soon — not hydrogen fuel cell cars

  1. Again, Joe, when you get it wrong, you get it very wrong.

    Most modern hydrogen analysts assume that hydrogen propulsion will be used primarily in large scale trucking applications. Already liquid nitrogen is used extensively for refrigeration in this transportation sector.

    [JR: Utter BS. Please cite even two recent studies that assume hydrogen propulsion will be used primarily in large-scale trucking. I’m tired of your outright falsehoods.]

  2. Ronald says:

    Here they want to swap batteries. and it only costs a half million for the thing.


  3. Methane (natural gas) is already an excellent vehicle fuel because of its high energy density, so why waste methane and waste electricity to make hard-to-store and hazardous hydrogen? Of course, water electrolysis would waste even more electricity than methane reforming, so that alternative route to the Hydrogen Highway does not look promising either. And what happens to the CO2 from the methane reforming?

    Anyone curious about this should first read Joe Romm’s enlightening book, “The Hype about Hydrogen.”

  4. Robert says:

    Has anyone ever thought of an electric vehicle system that did not use batteries?

    This technology is well established – just go to any fun fair – a dodgem achieves complete 2-dimensional freedom of movement without using batteries at all. All be need is an earthed road surface and a metal grid suspended above the road carrying the positive voltage.

  5. Elmo says:

    Yes! Let’s burn all the fossil fuels to make the electricity so we can drive cars that won’t go very far without needing to be recharged.

    [JR: Uhh, that’s what renewables are for. Plus where exactly does the hydrogen come from — zero-point energy?]

  6. Rick C says:


    I’m fighting the “free energy” droids at a yahoo groups sight called diy-electric-cars and there are some members of the group pitching Brown’s Gas or HHO which is nothing more than a discredited scheme to electrolyze water and to use the extracted hydrogen gas to increase fuel mileage. In order to debunk this I’ve seen several figures on the hydrolization process. Most, like Dan Neil, auto corrrespondent for the LA
    Times say 60 kWh. I’ve seen 58 kWh, 54, kWh and even 45 kWh. Now without compressing it just how much energy in kWh’rs does it take to get 1 kg of hydrogen?

  7. Rick C says:


    Sorry I should have specified the amount. How much energy in kWh to produce 1 kg of uncompressed hydrogen in the electrolization of water?

    [JR: About 50 kWh, give or take. Depends on efficiency of the unit, which usually depends on size. This figure assumes 70% efficiency.]

  8. Doug says:

    I agree with Joe overall.

    I do see a potential future for hydrogen, but only as a competitor to biofuels as the secondary power source in plug-in hybrids, not as an alternative to batteries themselves. And this is only if the push to increase battery energy density and cost performance hits a wall at some point short of the level where hybrids can be phased out in favor of pure electrics.

    For long-haul applications like trucks, ocean liners, and trains that have long stretches w/ no electrified trackway, it seems plausible that such a barrier might come into play.

    I’ve done some back-of-the envelope calcs, and determined that you could get about 10x the vehicle mileage out of a given area of land if you use it for a solar PV plant whose output is used to crack water for hydrogen (despite the 75% energy loss), vs. the best-case cellulosic ethanol crop.

    Further, when variable renewables like wind are a substantial fraction of our energy supply, there will be times where there is quite a bit of excess output. Plug-in hybrids should of course be the first in line, but if that storage becomes saturated, hydrogen manufacture would be a natural way to pick up the slack — one which should have quite a bit of capacity.

    Also, most of the biofuel supply will probably need to go to fueling aircraft, as I tend to doubt that either batteries or hydrogen is going to achieve the densities needed there.

    Thus, starting maybe a decade from now, there could be a real area where hydrogen does make sense as vehicle fuel. But certainly we should not be doing a big deployment push right now, just as Joe is saying.

  9. Gary says:

    As a working model of electrolysis , I refer you to the Scorpion, made by Ronn Motor Comany. It is powered by an Acura 3.5 liter, 300 hp base engine and a 450 hp turbo-charged version. Time for 0-62 mph runs are between 3.5 and 4.5 seconds, and both engines can return 40 mpg.

