“Toyota Bets Against Tesla With New Hydrogen Car,” blares the headline at fool.com. That is a bad bet. It may even prove to be a major blunder for Toyota, which actually severed its RAV4 partnership with electric vehicle (EV) company Tesla back in May (though they kept their investment in Tesla).
I say that even though I own a Prius. In fact, I say it in part because I own a Prius. Fuel cell cars running on hydrogen simply won’t be greener than the Prius running on gasoline (!) — or even as practical as a mass-market vehicle — for a long, long time, if ever. So why buy one?
Right now, not only is electricity ubiquitous (i.e. relatively near where most cars are parked), but green electricity is nearly ubiquitous — and it is far cheaper to run one’s car on it than gasoline. Hydrogen, however, is not where cars are. “Green” hydrogen is nearly nonexistent. And it would be more expensive to run one’s car on green hydrogen than gasoline.
When I helped oversee the hydrogen and fuel cell and alternative vehicle programs at the Energy Departments Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in the 1990s, I was a big supporter of hydrogen and transportation fuel cell vehicle (FCV) programs, helping to boost the funding for those programs substantially. But the FCV research did not pan out as expected — some key technologies proved impractical and others remained stubbornly expensive.
So as I researched my 2004 book, “The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate” — named one of the best science and technology books of 2004 by Library Journal — my view on both the green-ness of hydrogen cars and their practicality changed.
As I detailed at length in 2009 when President Obama and Energy Secretary Chu wisely tried to kill the program, “Hydrogen fuel cell cars are a dead end from a technological, practical, and climate perspective.”
In this post I will focus on the climate issue. I’ll discuss the equally daunting practical issues in Part 2.
There are two huge problems with FCVs for those who worry about global warming and hence net greenhouse gas emissions:
- In general, some 95% of our hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas, or, rather, from the methane (CH4) that compromises most of natural gas.
- Making hydrogen from renewable resources like carbon-free electricity is expensive and an incredibly wasteful use of that valuable resource.
“Currently, the most state-of-the-art procedure is a distributed [on-site] natural gas steam reforming process,” explains Ford Motor company, which is working on its own fuel cell vehicle. “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).”
It’s actually worse than that. Julian Cox at CleanTechnica has gone through the well-to-wheel (WTW) life-cycle GHG emissions of FCVs, EVs, and other vehicles in great detail in June post revealing that FCVs aren’t green. Cox notes that “90% of the Californian Energy Commission hydrogen infrastructure budget has been earmarked for non-sequestered fossil fuel production of Hydrogen in return for lip service of future environmental benefits that can never be forthcoming.”
Here are the numbers (click to enlarge):
The graph shows high-polluting cars on the left, and low-polluting cars on the right. And it’s plain to see that hydrogen FCV vehicles group to the left, while EVs group to the right. It’s actually worse than that because Cox does not appear to have included the impact of the recent measurements and calculations of methane leakage from methane production, which are so severe they undermine the case for replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas fired power plants.
So Cox’s conclusions are conservative, but still sobering:
The economically inescapable reason why hydrogen is of no benefit in tackling GHG emissions is that hydrogen produced by the most efficient commercial route emits a minimum of 14.34Kg CO2e versus 11.13Kg CO2e for a U.S. gallon of gasoline (of which 13.2Kg is actual CO2 gas in the case of hydrogen). This best case is not even the typical case owing to difficulties in transporting hydrogen in bulk. Hence the on-site (distributed) production from natural gas at fueling stations that suffers lowered efficiencies of scale. The real-world data attests to the fact that when installed in a hybrid electric vehicle the real-world energy conversion efficiency is insufficient to overcome the added GHG emission intensity of hydrogen production.
Unlike the optimal economic synergy of plug-in EVs and renewables, the economics of hydrogen strongly prevents renewables from competing to power an FCV fleet either now or in the future. Natural gas is no bridge to a better future. In the case of FCVs it is an economic barrier to renewables.
Converting cheap fracked gas into hydrogen is very likely going to be substantially cheaper than practical, mass-produced carbon-free hydrogen for decades, certainly well past the point we need to start dramatically reducing transportation emissions (which is ASAP).
For EVs, on the other hand, unsubsidized renewable electricity is already directly competitive with grid electricity in many parts of the country — and poised to continue dropping in price. In places where carbon-free power is on the rise, such as California, the electricity is already far less carbon intense than the nation as a whole. That’s why EVs in a state like California is already super-green (see final bars in chart above).
But you may ask, why don’t we simply use an electrolyzer to convert renewable electricity into hydrogen and run the fuel cell car on that? I answered that question in my book and in my 2006 Scientific American article, “Hybrid Vehicles,” written with advanced-hybrid guru Andy Frank:
For policymakers concerned about global warming, plug-in hybrids hold an edge over another highly touted green vehicle technology — hydrogen fuel cells. Plug-ins would be better at utilizing zero-carbon electricity because the overall hydrogen fueling process is inherently costly and inefficient. Any effective hydrogen economy would require an infrastructure that could use zero-carbon power to electrolyze water into hydrogen, convey this highly diffuse gas long distances, and pump it at high pressure into the car -– all for the purpose of converting the hydrogen back to electricity in a fuel cell to drive electric motor.
The entire process of electrolysis, transportation, pumping and fuel-cell conversion would leave only about 20 to 25 percent of the original zero-carbon electricity to drive the motor. In a plug-in hybrid, the process of electricity transmission, charging an onboard battery and discharging the battery would leave 75 to 80 percent of the original electricity to drive the motor. Thus, a plug-in should be able to travel three to four times farther on a kilowatt-hour of renewable electricity than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle could.
So from a greenhouse gas perspective, there is no competition between pure electrics and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. EVs win hands down and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Now it is reasonable to argue that pure electric vehicles (and to a lesser extent plug-in hybrids) have not completely crossed the threshold of becoming practical mass-market cars. But as I’ll discuss in Part 2, the view that hydrogen FCVs will overcome their many so-far-intractable obstacles to crossing that threshold while EVs won’t make steady progress on their fewer, so-far-much-more-tractable issues is implausible. Such a view should not be the basis of national climate or energy or transportation policy.
NOTE: Nothing I write here should be taken as a recommendation for or against investing in Tesla (or Toyota or any company, for that matter). There are simply too many examples of companies in the right technology space mismanaging themselves into oblivion.