    Electrolysis produces hydrogen using the electricity that is constantly produced by the alternator whenever the engine is running. The hydrogen is fed to the engine to reduces emissions and increase mileage.

  10. Rick C says:

    I was afraid of this. It comes up everytime the world hydrogen is mentioned. Let’s say you want 1 kg of hydrogen. It will contain 33.3 kWr of electricity. The laws of physics haven’t been altered since Michael Faraday’s original laws on electrolysis so here goes.

    A typical car alternator is about 55% efficient. Factoring that in. 50 kWh generated from a 55% efficient alternator to create 1 kg of hydrogen requires 90.1 kWh of electricity. Factoring that into a Carnot cycle engine at 35%, and this is the top range of efficiency for ICE engines if you’re lucky, requires burning 259.74 kWh worth of gasoline. In gallons that’s the equivalent of 7.1 gallons of gasoline.

    So if you’re hydrolyzing water then that’s the math. It hasn’t changed since British physicist Michael Faraday originally devised the mathematical equations for electrolysis which simply says that the mass of a substance altered at an electrode is directly proportional to the amount of electricity supplied to that electrode. The only other way to get it economically is from steam reforming natural gas but you’d be better off burning the natural gas instead.

  11. Jeff Wishart says:

    It’s not a question of EITHER batteries OR fuel cells. When Joe writes FCV, he should really be writing FCHV (fuel cell hybrid vehicle) since powertrain designers know that it makes no sense to have a fuel cell without a battery. The two cannot be successful in the end without each other.

    In the near term, the automotive manufacturers will concentrate on PHVs that have gasoline as the range-extending fuel. This should be able to reduce our GHG emissions from the transportation sector (at some 33% currently) to a much lower level.

    As for pure EVs, barring some unforeseen breakthrough in battery technology (and we all know how Joe feels about the likelihood of this), batteries will never be able to provide the full functionality that we take for granted in our current ICE vehicles. People who push for batteries to the exclusion of fuel cells never seem to be able to answer this question: Name one time in the history of mankind where advancement of technology resulted in a technology/product that had fewer capabilities than its predecessor? Sure batteries pollute less than ICEs (although Joe should acknowledge that choosing the relatively clean electricity production in California is misleading when one considers states like Ohio and Virginia), but a vehicle that is going to give its owners constant “range anxiety” will never (IMHO) get the acceptance of the masses.

    So we need the first-generation PHVs (and maybe the 2nd and 3rd) to have ICEs, but we need to view this as the bridge technology. The end goal is a zero-emission vehicle (ZEV), and anything with an ICE is never going to achieve this status.

    So I am going to once again disagree with Joe, who I think has committed himself so fully to denigrating hydrogen that he has forever biased himself against the technology (in the article he describes the hydrogen research of the past 8 years a “relatively pointless exercise). The argument isn’t that we need to deploy fewer dollars towards hydrogen and fuel cell research: we need to dedicate more funds for energy research, full stop.

    [JR: Batteries & EVs are superior to ICE in the key respects — can be powered in a way that doesn’t destroy the planet or rely on fuels we’re running out of, has greater acceleration, has fewer moving parts, is MUCH cheaper per mile (maybe 4x cheaper at current gasoline prices, ultimately will be 8x cheaper), etc.

    I tend to agree with “Name one time in the history of mankind where advancement of technology resulted in a technology/product that had fewer capabilities than its predecessor?” That’s why HFCVs are doomed. HFCVs are worse in every respect — much more costly to buy (currently 10x), much more costly to run (at least 4x), major safety issues, limited fueling stations (which cost 1000x what EV fueling stations do), etc.

    Key flaw in H2 vs electricity is need for 4x renewable power in kwh per mile for HFCV than electric drive. Ain’t gonna happen.

    Love to make another bet with those who think differently.]

  12. Jeff Wishart says:

    Rick C (and Gary): why are we talking about electrolysis by the car’s alternator? I don’t know anyone who is pushing for FCHVs to be carrying their own electrolyzer on board. That is analogous to expecting ICEs to have their own gasoline refinery on board to transform oil into gasoline. Both processes are much easier when done outside of the vehicle.

    Electrolysis of water is one solution to the conundrum of what to do with the excess electricity from renewables, such as wind power that is often at its peak during the night when demand is low. Thus the cost of electrolysis in comparison to steam reforming must take this into account, something that Joe has not done here. And there is no mention of biological production of hydrogen, a promising avenue of research. Joe is too quick to dismiss any news when it comes to hydrogen and fuel cell research. While I agree with him on the vast majority of issues he covers on this site, I sincerely hope he is wrong in this instance.

  13. Rick C says:


    I have no argument. It started when I asked Joe a question about the amount of electricity in kWh it took to create 1 kg of hydrogen before compression.

    Anytime you bring up the subject the subject of creating hydrogen from electrolysis the so-called HHO, probably some hydrogen snake oil salesman’s way of renaming hydrolyzed water, subject comes up. It’s hard to demonstrate to those who believe that energy can be created out of thin air.

    I don’t want to talk about this topic any further so I’ll stop.

  14. Rick C says:


    Sorry I meant to say that It’s hard to convince those who believe that energy can be created out of thin air that it just isn’t so.

  15. Jeff Wishart says:

    Ah, Rick, I understand. I agree that the topic should be put to rest–I too tire of the delusional thinking by people pushing that “technology”.

    Joe, you are correct in that list of ways that batteries have advantages over ICEs. However, I must point out that the greater acceleration of an electric machine can be overcome by putting in a larger engine. With gasoline cheap like it is in the U.S., the resultant hit in fuel economy hasn’t been a big deal. Plus, the torque for EMs is favourable at lower rpm’s, but becomes a disadvantage in comparison to ICEs at higher rpm’s. But the key disadvantage is that EVs have a much lower range. People will overlook differences in technologies when it comes to how many moving parts are in the vehicle and whether the fuel must be sourced from areas with geopolitical concerns, but they haven’t shown a willingness to make due with not being able to reasonably make the all-American road trip.

    Your list on hydrogen and fuel cells is less convincing, however. You mention mostly cost concerns. I agree that FCHVs are more expensive–but you have said yourself that there are no commercially available fuel cell vehicles, and prototypes ALWAYS cost way more than the production vehicles. How much did the prototype Volt cost? I think that talking about the cost of one-off vehicles is disingenuous. Safety issues? I hope you aren’t talking about the Hindenburg. Hydrogen as a fuel has safety issues, but so does gasoline. Hydrogen simply needs to be treated differently. And there are currently few hydrogen filling stations, but there are also few charging stations: the point is that we will build more in the future. The costs are not going to come down overnight, but neither will be they come down spontaneously–we need to keep up the commitment to R&D with continued cash support.

    Your key flaw is itself flawed. Yes, batteries are more efficient, but they have a much lower energy density than does hydrogen. That is why they are complementary and not competing technologies. Don’t set up a straw man on me here!

    A bet, hey? I am intrigued…propose one.

  16. Pangolin says:

    Joe- I should remind you that most electric cars and plug-in hybrids now extent do almost all, or all of their charging at home. Total cost for charging station: $150 for a top of the line, heavy duty extension cord.

    [JR: Yes. Obviously, these are somewhat smarter charging stations.]

    Jeff- People buy off the shelf conversion kits and convert ICE vehicles to electric every day. Costs for materials is typically $4K to $10K. Nobody could possibly make the same conversion to a fuel cell vehicle running hydrogen for $50K AFAIK. A five-fold increase in parts costs is just a little hard to overcome.

  17. Thanks to Joe, Rick C, and the other contributors to this most instructive thread. Teaching elementary science, in the face of faith-based fatuity, might not be a fun way to spend some time, but somebody’s got to do it.

  18. Jeff Wishart says:

    Pangolin, yes the costs for a one-off conversion are higher for a FCHV. I am not disputing this. I simply think that the costs will decrease in the future when the technology matures and economies of scale kick in. The transition to ICE-based PHVs is a necessary intermediate step on the way to fuel cell-based PHVs, so that the car will be a ZEV.

    Joe, did you have a bet in mind?